Women buy healthy food when they see an attractive man

What we choose to eat and drink when we see a potential, attractive partner is still driven by our primal instincts. This means that women buy healthier food when they see an attractive man and that men buy more expensive food when they see an attractive woman.


Men and women make themselves attractive to the opposite sex in completely different, but very specific ways.

While men attempt to attract women through status and wealth, women use health and beauty to attract attention. Their tactics are based on an unconscious awareness of what is attractive to the opposite sex. According to evolutionary theories that regard human behaviour as a result of hundred thousands of years of evolutionary development, we need to go way back to find the cause: Which is that historically, men and women have been faced with very different challenges when it comes to finding a partner with the aim of ensuring the survival of the species. For women, being pregnant for nine months and subsequently breastfeeding the baby were demanding tasks. Thus, the theory is that a woman who succeeded in finding a partner with the means to provide her with food and shelter had the opportunity to give birth to more children than women who opted for men with fewer resources. Throughout history, on the other hand, spotting a fertile woman has been an advantage for men - fertility being associated with a healthy and attractive appearance.    

Photo: Maria Randima/AU Foto

"We are still driven by our primal instincts and behave in the same way as the caveman did many, many years ago"

Tobias Otterbring - Associate Professor, Department of Management, Aarhus BSS

Men still opt for steak and béarnaise sauce

With this knowledge in mind, Associate Professor Tobias Otterbring from the Department of Management at Aarhus BSS, set out to explore whether the known evolutionary mechanisms also affect what kind of food we prefer to buy. A large body of literature already shows that the mere presence of other people and their physical appearance can have a powerful impact on people’s meal choices and food intake. Some studies suggest that such effects may be gender-specific and may depend on whether the eating occasion includes the motive of attracting a partner. However, surprisingly few studies have explicitly explored whether motivations associated with selecting a partner can change a person’s preference for specific food or beverages.

“For that reason, I explored whether exposure to an attractive or an unattractive person leads to a gender-specific consumption pattern that correlates with how men and women communicate their value as a partner to the opposite sex,” Tobias Otterbring explains. The study is published in the scientific journal Food Quality and Preference.

In other words, the study explores how much money men and women are willing to spend on different types of food after having been exposed to a either an attractive or unattractive person of the opposite sex. And whether this correlates with the way in which men and women typically make themselves attractive to the opposite sex.

It turns out that being exposed to attractive individuals actually does promote these so-called sex-specific food preferences, as the sight of an attractive man makes women opt for healthier food. However, in this connection men couldn’t care less about healthy food. The sight of an attractive woman does not make men opt for salad and chicken rather than steak and béarnaise sauce. However, it does make them buy more expensive food and beverages.

“This means that we are still driven by our primal instincts and behave in the same way as the caveman did many, many years ago,” summarises Otterbring.

Laboratory findings on group level

The results are based on five different experiments. In one scenario, the participants were asked to rate the attractiveness of a person of the opposite sex on a seven-point scale. Subsequently, the experiment included a manipulation check to ensure that participants did indeed find the attractive person attractive. Finally, the participants had to indicate how much money they were willing to spend of different types of food.

“The aim of the first part of the study is to get participants into a romantic state of mind. This will then affect their subsequent answer to the question concerning money,” Otterbring explains.

Here participants were expected to answer in accordance with the mechanisms of evolutionary psychology, and this was indeed the case. However, as the study was conducted in a laboratory, it does not reveal anything about how people behave in real life. In addition, the results are on group level and are not normative. This means that they do not say anything about people’s individual behaviour or about how people should behave.

“Naturally, some women will order a rare steak regardless of how many attractive men they’re surrounded by. And some men will prefer spring water instead of expensive red wine even though they’re in the presence of gorgeous women,” says Otterbring.

Remove attractive men from the counter

For that reason, he is eager to conduct real-life studies to find out whether or not the results will mirror those of the laboratory experiments.

For example, the study indicates that companies could benefit from using good-looking men to stimulate women’s purchase of food and other health and beauty-related products. And if the goal is to increase men’s consumption of expensive food and beverages or other products signalling status, businesses would be wise to have beautiful women in the vicinity of these types of products.

However, the results also indicate that marketeers, advertisers and company owners need to thread carefully when using pictures of attractive men in advertisements, on shop signs and packaging on unhealthy food products. These images might in fact make women less inclined to buy these products. The same would probably be the case if customers encounter attractive male employees in shops and restaurants - particularly in sectors that deal with unhealthy food products such as fast food chains. Here having an attractive man behind the counter would probably be a bad idea, as it would diminish women’s willingness to buy the food being sold. However, we do not know.

“In the study, we uncovered participants’ willingness to pay for food and beverages by allowing them to provide answers on a scale from 1 to 7. However, it is bound to be a completely different matter if people were faced with a real-life choice in an authentic restaurant. Would women choose fruit instead of chocolate cake if they spotted an attractive male waiter?” Otterbring asks.

Another option would be to explore whether pictures of attractive and unattractive people of the same sex as the participants would have an impact on the food and beverage preferences of homosexuals.

In addition, the current study was conducted among university students. For that reason, another possibility would be to test the generalisability of the current results by including old as well as young people.

Finally, researchers could explore whether women would buy expensive food and beverages if they felt that they had to compete with others for a person’s attention; in other words, could an attractive female waiter make women buy more expensive food and beverages in an attempt to outperform her?

“A lot of new research shows that women sometimes demonstrate a conspicuous consumption pattern as a kind of competition tactic aiming to outperform rivals of the same sex. However, only as long as it increases their value compared with other women, and not with other men. Thus, there are lots of existing prospects for future studies,” says Otterbring.

Attractive men make women more willing to take risks

PHOTO: Colourbox/shock

  • When women look at pictures of attractive men, research shows that women become more willing to engage in risk-taking activities that could enhance their physical appearance and/or health.
  • For example, women are more willing to use sunbeds or take diet pills, even though these products are not healthy in themselves, but are a means to enhance one’s beauty.
  • In other words, women become more willing to take risks when it comes to health and beauty.
  • When men look at pictures of attractive women, research shows that they become more willing to signal status.
  • For example, in this situation men will buy expensive, expressive and exclusive products as a way of signalling status.



Otterbring, Tobias. Healthy or wealthy? Attractive individuals induce sex-specific food preferences. Food Quality and Preference. Volume 70, December 2018, Pages 11-20.