In the battle of the sexes, women rule when it comes to dieting.
We've done it all our lives. We know how to count calories, weigh foods, measure portion sizes. We've learned to choose the least fattening foods on a menu. We know that restraint is inevitable. And we're very motivated. At least at first.
To men, dieting seems "girlie," something they don't talk about. They don't want to be seen eating classic diet food -- salads with dressing on the side, vegetables without butter, fillets of fish and skinless chicken.
Then along came the Atkins diet and other low-carbohydrate, high-protein eating plans, and things changed -- at least, that's the contention of New York University's Amy Bentley, an associate professor in nutrition, food studies and public health at its school of education.
The way she sees it, the current mania for low-carb diets has made dieting politically correct for men. Suddenly a man can still be manly even if he's on a diet: He can go out in public and carve up a hunk of red meat for dinner. "It's made dieting more acceptable for men to think about," she says. "It's important for men to prove that they are men in the world we live in. To do anything female in some classes makes you suspect -- it devalues your power."
Diets such as Atkins and South Beach severely restrict carbohydrates, promote eating protein and recommend some fats. Anyone on such a diet is consuming lots of meat -- not the restrained amounts allowed on low-fat diets. And "in many cultures," says Bentley, "meat is masculine."
Eat the low-carb way, she argues, and not only are you allowed to eat all that masculine meat. You're supposed to. "On low-carb diets," she says, "Meat is not only not taboo. It's a good food."
That's the complete opposite of the presumption that foods high in fat and calories aren't "diet foods" -- a point of view that women in America have long been socialized to accept. Men, on the other hand, have been less comfortable with the rabbit-food approach -- especially in public. Eating a diet of red meat, bacon, eggs, nuts, cheese and butter is acceptable, says Bentley. "Low-carb dieting gives people license to eat foods that were tagged as forbidden in the low-fat world."
Bentley and the other people interviewed for this story are careful to point out they are not saying all men react one way to dieting, and all women another. But look at the powerful role models for popular diets. The gurus of low-carb eating tend to be men, Bentley points out: the late Robert Atkins; South Beach's creator (another doctor), Arthur Agatson; the three doctors and one CEO of a Fortune 500 company who created Sugar Busters. These are strong, successful male models, who promote eating plans that seem to have quick results, not the female role models identified with plans such as Weight Watchers, the L.A. Weight Loss Diet and Jenny Craig, programs that require dieters to weigh food, count calories or tally points (a scoring system for foods) and to accept continuous, moderate changes in weight loss as a good thing. More than half the testimonials on the Atkins Web site come from men, too, she notes.
Bentley's article in the August issue of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, however, isn't based on long- or even short-term studies. And the research she reports in her essay isn't footnoted. So, academic arguments aside, do men and women actually approach dieting differently?