What big data can tell us about the things we eat

In a nutshell, men are loafers who eat junk while women are ambitious calorie crunchers

(Image credit: (iStock))

GrubHub "is the nation's leading online and mobile food ordering company dedicated to connecting hungry diners with local takeout restaurants," according to itself. In the information age, this means a lot more than making life more convenient for millions of peckish Americans. It means data. Big data.

Open 24/7, accessing over 30,000 take-out establishments in over 700 cities, and accessible through a quick tap on an app, GrubHub is a company that offers rare insight into the American stomach. While its collection of data will obviously be a boon to any restaurant with a take-out option, its implications also tell us something especially interesting about the culture of food choice.

Perhaps more than anything else — at least as the numbers are presented in a recent white paper — pretty radical gendered differences emerge from GrubHub's findings. In a nutshell, men are loafers who eat junk while women are ambitious calorie crunchers.

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For starters, it's more common for men to take a break at work and head offsite for lunch. In fact, women are 30 percent more likely to order from work during the day and eat at the desk. Men, by contrast, are more likely to order food at home — very late in the evenings and on weekends especially — and eat it there. Men place orders 55 percent more often than women between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. Very few people, it should be said, make healthy choices between such desperate hours.

This pattern confirms a recent finding by researchers. Men, they say, are more likely to be night owls, the purported reason having to do, naturally, with sex. One academic hypothesis here is that "eveningness is associated with psychological and behavioral traits that are instrumental in short-term mating strategies, with the evidence being stronger for women than for men." I'm not entirely sure I buy it, but there it is: sex. (Someone should do something with that word — "eveningness." Like, ban it.)

According to GrubHub's data bank, there's one food choice, an undisputed American favorite, that transcends sex and unifies the genders: pizza. Both men and women order it — in addition to fries and soda — at nearly the same rates. (The stats on our pizza consumption are equally alarming and amazing.) But from there choices quickly diverge. Women are more likely to order pressed juices than sodas, as well as frozen yogurt rather than milkshakes (yes, I too am wondering who GrubHubs a milkshake). Edamame is 61 percent more common with women, avocado rolls 57 percent, and plantains 44 percent.

"While men gravitate toward fad foods such as poutine and dishes featuring Sriracha hot sauce, women are drawn to pressed juice, gluten-free options and dishes featuring chia seeds, quinoa and kale," the GrubHub white paper explains. These findings also confirm the results of research external to these numbers; a survey of eating habits found that British men eat fewer fruits and vegetables than their toddlers. Oh, and that men prefer bacon.

Although both men and women enjoy ethnic foods, they once again part ways according to gender. Women go for Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Korean, whereas men gravitate to swarthier options: Greek, Turkish, and Mediterranean. Even when the sexes do agree on an ethnic cuisine, though, they still take their own dietary paths toward satiation.

If the sexes are eating Mexican, men are 45 percent more likely to order a chorizo sausage taco whereas women are 65 percent more likely to go for an "ensalada." If the meal is Thai, men are 36 percent more likely to order spicy fried rice; women are 43 percent more likely to order a seaweed salad. With Indian food, men overwhelming go for the "meat samosa" while women are happier eating "vegetable korma." When it comes to basic American food, men are more inclined to eat wings, cheeseburgers, and cheesesteaks; women stick to soups and salads.

There are even variations within these choices according to time of day. For breakfast, men are more likely to order steak and eggs or a sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich while women go for veggie omelets and grits. At lunch, men prefer General Tso's chicken; women go for miso soup. For dinner, men once again love their General Tso's chicken while women like the avocado rolls. In this study, General Tso's chicken comes out looking very good.

There are a number of other ways we might want these numbers to be arranged — by ethnicity, region, or age. For now, though, the GrubHub data confirms what we've long known: Women eat healthier than men. It's an unsurprising reminder from a more surprising phenomenon — the mechanisms that make our lives easier can also help us better understand who we are.

Pacific Standard grapples with the nation's biggest issues by illuminating why we do what we do. For more on the science of society, sign up for its weekly email update or subscribe to its bimonthly print magazine.

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