Should Men Pay More at All-You-Can-Eat Buffets?

Men eat more than women on average, but food-related discriminatory pricing is thorny.
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SAO PAULO—I have only been in Brazil for a few days, but I am ready to make one ignorant American overgeneralization: This country loves its buffets. I have dined buffet-style for almost all of my meals here, and the times that I didn't, the restaurant had a buffet option available.

Walking around a Sao Paulo neighborhood the other day, a fellow reporter here was taken aback by one particular restaurant buffet offering. The sign in front noted that the price for a lunch buffet was five reais (about $2.25) higher for men than for women. When a waitress was asked about the discrepancy, she responded, plainly, that it's because men eat more than women.

In a way, she's right: Women have, on average, smaller bodies than men, and thus require fewer calories in a given day. To maintain weight, a 26-year-old, moderately active man should eat about 2,600 calories per day, while a woman of the same age and activity level should eat 2,000.

And in the U.S., at least, that's roughly how people actually function: According to a 2010 USDA survey, men in their 30s consumed an average of 2,736 calories per day, while women in their 30s ate 1,831.

In fact, this restaurant seems to have found a solution to the essential quandary of businesses like buffets, health insurance, and other markets in which it's unclear how much the consumer will consume until they actually consume it. The restaurant may not know which customers are hungriest, but they know which ones have the bigger, calorie-sucking bodies. And they charge them more.

Is this a good idea? Is discriminatory buffet pricing the true Brazilian miracle? More importantly, is womankind getting snookered on her pilgrimages to Golden Corral?

I am of two minds.

First, discriminatory pricing is everywhere you look in the U.S. Many all-you-can-eat restaurants already charge less for kids' and vegetarian meals, and they've been known to kick out customers for whom "all" that they could physically eat turned out to be the metric volume of a Buick Encore.

Certain other businesses, like hair salons, already charge women more than men. (There's already been an uproar over this tendency in Scandinavia, though.) And many bars and clubs in the U.S. offer "ladies' nights" with a lower or no cover charge for women – though this, too, is illegal in some states.

And maybe this type of thing would help make up for the fact that women pay more for things like deodorant and razors when the only difference between the male and female versions is the lilac packaging and “Summer Rain” scent.

Then again, food-related discriminatory pricing is uniquely awkward. If this became widespread, it could reinforce the stereotype that women are supposed to be birdlike and abstemious while men can indulge without restraint.

I do tend to eat less than my boyfriend most days. But I have also been known to hoover up more than an Icelandic body-builder, tucking away, in one short sitting, a Chipotle burrito, chips, guac, random olives and things we had in the house, those two-bite brownies from Whole Foods, and definitely more than one "serving" of gelato. In short, Anachronistic Gender Ideas Restaurant would get hosed if they caught me on the wrong day.

If an entire restaurant just assumes that women eat less than men, then it might be seen as wrong or unusual if they eat more. And we don't need the judgy weight of menu pricing when we're just trying to enjoy our fourth buttery Corral roll, or our zillionth Pao de Queijo cheese poof. I, for one, would gladly pay an additional $2.25 for the moral freedom to eat with the abandon of a post-breakup Henry the VIII.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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