But despite the stubborn longevity of the tropes of women as diet-focused and men as fitness-focused, a new report from Murphy Research suggests they are over-simplified and may miss the mark – not only costing companies sales but potentially doing long-term damage to their brands and consumers’ self-image and approach to health.
In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast, Murphy Research’s director of syndicated research Sarah Marion shares insights from the group’s latest State Of Our Health report – Exploring Gender Differences In Food & Fitness – which debunks some myths about how men and women approach diet and nutrition and finds the kernel of truth in other long-held beliefs on the topic. She also shares what diet- and fitness-related marketing messages best motivate men and women, including specific functional claims, and how the emerging interest in mental wellness factors into health-minded consumers’ purchase decisions.
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Who actually diets more – men or women?
Every month going back to 2018, Murphy Research gathers insights about health and wellness in America from 1,000 people 13 years and older to create a massive quantitative and qualitative dataset from which it teases out evolving consumer insights for subscribers and to create its quarterly State Of Our Health report.
Hoping to understand how gender influences people’s approach to fitness and nutrition, and potentially bust a few unfavorable and possibly harmful stereotypes, the latest quarterly State Of Our Health report takes a deep dive into how men and women leverage nutrition to attain their health goals.
“There’s a lot of stereotypes around gender and how men and women approach nutrition, dieting, etc., and I was hoping to disprove some of those. And I will say that some of them, I think we did, but a lot of our findings shows that some of those stereotypes have kernels of truth,” Marion told FoodNavigator-USA.
Among the stereotypes that Murphy Research pulls apart in its latest report are the deeply rooted beliefs that men favor fitness over diet as a tool to manage their health and that women favor diet over fitness. The reality as Marion explains is much more complicated and may surprise some.
For example, the report finds that while men do tend to be more engaged with fitness, and women tend to be more engaged with nutrition, men are more likely to follow and stick to a formal diet than women.
Even before the pandemic, Murphy Research’s State Of Our Health data showed men more likely to follow formal food plans than women. In the third quarter of 2019, 34% of nutritionally engaged men followed a formal food plan compared to 31% of women. When the pandemic hit in the first quarter of 2020, the gap between men and women closed with 37% of men following a diet and 35% of women doing the same. But as Marion noted, by the third quarter of 2021 the gap returned and was more significant than before with 46% of men following a formal diet and only 36% of women.
This difference might be related to how men approach dieting and what they want out of it.
The research reveals that men often use nutrition as a tool to complement or advance their fitness, which is an area where American men have deeper cultural connections that women as they often are raised to play and value sports and physical strength.
Given men’s intentions when it comes to diets and the role of nutrition in their health, Marion said that men are more likely than women to look for ‘shortcuts’ when it comes to better-for-you foods – specifically organic and all-natural callouts as well as specific diets, like paleo and Whole30, which are shortcuts for ‘healthy.’
She also noted that products likely would resonate better with men if company’s better understood the signals me use to determine healthfulness and their goals in using a specific product.
Beyond claims and ‘short-cuts’ that resonate with men looking for nutrition to support their fitness, Marion suggests brands consider how images on their packaging portrays male fitness and if it unintentionally limits its appeal – or worse, alienates potential consumers.
She argues that staple images of young muscle-bound men completing feats of strength and endurance likely don’t resonate with middle age and older men, who are more likely to walk for exercise than lift heavy or train for an ultra-marathon.
The “hyper buff” male imagery, as Marion called it, also likely is a turn off for some women who are looking for nutrition to support their fitness. She explained this is a missed opportunity and brands looking to expand their consumer base could do so opting instead for unisex imagery.
Marion also cautioned against going after fitness focused women by offering them the same products but with images of women, or God forbid, the color pink, which could actually deter women shoppers because it is often associated with higher prices for lower quality options.
Do women put too much pressure on nutrition?
Another common stereotype that Marion’s team examined was the belief that women diet to improve their appearance and to lose weight. And while they found this is true with 63% of nutrition-engaged women saying their weight motivates them to engage with healthy eating – it is not the whole truth.
According to Murphy Research, women are more likely than men to see diet as almost a panacea or a way to manage everything from mood and energy to disease prevention to weight management to improving their self-esteem.
Specifically, the report found 78% of women use diet to manage their mood and energy level with 61% saying they are motivated to diet to ‘feel better,’ 43% to boost energy, 37% to sleep better and 33% to improve their mood or reduce stress. Likewise, 63% use diet as a preventative tool with 45% using it to fend off future medical issues and 32% to boost immunity. And 47% use nutrition to bolster their self-esteem, either to improve their looks, as noted by 40%, or to be more confidence as noted by 26%.
According to Marion, this is arguably too much pressure to place on nutrition. While she says it is good to think about nutrition’s impact on health, women who see it as a turnkey solution might be disappointed when it falls short or feel like they are struggling to maintain their diet.
A primary way that women try to achieve their goals through diet is by restricting what they consume – much more so than men. According to Murphy Research, women on average restrict 5.9 items from their diet compared to men who restrict 5.2 items.
Top among those items are sugar, which is restricted by 49% of women, fried foods and soda, which each are avoided by 35% of women, carbohydrates, which 30% of women avoid and calories, which 27% of women restrict.
Based on these insights, Marion says diet- and health-brands trying to reach women will likely have more success if they make clear functional claims, offer clean ingredients and offer positive health messaging.
Murphy Research’s Exploring Gender Differences In Food & Fitness provides a wealth of additional information and is worth checking out for more detail at https://murphyresearch.com/state-of-our-health/overview. There you will not only find this report, but see past research and learn about the benefits of subscribing to the syndicated dataset to advance insights specific to your brand, category or target consumer.