Study finds potential gender stereotypes in kids’ food choice

Are some foods for boys and other foods for girls?

Some boys think so, according to a new study of kids age 8-10 by researchers in the University of Oregon College of Education. The findings were published recently in the international research journal Appetite.

The children were offered a large spread for lunch, including sandwich fixings, chicken nuggets, fruits and vegetables, chips, candy, and a variety of drinks.

“Please eat until you are no longer hungry and take as much time as you need,” each child was told before being left to dine privately. Researchers later measured what and how much each child had eaten.

The study found that boys with high “social desirability bias, ” or the tendency to act in ways to seem more socially acceptable to others, ate fewer fruits and vegetables. That same association was not found with girls. 

“This may reflect some data suggesting that boys and girls have an idea from an early age which foods are viewed as ‘girly’ and which are seen as ‘manly,’” said Nichole Kelly, first author and Evergreen Associate Professor in counseling psychology and human services in the college. “Boys may be less inclined to eat ‘girl foods,’ like fruits and vegetables, if they fear social ramifications.” 

Although the study didn’t explore what the adults in children’s lives can do to try to prevent or counter such food stereotypes, Kelly encourages adults to be mindful of how they talk about various foods and to strive to be positive role models. 

“All foods are for all bodies of all genders,” Kelly said. “When television ads or other media suggest otherwise, adults can gently challenge and correct these stereotypes.”

Research also finds parallels between eating behaviors of parents and children.

“When children see the boys and men in the family eating fruits and vegetables — and the whole family enjoying a range of foods without guilt, shame or commentary — they can develop a more positive relationship with food and steer clear of gendered stereotypes,” Kelly said.

The study is the first eating behavior research to document social desirability bias in children, showing that kids adjusted what they ate to avoid being viewed negatively by others, including the research team.

The study also found that both girls and boys with higher social desirability bias ate fewer snack foods, such as chips, candy or cookies, which have the reputation of being “bad” or “unhealthy.”

Kelly has concerns that such behavior — avoiding certain foods for fear of judgment — can paradoxically lead to overeating and other forms of disordered eating because, at a neural level, those “off limits” foods become even more enticing.

“These findings really speak to the importance of talking about food without value judgments,” Kelly said. 

The link between social desirability bias and eating is well-documented in adults, especially women, but until now had not been documented in children.

That’s significant because it will help researchers design ways to more accurately record what kids eat, which is key to understanding and intervening with eating behaviors.

Co-authors of the paper along with Kelly were Kelly Jean Doty, Claire Guidinger, Austin Folger, Gabriella Luther and Nicole Giuliani. They all participate in the Prevention Science Institute, a multidisciplinary research institute at the UO.

The research was supported by a Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development grant.

By Sherri Buri McDonald, University Communications