Why do women love cupcakes?


One of my kids enjoys watching YouTube cooking videos, and they’re nearly 100% women making cakes.

Women’s magazines focus exclusively on 4 topics: men, fashion, diets, and cupcakes. You might think that diets and cupcakes are incompatible, but women’s magazines believe otherwise:

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Just in case it’s not clear, that is not a watermellon. It is cake, cleverly disguised as a watermellon.

(YouTube has videos that show you how to make much better cake watermellons–for starters, you want red velvet cake for the middle, not just frosting…)

Picture 10 Picture 11Magazines specifically aimed at “people who want to make cakes” are also overwhelmingly feminine. Whether we’re talking wedding cakes or chocolate cravings, apple pastries or donuts, sweets and women just seem to go together.

If men’s magazines ever feature food, I bet they’re steak and BBQ. (*Image searches*)

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The meat-related articles do appear to be a little more gender-neutral than the cupcake-related articles–probably because men don’t tend to decorate their steaks with tiny baseball bats cut out of steak the way women like to decorate their cakes with tiny flowers made out of frosting.

It’s almost as if women have some kind of overwhelming craving for fats and sugars that men don’t really share.

I was talking with a friend recently about their workplace, where, “All of the women are on diets, but none of them can stay on their diets because they are all constantly eating at their workstations.” Further inquiries revealed that yes, they are eating sweets and pastries, not cashews and carrots, and that there is some kind of “office culture” of all of the women eating pastries together.

The irony here is pretty obvious.

Even many (most?) specialty “diet” foods are designed to still taste sweet. “Fat-free” yogurt is marketed as a health food even though it has as much sugar in it as a bowl of ice cream. Women are so attracted to the taste of sweet sodas, they drink disgusting Diet Coke. Dieting websites advise us that cake topped with fruit is “healthy.”

When men diet, they think “eat nothing but protein until ketosis kicks in” sounds like a great idea. When women diet, they want fat-free icecream.

I don’t think it is just “women lack willpower.” (Or at least, not willpower in the sense of something people have much control over.) Rather, I think that men and women actually have substantially different food cravings.

So do children, for that matter.

Throughout most of human history, from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists, the vast majority of women have specialized in obtaining (gathering, tending, harvesting,) plants. (The only exceptions are societies where people don’t eat plants, like the Inuit and the Masai, and our modern society, where most of us aren’t involved in food production.) By contrast, men have specialized in hunting, raising, and butchering animals–not because they were trying to hog the protein or had some sexist ideas about food production, but because animals tend to be bigger and heavier than women can easily lift. Dragging home and butchering large game requires significant strength.

I am inventing a “Just So” story, of course. But it seems sensible enough that each gender evolved a tendency to crave the particular kinds of foods it was most adept at obtaining.

Exercise wears down muscles; protein is necessary to build them back up. Protein fuels active lifestyles, and active lifestyles, in turn, require protein. Our male ancestors’ most important activities were most likely heavy labor (eg, building huts, hauling firewood, butchering game,) and defending the tribe. Our female ancestors’ most important activities were giving birth and nursing children (we would not exist had they not, after all.) For these activities, women want to be fat. It’s not good enough to put on weight after you get pregnant, when the growing fetus is already dependent on its mother for nutrients. Far better for a woman to be plump before she gets pregnant (and to stay that way long after.)

Of course, this is “fat” by historical standards, not modern American standards.

I suspect, therefore, that women are naturally inclined to eat as much as possible of sweet foods in order to put on weight in preparation for pregnancy and lactation–only today, the average woman has 2 pregnancies instead of 12, and so instead of turning that extra weight into children and milk, it just builds up.

Obviously we are talking about a relatively small effect on food preferences, both because our ancestors could not afford to be too picky about what they ate, and because the genetic difference between men and women is slight–not like the difference between humans and lizards, say.

Interestingly, gender expression in humans appears to basically be female by default. If, by random chance, you are born with only one X chromosome, (instead of the normal XX or XY,) you can still survive. Sure, you’ll be short, you probably won’t menstruate, and you’ll likely have a variety of other issues, but you’ll be alive. By contrast, if you received only a Y chromosome from your parents and no accompanying X, you wouldn’t be here reading this post. You can’t survive with just a Y. Too many necessary proteins are encoded on the X.

Gender differences show up even in fetuses, but don’t become a huge deal until puberty, when the production of androgens and estrogens really cranks up.

Take muscle development: muscle development relies on the production of androgens (eg, testosterone.) Grownups produce more androgens than small children, and men produce more than women. Children can exercise and certainly children who do daily farm chores are stronger than children who sit on their butts watching TV all day, but children can’t do intense strength-training because they just don’t produce enough androgens to build big muscles. Women, likewise, produce fewer androgens, and so cannot build muscles at the same rate as men, though obviously they are stronger than children.

At puberty, boys begin producing the androgens that allow them to build muscles and become significantly stronger than girls.

Sans androgens, even XY people develop as female. (See Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, in which people with XY chromosomes cannot absorb the androgens their bodies create, and so develop as female.) Children produce some androgens (obviously,) but not nearly as many as adults. Pre-pubescent boys, therefore, are more “feminine,” biologically, than post-pubescent men; puberty induces maleness.

All children seem pretty much obsessed with sweets, far more than adults. If allowed, they will happily eat cake until they vomit.

Even though food seems like a realm where evolution would heavily influence our tastes, it’s pretty obvious that culture has a huge effect. I doubt Jews have a natural aversion to pork or Hindus to beef. Whether you think chicken hearts are tasty or vomitous is almost entirely dependent on whether or not they are a common food in your culture.

But small children are blissfully less attuned to culture than grownups. Like little id machines, they spit out strained peas and throw them on the floor. They do not care about our notion that “vegetables are good for you.” This from someone who’ll eat bird poop if you let them.

The child’s affection for sweets, therefore, I suspect is completely natural and instinctual. Before the invention of refined sugars and modern food distribution systems, it probably kept them alive and healthy. Remember that the whole reason grownups try to eat more vegetables is that vegetables are low in calories. Grownups have larger stomachs and so can eat more than children, allowing them to extract adequate calories from low-calorie foods, but small children do not and cannot. In developing countries, children still have trouble getting enough calories despite abundant food in areas where that food is low-calorie plants, which they just cannot physically eat enough of. Children, therefore, are obsessed with high-calorie foods.

At puberty, this instinct changes for boys–orienting them more toward protein sources, which they are going to have to expend a lot of energy trying to haul back to their families for the rest of their lives, but stays basically unchanged in females.

ETA: I have found two more sources/items of relevance:

Calorie information effects on consumers’ food choices: Sources of observed gender heterogeneity, by Heiman and Lowengart:

When it comes to what we eat, men and women behave differently: Men consume more beef, eggs, and poultry; while women eat more fruits and vegetables and consume less fat than do men. … The gender differences in preferences for healthier foods begin in childhood. Previous literature has found that girls choose healthier food and are fonder of fruits and vegetables than are boys. Boys rated beef, processed meat, and eggs as more desirable than did girls. …

Sensory (taste) differences between the genders are the second most widely ventured explanation for the differences in food choices, although it is not clear that such genetic differences actually exist. While the popular media argue that females prefer sweetness and dislike bitterness, while males may enjoy bitterness, academic literature on this matter is less conclusive. The bitter taste receptor, gene TAS2R38, has been associated with the ability to taste PROP (6-n-propylthiouracil),
one source of genetic variation in PROP and PTC taste. Individuals who experience bitterness strongly are assumed to also experience sweetness strongly relative to those who experience PROP as only slightly bitter. While previous studies found that inherited taste-blindness to bitter compounds such as PROP may be a risk factor for obesity, this literature has been hotly disputed.

The distribution of perceived bitterness of PROP differs among women and men, as does the correlation between genetic taste measures and acceptance of sweetness. A higher percentage of women are PROP and PTC tasters, sensing bitterness above threshold. It has been suggested that women are more likely to be supertasters, or those who taste with far greater intensity than average.

(I have removed the in-line citations for ease of reading; please refer to the original if you want them.)



Well, I don’t remember where this graph came from, but it looks like my intuitions were pretty good. males and females both have very low levels of testosterone during childhood, and duing puberty their levels become radically different.

11 thoughts on “Why do women love cupcakes?

  1. Slightly OT: What’s with red velvet cake? It’s just cake, but it’s red. It’s an appealing shade of red, but there’s nothing special (AFAICT, at least) about the flavor.

    I’ve gotten the impression in general that food marketed at women will often be colorful but lacking in flavor.

    The snacking-all-day business seems to be more of a female thing too, which fits your evo-psych “just-so story” very well.

    If you visualize the guy on the hunt who’s always nibbling on his pemmican, that’s the pudgy guy with his head up his ass who drops the ball when it counts — Private Pyle.


    • Find a berry, eat a berry. Find a berry, eat a berry.
      Find an antelope, follow antelope, follow antelope, follow antelope, eat antelope.
      But my ancestors haven’t been hunter-gatherers in thousands of years, so who knows.

      I assume it’s just about the color, too.


  2. Red velvet cake is traditionally made from beets. I have no idea if or why that matters.

    I suspect, also, that eating sweet things is strongly tied into the female stress response. To add to your “Just So” story, stressors likely for females to undergo (pregnancy, rapine, famine, though this last is shared with the males) are likely to be endurance stressors that require large caloric reserves, whereas male stressors would be critical and short (hunting, fighting).

    Of course even as a story this is weak; there are plenty of sustained stressors for men as well, and given the chance men will be plenty fat. My suspicion is based on the fat office-woman trope, though; these women are ALWAYS eating and have a consistent track of weight gain.

    Interesting things to check: does the female weight gain of sedentary women drop off with menopause? How does it differ racially?


  3. Off-hand, I suspect that men are actually fatter than women, on average, but their fat is distributed differently (which may make us respond to it differently, IDK.) Blacks and Hispanics are fatter, on average, than whites.

    http://halls.md/average-weight-women/ –looks like the average white woman plateaus around 55 and then begins losing weight; fatter people plateau earlier and skinnier people plateau later. I don’t know if this is complicated by fatter people dying earlier. This might have to do with the body down-regulating weight gain now that menopause has passed, but I suspect it is a little more connected to everything just breaking down and working worse as you age, including digestion. (t does offer support for my theory that smaller people age/pass through life stages more slowly than larger people )(Note: does not apply cross-racially, as Hispanic Americans outlive whites.)
    Looks like male weight does the same thing: http://halls.md/average-weight-men/


    • Funny that that seems to be the only source of this data. It’s sourced, I’m not calling it funny, just remarking about how the only place to find this stuff online is from a website that looks less-than-reputable due to its aged design.

      Interestingly, the extreme top end for women appears to be significantly higher than that for men.

      Too bad we can’t find the information broken down by race.


  4. It is the best post of the recent ones I have read. I have lots of time to read an interesting evolutionary hypothesis.
    Your observations have a real basis, but in the recent times mores seem to change, as more and more men like sweets as well, at least from what I can observe. Could it be that modern men get epigenetically more feminized. e.g. from pesticides, pharmaceuticals etc? Is the conservatives’ and many women’s cry of losing our manly men possibly true?
    Children do not need only sugars, they also need protein for both sexes to grow their bodies and their delicated and expensive brains in this critical age. At least of most children I have observed, they like soft bits of meat as much as sweets. I think they could become near total carnivores if you left them. That applies for other omnivorous species. Mentioning lizards in your article, I remembered bearded dragons which mainly eat insects at their growing phase, but later they include more and more plant matter. The same applies for some iguana species, many aquatic turtles and chickens. I do not know how widespread the phenomenon is in mammals, but why not to be the same?
    It seems the same applies for human children as well. They need much protein to grow their bodies, plus for our very active species lots of carbohydrates more to sustain their high activity levels rather than to get fat I think. If this is true, trying to feed them vegetables is not dissimilar to torture, as they don’t get any real nutrition from them. Vegetables are ‘healthy’ foods only for our moder affluent lifestyle where fat, protein and concentrated carbohydrates are cheep and widely available to even detrimental amounts. For more ancestral societies, they are just stomach fillers which take lot of energy to digest, giving meager benefits in return, and even famine foods. In fact most of the extraordinary nutrients that are found in vegetables can be found in meat and organs as well. So don’t force-feed hungry children tasteless plants.
    ps 1. Isn’t obesity inversly correlated with intelligence?
    ps 2. I hope Satoshi Kanazawa makes a relevant study to test your assumptions.


    • Thanks. I believe you are correct on obesity/intelligence, though the mechanism is still unclear. Are stupid people just bad at figuring out what to eat? Do they end up poor, and then have to buy worse food? Do they lack self-control, which leads to over-eating? Are they stressed out more, which leads their bodies to hoard calories? Does over-eating certain foods or storing fat cause the release of certain chemicals which lead to brain degradation? Did their ancestral environments simply have more famines, creating people who hoard calories? Does childhood trauma cause both? Does the body “read” certain hormonal signals based on how big you are that trigger certain life events, like periods of brain growth or pruning, where growing faster would cause those signals to get triggered earlier? Do people simply have different life trajectories, where they grow to a certain size and then degenerate within a different timeframe than others?

      I am perhaps overthinking this.

      You are right about protein and children; I didn’t mention it because few parents complain that their kids eat too much protein (my in-laws still bug me to “make sure the kids get enough protein!” Yes because you know what people don’t get enough of in this society: protein. Hah,) but I do see parents complaining that their kids love pasta.

      “Crazy things Americans think about food” could of course take up its own series of posts… I don’t think vegetables are exactly bad for kid, but should only be eaten in quantities that kids find actually palatable. Plus kids are much more sensitive to bitter than adults, and lots of vegetables are bitter. That kind of flavor sensitivity has to be innate, protective. In famines, yes, often there is actually adequate food, but it’s all very calorically light plants. Grownups can eat enough to digest it and survive, but little kids can eat and eat and eat and never get enough.


      • It is not bad to overthink something. With such overthinking come new exciting hypotheses and ideas. I haven’t thought the topic so much, but I think more plausible that it is a matter of self-control, or, more precisely, future planning. I don’t know if self-control in general correlates always with intelligence, because both adhd sufferers and psychopaths, both people with impulse control disorders, can have normal or above average intelligence. I thus will refer mostly to projecting one’s mind into the future. I think less intelligent people will not be able to fully realize the consequences of bad eating habits because they won’t be able to think much in the future, well as more intelligent people will be able to think more long-term. I do not think that intelligent people are innately thinner, just they think more about what the devastating effects of obesity would be in their later life and try to eat healthier. Being fit and healthy in the modern western world still needs tons of willpower and self-determination. And it is not impossible that a subset of these ‘intelligent’ people will be so occupied with their careers or work that they will place less value on food, though I think only a specific small category of people is like that.
        I don’t think fat accumulation does degenerate the brain, at least not in exess amounts. I have not read any study about this phenomenon, but it must not be common, otherwise women in more traditional cultures would be stupider than men. Likewise, I don’t believe if fat accumulation would trigger life changes, but if it did, that would impact more reproductive women than men, and this needs further study. Regarding famines, East Asians have passed through many hardships and are still intelligent, likewise Germans have a preocupation of hardship and difficult times in their proverbs – I don’t know though if they have passed through such difficult times often in actuallity -, and still are intelligent.
        As for vegetable mania, sadly this isn’t an american think. You tend to export your culture throughout the world.


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