Would you like a large steak for dinner, or perhaps a salad? Studies show that women and men tend to answer this question somewhat differently.


Food is an area of consumption in which the connection between environment and climate change is quite clear. It is also a topic in which gender-related statistics and studies are more readily available. One example is meat consumption, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) describes research that links meat consumption to climate change. According to a 2006 FAO report, animal agriculture represents a serious threat to the environment. The report states that global meat production is expected to increase by more than half, from 229 million tons per year in 1999/2001 to 465 million tons by 2050. In addition, the report points out that the number of animals required to meet our meat consumption threatens biodiversity on Earth.

Out of the total agricultural land area, approximately 70 percent is being used for meat production. This represents 30 percent of the world’s total land area, and the expansion of the grasslands needed for the breeding of livestock is the biggest cause of deforestation. A major portion of the greenhouse gas emissions attributed to human behaviour derive from livestock. In fact, animal breeding is responsible for 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions – a larger percentage than what the entire transport sector produces (1).

Gender and dietary habits

In most of the studies on food and eating, gender emerges as a meaningful factor (2). When looking at the dietary habits of women and men, studies indicate that women and men eat in somewhat different ways. Results from a Scandinavian study (3) suggest that:

  • On average, women’s diets include more fruit, vegetables and cultured-milk products
  • Men’s diets include more potatoes, meat, bread and margarine.

In other words, men eat more meat compared to women, also in relative terms, like when analyzing  men’s and women’s different energy needs (4). In light of the problem that the ever-increasing breeding of livestock presents, it is interesting to consider what the consumption of animal-derived foods looks like from the perspective of gender. A Danish investigation from 2006 documented that men eat more meat than women, consuming, on average, 139 grams of meat and meat products daily, compared to 81 grams consumed by women (5). Women, on the other hand, are more frequent consumers of cultured-milk products. Thus, both women and men have an important, though somewhat different role in relation to animal agriculture, resulting in somewhat different CO2 emissions, and thus also somewhat different environmental consequences (6).

Another thing that studies show is that women and men view food differently when shopping (7). According to research, women are generally more cost-conscious than men. They are also more likely to read the description of ingredients and avail themselves of the information contained therein. A Norwegian study found that a majority of women wished that the lists could be made more comprehensive and would include all ingredients (38 percent of women, 21 percent of men), while slightly more men (44 percent vs. 40 percent of women) wished that the words used would be simpler and the lists shorter. In other words, there are differences in women’s and men’s food awareness, which in turn affects the way they view sustainable consumption (8).

Sustainable food

In recent years the demand for sustainable food items has increased. A Danish consumer survey (9) showed that women were more likely than men to think that all people share responsibility for ensuring that the goods that are produced are sustainable. Women in particular – 81 percent of those questioned – wished that food and basic necessities bore climate markings; 67 percent of men agreed. This and other studies suggest that there are differences in what and how women and men consume, resulting in different environmental emissions. But more studies focusing on the environment are needed to be able to evaluate these differences and their consequences for climate change (10).

On the other hand, a Finnish study found that when it comes to throwing out food, women in single households top the list. In multiple-person households, the amount of food that is thrown away also depends on who is buying the food: when women bought it, more food was discarded than when a man alone or a man together with a woman had done the shopping (11). 

Why are the eating habits of men and women different?

The reasons behind gender-based differences in eating habits are complex, and there are many explanations for why women and men value different aspects in food when shopping (12). In western societies, most people have a wide variety of options to choose from when buying food, and their dietary habits and preferences are connected to their identities and what they are signalling to other people about it. This also applies to gender identity – to put it a bit stereotypically, for example, one may a picture how a “real” man would order a large steak, while a “real” woman would choose a salad. Eating habits also depend on the stage of life one finds oneself in, and access to economic and cultural capital. A Norwegian study, for example, suggests that for men, class and meat consumption are closely correlated. Women’s meat consumption, on the other hand, is not influenced by differences in socio-economic status, while highly educated men eat meat somewhat less compared to men with a lower education (13).

Many eating habits are created already in early childhood, and often we as individuals are not aware of our own consumption habits. Other dietary habits and preferences, again, can be the result of conscious decisions, and dietary choices can serve as identity markers between groups. In this way, dietary choices are manifested in our own bodies, influencing their shape, size and composition (14).


Illustration: Colourbox

(1)    Oldrup & Breengaard 2009

(2)    Kjærnes 2001:283

(3)    Fagt et al. 2008, Roos 2011

(4)    Lindstad 2009:8

(5)    Fagt 2008:38

(6)    Oldrup & Breengaard 2009

(7)    Forbugerredegørelse 2008, Jensen & Holm 1998

(8)    Oldrup & Breengaard 2009

(9)    Forbugerredegørelse 2008

(10) Institute for Social-Ecological Research

(11) MTT 2010

(12) Warde 1997, Lupton 1996, Jensen & Holm 1998

(13) Lindstad 2009:11

(14) Oldrup & Breengaard 2009



FAO. 2006.Livestock’s long shadow. Environmental issues and options. Steinfeld, Henning; Gerber, Pierre; Wassenaar, Tom; Castel, Vincent; Rosales, Mauricio & de Haan, Cees. Rom: FAO & LEAD.

Fagt, S. m.fl. 2008.Danskernes kostvaner 1995 – 2006, status og udvikling, med fokus på frugt og grønt samt sukker[Dietary habits inDenmark1995 – 2006, status and development, with a focus on fruit and greens, and sugar]. DTU Fødevareinstituttet, Afdeling for Ernæring.

Forbrugerredegørelse. 2008 [Consumer report 2008]. National Consumer Agency, Copenhagen, October 2008.

Institute for Social-Ecological Research (ISOE). Project: Gender Relations, Sustainable Models of Consumption and Environmental Impact.

Jensen, K. & Holm, L . 1998.Mad og køn i socialt og kulturelt perspektiv: et litteraturstudie. København: C. A. Reitzel. Publikation / Veterinær- og Fødevaredirektoratet; nr. 241.

Kjærnes, U. 2001.Eating Patterns. A Day in the Lives of Nordic Peoples. National institute for consumer research, Norway.

Lindstad, S. 2009. What is it about men and meat? “My car needs diesel and I need food”.NIKK Magasin2/2009.

Lupton, D. 1996. Food, the Body and the Self. London: Sage.

MTT (Forskningscentralen för jordbruk och livsmedelsekonomi i Finland / Agrifood Research Finland). 2010. Ruokahävikin määrä ja vähentämiskeinot elintarvikeketjussa.[Food waste and ways of decreasing it in the food chain]

Oldrup, H. & Hvidt Breengaard, M. 2009.Gender and Climate Change. Nordic Council of Ministers.

Roos, G. 2011.Vad äter kvinnor och män? [What do women and men eat?] Presentation during a side-event about climate change, gender and sustainable development during the Solutions conference held in Turku 31st January - 2nd February 2011.

Warde. A . 1997.Consumption, Food and Taste. London: Sage.