A Sept. 29 Food article incorrectly said that "The Other Atkins Revolution," an essay by Amy Bentley in the summer issue of the food and culture journal Gastronomica, had no footnotes. It has 53 footnotes. (Published 10/6/04)
n 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?
Yes, they do, says John La Puma, a Santa Barbara-based internist and professionally trained chef with a national practice that focuses on medical nutrition and healthy weight.
"In my practice, men respond well when you tell them what to do and when to do it, what to eat and what not to eat, when to eat and when not to," says LaPuma, whose patients are about evenly divided between the sexes. "Both men and women need specific goals for achievement. But goals are larger, more like visions or missions. Men often need objectives -- little guideposts or milestones along the way. And we need strategies and tactics to get there. It's the language of business school."
Initially LaPuma, who is also the co-author of "The RealAge Diet: Make Yourself Younger With What You Eat" (HarperCollins, 2002) and "Cooking the RealAge Way: Turn Back Your Biological Clock With More Than 80 Delicious and Easy Recipes" (HarperCollins, 2003) took a more traditional approach. "When I was investigating weight-loss programs 10 years ago, I found that 98 out of 100 were targeted for women," he says. "They were often process-oriented -- that is, they tried to make sense of the problem and reason through it the way women often do with relationships, to turn the problems over to fully understand them, and then to come out with a solution better than what they went in with. It's a thoughtful examination of the reasons for eating other than hunger, with small changes making a big difference. I started that way. . . . Three years ago, it became clear to me that it worked for some people but not for others, and the people it worked for tended to be women."
What he observed about the men he treated was that generally they were goal-oriented, numbers-oriented and specific about wanting to be told exactly what to do. In general, he found that approach works for his male patients and some women -- with a caution. "The flip side is that it can seem parental," he says. "But it's not. It's more like a business partner with experience in a specific area. . . . I give them specific goals -- weight, blood pressure, cholesterol -- and I give them a specific time period to do it. . . . It's prescriptive, clear, based in science, and it gives us something to shoot for."
La Puma isn't the only one to see a difference in the way men and women diet. At Weight Watchers (where the amount and kinds of food allowed have been based on a point system that is reliant on calories as well as grams of dietary fiber and fat), low-carb diets are seen as serious competition, especially for male clients. Men have never been a large part of the Weight Watchers constituency. Trying to make sense of that, the company did extensive research about "extreme dieting" -- that is low-carb and no-carb dieting -- in the United States. "We wanted to understand men, and their needs, preferences and weight issues," says Karen Miller-Kovach, the company's chief scientific officer.
Previously, their studies had found that men weren't even comfortable talking about dieting. Then about a year and a half ago, they began to see a difference in their focus groups. "I was consistently hearing men admitting to dieting and weight loss," says Miller-Kovach. "You generally didn't see that. With the no- and low-carb diets, suddenly it was okay for a man to be on a diet and to credit a weight-loss method as the way the weight was lost. Now for the first time it was a macho thing to do."
Not only were men talking about weight loss; women were often making dieting decisions based on the recommendations of men -- their husbands, a co-worker at the office. And the recommendations were for low-carb dieting.
At times, the research showed, a woman's decision to go on a low-carb diet was motivated by a desire to get support from, or give support to, her husband. "We heard from women that 'this low-carb approach is not my preferred way of dieting, but my husband wanted to do it this way. I'm not keen on doing it that way. But if I can get him to do it with me, I'll do it.' "
At other times, women reported they had tried the low-carb approach because they had seen men succeed. A typical female reaction, says Miller-Kovach, was to say, "I know about weight loss and if this guy can lose weight, and he doesn't know about this stuff, I can really do it."
Weight Watchers was so impressed by the change in men's (and some women's) attitudes, that the discovery played a major role in the company's decision to introduce an alternative program to its popular Flex Plan in which foods are assigned a point value, and dieters are given a point goal for each day and week. The recently launched program, the Core Plan, doesn't rely on the traditional Weight Watchers point system. Instead, it offers dieters a list of "allowed" foods (designed to provide both good nutrition and satisfaction) that they can eat and still lose weight.
In other words, eat only these foods and you'll be fine. It's an approach that's a mainstay of low-carb diets -- and an approach the company feels will be attractive to many men.
At Atkins Nutritionals, the company founded by Robert Atkins, which is now an international enterprise that sells food products and provides information about the diet, there is resistance to seeing Atkins dieters through a gender prism.
"The appeal of Atkins is not just limited to men," says Stuart Trager, an orthopedist and the medical director of Atkins Nutritionals as well as the chairman of the Atkins Physical Council. "Obesity and overeating cross gender lines. . . . We're seeing a move in general toward results-oriented programs that appeal to the new health-conscious and weight-conscious [group of dieters]. That includes perhaps more men than it has in the past."
That said, at one of the Atkins-inspired Web sites (which are not sponsored by the company but have sprung up as forums where dieters can discuss their experiences and concerns), there's a special chat room for men where participants discuss their experiences on the diet -- from sexual implications and how it affects weight training to recipes.
Take, for example, Web site chatter from Oregon last month: "I was really self-conscious about [dieting]. I told people at work I was on it (if it came up) but I always added 'Even if I don't lose any weight . . . I feel great.' Then when the pounds started falling off it was the guys who were the most supportive telling me how great I looked and how Atkins was really working."
And another from Denver earlier this summer: "I generally don't like talking about dieting at all. I remember being right out of high school and working at a bank . . . sitting in the lunch room listening to the women talking about all the different diets. . . . They had the various menus memorized. . . . I'm at a point now where I do occasionally brag about it. When I go out to lunch with a customer and they see how I'm ordering and immediately pick it up as Atkins (everyone knows Atkins) I always end up talking about it. [I] make it a point to tell them I'm already 60 lbs down, because NO ONE can argue about success."
Just how long the low-carb landslide will last is anybody's guess. And there aren't any long-term studies to show how successful its dieters are in keeping the weight off. For that matter, we don't know for sure that men as a group are dieting more than they used to, although it certainly looks that way.
If men are dieting in increasing numbers, what is the reason? Have baby boomers reached an age where unless they stay fit, high cholesterol, diabetes and coronary heart disease are just around the corner? Is the relentless tide of information about obesity in America hitting close to home? Has popular culture, with its trendy metrosexuals and women who openly discuss men's bodies on TV shows like "Friends" and "Sex and the City," made men more aware of their sexual attractiveness?
It's probably a little of all of the above.
At Weight Watchers, for example, research has indicated that men go on diets primarily for the same reasons that women do: to feel and look better, as opposed to a concern about their health.
In contrast, LaPuma finds that his patients (who tend to be CEOs, very successful people, yet they haven't been able to solve their weight problems) care mightily about potential health hazards of being overweight. "They don't want the fact they're obese or hypertense or have high cholesterol to steal from them what they've earned in life," he says.
Whatever the reason for dieting, the weight problem isn't going to go away -- for women or for men. "There's too much food out there, too many choices. It's too tempting," says NYU's Bentley. "We're in desperate times."