A study of the diets of boys and girls living in Andhra Pradesh and Telengana has found that by the age of 15, boys are likely to be eating a wider variety of foods than girls, particularly in families with high aspirations for their children’s education.
The study by the University of Oxford and Imperial College London says adolescent girls are less likely than boys to consume those costlier foods that are rich in proteins, vitamins and micronutrients necessary for healthy development.
Researchers from the Young Lives study interviewed children and their parents, or guardians, in the two states and collected data from the same samples of about 1,000 older children and 2,000 younger children in 2006, 2009 and 2013 when the subjects were five, eight, 12 and 15 years old.
The children (or their parents or guardians if they were under the age of eight) were asked about what they had eaten in the past 24 hours. These foods were grouped into seven different groups: eggs, milk and dairy products, legumes, pulses and nuts, root vegetables, fruit, meat and fish, oil, and cereals.
The researchers found that at the ages of five, eight and 12, the diets of boys and girls were fairly similar.
However, by the age of 15, a gender gap appeared with the boys likely to eat half a food group more than girls of the same age. The results showed a gap even after controlling for other factors such as the onset of puberty, time spent working or at school, or dietary behaviours such as number of meals.
The study found the gender gap in diet was linked with the parents’ educational aspirations, and not with other potential factors such as household income or the mother’s educational background. The gender gap was also found to be not as strong in families with low academic aspirations for their children.
The study highlighted the fact that India has the world’s highest population of 10 to 24-year-olds, and the world’s highest burden of malnutrition, with children and young women being the most malnourished groups.
Study author Elisabetta Aurino, said: “The way that food is doled out within households may reflect parents’ investment in their children’s education and health. Previous research by Young Lives has already shown there are gender differences in the educational outcomes and aspirations for boys and girls, which become particularly marked during adolescence.
“This latest study shows that even if parents claim to have high education aspirations for their children, regardless of sex, in practice they are investing more in their teenage sons who are more likely to eat the more nutritional, expensive foods.”