Does Your Diet Match Your Gender?
By Alison Palkhivala
Reviewed By Gary Vogin
Oct. 22, 2001 -- Oatmeal for women? Cereal for children? Yogurt for seniors? Food makers are targeting more and more items toward specific groups. Sure, it's advertising, but is there more to it than that?
Delicious Enough for a Man, but Made for a Woman
"Science has finally caught up with us to the point that we know women have unique nutritional needs," Cathy Kapica, PhD, RD, tells WebMD. She is director of nutrition education at the Quaker Oats Company in Chicago. Quaker has recently launched a new product called Quaker Nutrition for Women Oatmeal.
"If you look at the USDA [US Department of Agriculture] survey of food consumption, it shows that about half of women over the age of 20 don't get enough of some necessary vitamins and minerals, like calcium, iron, folic acid, and other B vitamins. And the number one killer of women is heart disease," says Kapica. "Take all of this information and realize that women nowadays are very busy, they want foods that tastes good, are familiar, and are convenient, and we come up with Nutrition for Women oatmeal."
What the Experts Think
Kimberly Glenn, MS, RD, LD, registered dietician and coordinator for the weight reduction clinic at Northside Hospital in Atlanta, says that products like Nutrition for Women oatmeal help people zero in on foods that might be good for them and contain the specific nutrients they need.
She warns, however, that just because a product is promoted as healthy for women, men, children, seniors, or some other group, doesn't mean that it is, nor does it mean that it's necessarily not healthy for others.
The key to being a smart consumer, she says, is to read nutrition labels. It's okay to let health-related packaging draw your eye to a product. But before you buy, flip it over and look at the label. Be sure the product is high in fiber, low in fat, and contains the specific nutrients you're looking for.
Other experts are less impressed with the new push to focus food at specific groups. Howard J. Rankin, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Hilton Head Island, S.C., specializes in helping people make healthy choices in their lives. He is the author of several books, including Seven Steps to Wellness and Inspired to Lose.
Rankin's concern is that these specifically-fortified, targeted foods reinforce the myth that being healthy is as simple as gorging on whatever nutrients we think we lack.
"The body is a very delicate system in balance," he says. "Just because you may have a deficiency in one area doesn't mean the answer is immediately loading up with it because that can have implications in other areas of your body. That's not to say that if you have an iron deficiency it's a bad idea to eat [iron-rich food]. It isn't. But we're overstepping, scientifically, what we know about food and its impact on the body when it's marketed like that."
Keep in mind, also, that some foods that manufacturers hawk as especially healthy for one group or another simply aren't healthy for anyone. Often, they contain too little of the nutrients in question to be meaningful, or too much saturated fat and/or sugar. Again, reading labels will help you avoid this pitfall.
Individual vs. Group Differences
Audrey Cross, PhD, professor of nutrition at the Joseph L. Milkman Columbia School of Public Health in New York City, says that the biggest difference in nutritional needs between groups is portion size. A child needs less food than a typical woman, who in turn needs less than a typical man.
Therese Franzese, MS, RD, director of nutrition at the Chelsea Piers Sports Center and Peninsula Spa, both in New York City, echoes her fellow experts when she tells WebMD that nutritional needs vary more between individuals than between groups. In other words, the difference in nutritional needs between you and your same-sex best friend are probably greater than those between women and men in general. If you're concerned about eating right, she says, look at your own diet to see what you might be missing, or consult a nutrition expert to help you.
A good way to ensure you're getting all the nutrients you need, the experts agree, is to eat a balanced diet that is high in fiber, low in fat, and has a relatively high proportion of mono- and polyunsaturated fats to saturated or hydrogenated fats. That's a diet that's good for everyone!
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