Scientists: Men Will Eat Twice as Much Pizza if a Woman Is Watching

For men, exhibitionist eating is a way to show off their manliness, but women just feel embarrassed, Cornell food lab scientists demonstrate.

Science shows that men dining with womrn at an all-u-can-eat salad and pizza buffet will eat about twice as much pizza as men who dined with a fellow male. Why? They are showing off their masculinity, suggests the Cornell lab. Shown in picture: A Domino's Pizza chef offering.
Dan Peretz

Eating contests for women exist, but they're the exception. Winning the biggest-eater contest is not an achievement of which a woman typically feels proud. A man on the other hand who crams down 70 hotdogs while his rival gets sick at a mere 68 feels he has demonstrated bare-chested manliness, according to a new Cornell Food and Brand Lab study. A woman who does that is more likely to feel shame.

In fact, men are far more likely to gorge in social situations even when there is no incentive to do so, say the scientists in "Frontiers in Nutrition". A woman, generally, prefers not to be considered a glutton, not in any social situation and certainly not on a date. What women's eating contests there are may be more about speed than quantity, as in the pie-eating contest of 1921 in Washington, D.C.

"Even if men aren't thinking about it, eating more than a friend tends to be understood as a demonstration of virility and strength," explains co-author Dr. Kevin Kniffin. And if a woman is watching, all bets are off: Men at all-you-can-eat pizza buffets with a woman ate twice as much pie and salad as men who dined with a fellow male, the scientists found.

While acknowledging the growing problem of obesity not only at a personal level, but at a societal one, Society applauds the vainglorious male overeater. In 2014, for instance, New York mayor Bill de Blasio crossed some sort of line by ceremoniously weighing in the contestants of the "Nathan's Famous 4th of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest".

In defense of the mayor, the weigh-in was at City Hall. In defense of Nathan's, it holds wiener eating contests for both genders and has been doing so for about a century. In defense of sanity, "pro eating" is a misnomer, but it turns out that men don't take much persuasion.

No reward necessary

For the study "Exhibitionist Eating: Who Wins Eating Competitions?", Kniffin and coauthor Brian Wansink took college kids of similar weight. Some participated in a competitive chicken wing-eating challenge with cheering spectators. The others were put in a competitive chicken wing eating-challenge with no spectators.

The prize for downing the most wings was a worthless plastic medal. The competitors still ate about four times more food than normal, the scientists report.

Men who ate in front of spectators consumed 30% more than men eating without an audience. They described the experience as challenging, cool and exhilarating.

Women did the opposite: they ate less with spectators than without them and described the experience as slightly embarrassing.

Sufganiya-eating competition, Technion Israel, 2013 YouTube

There are exceptions to women demurring about eating ability. The Financial Times did an in-depth interview with "professional eater" Miki Sudo of Japan, who explains how she got into the "profession" by chance and helpfully explains how to train if your ambition is to down gallons of soup in one sitting. Sudo won the Nathan's contest ("like the Super Bowl of competitive eating") last year and in 2016.

But since she binge-eats for a living, Sudo, for one, eats sparingly at all other times, noting her gravitation towards raw fruit and vegetables. And in contrast to the men, who are clearly embracing the audience, Sudo explains that while competitively eating, she is "incredibly focused" and unaware of being observed, only of her speed.

"Focus on your friends, not the food," urges lead author Wansink, the director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. He notes that these findings have obvious implications, one being that even in low-stakes environments, competitive visibility may dramatically increase how much males eat.

In other words, the results shed light on the male propensity to overeat in social situations where there are opportunities for them to “show off,” which is a useful tip for party planners and pizza parlors.

In fact competitive eating has been a hobby of man going back millennia, at least based on the Nordic myth of the god Logi out-eating his fellow god Loki, yet is a fairly new thing in Israel. Also, Israeli eating jousts tend not to be about frankfurters in or out of their buns.

The year 2009 brought a fowl-eating competition in which the men – only men – were exhorted not to be chicken and to eat the cartilage too. In mid-2011 there was a jachnun-eating contest, featuring the iconic slow-baked Yemenite doughy foodstuff served with hot pepper sauce and crushed fresh tomato (most emphatically not tomato paste – yukk). The contestants, all men cheered on by an emcee and the crowd, weren't competing over the quantity consumed but the speed of downing a dish of jachnun to the sounds of "Eye of the Tiger". The winners won nothing but the prestige of being the fastest to cram the pastry down their gullets, to the squeals of the crowd. Yet they did it anyway.