Your Sex Actually Impacts Digestion, New Study Says

By: Sam Watanuki | Published: Apr 13, 2024

It’s not just what you eat, but who you are that might influence how your body processes food. According to top U.K. nutrition experts, the battle of the sexes has found its way to our dinner plates, with science showing that men and women digest and metabolize food differently.

This could have significant implications for our dietary choices, potentially leading to sex-specific recommendations for optimal health.

Steak and Cheese: A Surprising Gender Divide

Who knew steak and cheese could be part of a gender debate? A Metabolites study suggests women may handle these rich foods better than men, thanks to estrogen.

A large steak is pictured on a white plate alongside a few cherry tomatoes and a yellow sauce

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This female sex hormone seemingly blunts the harmful effects of excess fat, allowing women to indulge a bit more freely in these fatty favorites.

Alcohol: Why Men Can Handle Their Drink Better

Ever wonder why men seem to hold their liquor better? The answer lies in biology. Men generally have a higher percentage of water in their bodies, diluting alcohol more effectively than women.

Young teens drinking alcohol out of plastic cups at a party

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“Men process alcohol more efficiently than women,” explains Emma Catterall, head of research at Drinkaware (via The Telegraph). This physiological difference contributes to a higher alcohol tolerance in men, although it doesn’t shield them from the long-term risks associated with heavy drinking.

The Sweet Tooth Dilemma: Men vs. Women

While men might edge out women in alcohol tolerance, the scales tip in favor of women when it comes to sugar.

An open bag of rainbow-colored Twizzlers candy.

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Research indicates that men are more vulnerable to diabetes from high-sugar diets. A study from Harvard found that boys drinking sweet beverages faced a higher diabetes risk than their female counterparts, highlighting a startling gender disparity in the effects of sugar.

The Protective Power of Estrogen

Estrogen appears to be a super hormone when it comes to diet. Beyond moderating the effects of fatty foods, it provides a protective barrier against the harmful impacts of a high-fat diet in women.

An up-close view of a wooden charcuterie board featuring an arrangement of sliced cheeses and salami. Cubed and sliced yellow cheese are neatly placed beside round slices of red salami

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“It is as if the brains of females had a chemical force field that kept the dangers of fats and sugars from harming them,” says Deborah Clegg, the clinical dietitian who led the Cedar-Sinai study in 2014. This might be an evolutionary trick to safeguard women during pregnancy, offering a fascinating glimpse into the complex relationship between gender, hormones, and nutrition.

Dark Chocolate's Different Effects on Men

Dark chocolate, known for its health benefits, seems to favor men. Studies have found that men benefit more from the blood-flow-enhancing effects of dark chocolate’s polyphenols. This could lead to fewer blood clumps, a key factor in preventing cardiovascular problems.

A pile of dark chocolate on brown wrapping beside cinnamon sticks.

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“It’s a bit of a mystery why this is,” says the author of an Aberdeen University study, Baukje de Roos, pointing to a gap in our understanding of how sex influences the benefits of certain foods.


Carbohydrates and Women's Health Post-Menopause

The effects of diet can also extend into specific life stages, with research from Columbia University highlighting how high-carb diets, especially processed foods, may increase the risk of insomnia in postmenopausal women.

A small bowl of red pasta with cheese on top of it.

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“This suggests that the dietary culprit triggering the women’s insomnia was the highly processed foods,” explains James Gangwisch in a press release, shedding light on how dietary needs and effects can evolve with age and hormonal changes.


Sex-Specific Dietary Recommendations

“Differences between the sexes and how nutrition affects them can vary by things like metabolism, sex hormones, and body structures,” says Helen Bond, a U.K.-based registered dietitian (via The Telegraph). Recognizing that men and women have unique nutritional needs could lead to more effective recommendations, enhancing individual health outcomes.

Digital illustration of DNA

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“As we are finding out more I think it will help us to draw up dietary recommendations tailored to the needs of men and women,” says Bond, envisioning a future where diet plans are as personalized as our health and fitness regimens.


The Role of Lifestyle in Gendered Nutrition Outcomes

Lifestyle choices, including activity levels and dietary habits, play a significant role in how our bodies react to different foods.

A person at a restaurant eating a salad from a white bowl.

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University of Missouri studies suggest that sedentary lifestyles and high-sugar diets have a more pronounced negative impact on men than women, highlighting the importance of considering gender in lifestyle recommendations for preventing diseases like diabetes.


Global Perspectives on Sex and Nutrition

Looking beyond the Western world, different cultures approach dietary practices with an inherent understanding of sex-specific health needs (via Self).

A person eats from a white bowl containing asparagus, rice, and salmon topped with lemon.

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These traditional wisdoms offer valuable insights into how we might better tailor nutrition to suit individual needs, suggesting a rich area for further research and application in our globalized world.


Tailored Nutrition

Understanding the intersection of sex, biology, and nutrition is key to developing effective dietary guidelines.

Group of Friends Eating Mexican Food

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It’s important to consider these differences when it comes to diet and health recommendations, with a move toward more nuanced and personalized approaches to nutrition and health promotion.


Embracing Individualized Nutrition

As we unravel the complexities of how sex affects digestion and overall health, it becomes clear that a one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition falls short.

A woman in a purple shirt taking a bite of food

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Embracing individualized nutrition that considers sex, among other factors, could pave the way for more effective health and dietary strategies, ensuring everyone gets the right nutrients for their body’s unique needs.