More nonsense research….

// 23 April 2008

babiesToday it’s reported if you want to conceive a boy you should eat breakfast cereals, bacon and banana’s. For a girl you should go on a diet.

A survey of 740 pregnant women found that boys were slightly more likely if a women had high energy intake prior to conception, and that the individual food with most impact was breakfast cereal.

From New Scientist

So my problems with the research? They divided their sample group into three categories – high, medium and low calorific intakes which means each category has a spread of intakes and therefore making the perceived differences between them merely a construct of the research rather than a solid provable fact. It would have been better had the researchers proven a correlation using a straight-line graph showing increased calorie intake is correlative with more conceptions of male babies.

But there are more problems

  • the research only takes into account live births and ignores miscarriages and terminations. It also only takes into account first pregnancies.
  • It is reporting causation (i.e. that one factor caused another, in this case high calorie diets and male babies) whereas the research itself can only support correlation (that there is a relationship but we don’t understand the mechanics of it).
  • the research claims to be motivated by “concern” at the drop in male babies and blames dieting for this. However the “drop” is 1 in 1000 in developed nations – something certainly within the bounds of normal birth rate fluctuations. So alongside claims that girls doing well in education is a bad thing, now girls being born is also a bad thing.
  • It’s a wholly Western preoccupation which ignores the fact that worldwide girl children are more likely to suffer abuse, neglect and to die before reaching the age of 5 years because boy children are more highly valued. The notion that the research is “benign” is entirely misplaced and quite dangerous.
  • Only one of the articles covering this story advises women to be extremely cautious about trying to implement this as it may cause problems for foetal development. Indeed the lead researcher, Fiona Mathews, has claimed: “her findings provide hints of a cheap, “natural” way to select the sex of a child” New Scientist

Articles covering this include, The Guardian and the New Scientist.

Comments From You

Joe // Posted 23 April 2008 at 11:25 am

Isn’t the sex of a child determined by the sperm’s X or Y? How is this even supposed to work?

Saranga // Posted 23 April 2008 at 1:03 pm

Thank you for reporting on this! My problem was the research said 56% of the women who had a high calorie diet had boys. In my mind, 56% of children being boys is pretty much half and half. i.e., there isn’t a big difference!

Dave Godfrey // Posted 23 April 2008 at 2:38 pm

I agree that I’d rather see a proper straight-line graph.

Without looking at the stats I couldn’t say if 56% was statistically significant. The fact that this passed peer-review suggests that it was significant enough.

There is a relatively large body of research looking at factors that distort sex ratios- Tim Clutton-Brock’s research on Red Deer on the Island of Rum is some of the best known. In many animals (mammals especially) males fetuses are bigger and put a larger strain on the female. In Red Deer having small male children is a bad thing if you want to maximise your reproductive success.

In many social animals rank is inherited from the mother. Low ranking females will produce more of the sex that disperses. Higher ranking females will produce more of the sex that stays at home and will benefit from the mother’s rank. There’s some anecdotal evidence that this occurs in humans too.

There are all kinds of interesting ecological and evolutionary reasons why sex-ratio distortion might happen. There are plenty of rather more disturbing social reasons why this happens, but is logical from the dispassionate, pitiless (and from the human PoV frankly cruel) gaze of evolution. (Like Dawkins I’m pro-Darwinism in science, but a society based on Social Darwinism would be truly horrific to live in.)

I can see why they ignored miscarriages, terminations and only looked at first births. These are all factors that potentially confuse the issue (teasing out why each miscarriage and termination and deciding if it should or shouldn’t be included in the overall analysis would take far too long).

I don’t like the idea that they’re reporting causation rather than making a correlation. However once you’ve found a positive correlation this gives you a starting point to look at what is actually going on.

Chloe // Posted 23 April 2008 at 2:59 pm

Never mind that it’s the sperm cell which determines what sex the baby will be! Haha.

Marlow // Posted 23 April 2008 at 3:42 pm

It’s harldy concrete evidence, is it? Actually, I think it’s stupid because I’m sure there will be some women who don’t realise how ridiculous this research is and will either diet or eat more, which – like you said – only ONE of the articles warns against.

““her findings provide hints of a cheap, “natural” way to select the sex of a child” – … which is about as ridiculous and effective as eating lots of bacon to conceive a baby boy… hang on.

Victoria Duxbury-Jackman // Posted 23 April 2008 at 4:26 pm

How pathetic. Don’t these researchers have anything better to invest their time in? 56%? For God’s sake. What a dangerous message to send out to expectant mothers. Some might actually restrict their calorie intake in the hope of having a girl.

Sarah // Posted 23 April 2008 at 4:39 pm

“Chloe said:

Never mind that it’s the sperm cell which determines what sex the baby will be! Haha.”

You’re right, but that doesn’t necessarily mean this is implausible, there’s the issue of which sperm cell successfully ‘merges’ with the ovum, and also given that many pregnancies end spontaneously at an early stage (sometimes without anyone knowing that there ever was a pregnancy) environmental factors such as the woman’s diet could influence how likely it is that male embryos once conceived will survive to term.

Of course if such an effect does exist, it’s likely a lot more subtle and complex than ‘eat Shreddies for breakfast and you’ll have a BOY!!!’ as some of the papers seem to be reporting it, and no doubt there are many other factors involved as well.

Holly Combe // Posted 23 April 2008 at 7:13 pm

Channel 4 news has just summarised that “junk food” will give you a girl. So which Bad Thing” is it then? Faddy diets or crap food choices? Either way, the media reports seem to be telling us that we exist because our Mothers did something wrong so I guess that’ll be another reason (along with Valerie Grant’s claim about assertiveness) for more image conscious Mums to hope they have boys.

Rolo // Posted 24 April 2008 at 1:19 am

This study is troubling, in short, because it is flawed and leans towards gendered eugenics. Aside from drawing partial correlations, the researchers in this study do not investigate the *direction* of the correlation. For example, these findings might indicate that embryos have different nutritional needs at different times, perhaps based on sex. Perhaps female embryos might need different nutrients based on an estrogen-regulated hormone system, and males need other nutrients based on a testosterone-regulated hormone system. If you’ve talked to a pregnant woman in the last century, they might have crazy stories about the “cravings” they experienced during pregnancy. These may be a function of the body communicating dietary needs for the embryo/prenatal infant, rather than a correlation between dietary preference of the mother and the resulting sex of the child. To ignore these social facts is to make invisible the fact that women have very specific experiences during pregnancy, and it is a weak attempt to boil down a watery correlation as a big finding.

In addition, the fact that this research team identifies nutrition as able to determine sex is a type of twisted eugenics for the modern era. It obfuscates the fact that genetics, to some degree, plays a factor in sexual development, making it seem possible to determine the sex of a child through your own nutritional choices. Effectively, this indicates that a woman can select the sex of a child before it is born, and based on what foods are “healthier,” it raises a question as to whether boys are seen as “healthier” babies than girls simply due to nutrition. Does this mean if I eat only bread I’ll have a hermaphroditic child? Or does it mean that the first world is fascinated with food, and is not paying attention to the fact that all over the world, women who are starving are having babies (both female and male) regardless of the dietary intake?

This study is a renewal of the “nature vs. nurture” debate, and a weak one at that. It places the burden for sex selection solely within a woman’s body, making invisible the reality that a man’s diet may affect the prevalence of X and Y chromosomes within his own sperm. If we were to take this dietary hypothesis as true, then we would also have to assume that the food men ate before sexual activity determined the amount of X and Y-laden sperm that are released during ejaculation. I’m not sure if such an assumption sounds logical, but we have to assume that as part of the same species, a correlating dietary regulation is present in the male gamete system.

Also, assuming that dietary sexual selection is due to “less women eating breakfast due to dieting” makes invisible the fact that eating disorders and size-ism is rampant in the First World, and that these attitudes within themselves can be the cause of miscarriages, infanticide, or neglect DURING pregnancy, simply through how we feel we are expected to look and therefore eat. The study perpetuates body image issues by phrasing the issue through “good” and “bad” nutrition, rather than noting that ALL infants need a healthy balance of EVERY nutrient available to them. Therefore, under this paradigm, if you want to have a “healthy” baby, you aim to have a male by eating “healthy foods.” Such assumptions are gendered within a form of sexism that views females as inherently degenerate, or whose capacities are diminished in-utero due to the mother’s diet.

In addition, assuming that species produce males in order to “perpetuate the species” and that women are produced “in leaner times” is irrational accross the spectrum of human and animal biology. Such a theory suggests that female biology requires less fuel to survive than male biology. To begin, we can see that females are often larger than males accross many species, including insects, reptiles, some mammals, and some aquatic phyla. Considering the loss of blood and tissue during the female human menstrual cycle and the amount of nutrition needed to sustain these cycles, and considering the fact that men do not have such a cycle (where blood and tissue is continually lost), this theory makes no sense. In essence, women need more nutrition than men in order to keep a proper menstrual cycle (which is a social construction) and in order to conceive and rear a baby in-utero. The fact that the study phrases women as appropriate “in leaner times” reflects the body image issues, sexism, and eugenic qualities inherent in this study. In addition, saying that males “can produce more children” inherently animalizes the species, ignoring the “nurture” aspect of the “nature/nurture debate,” and ignoring the fact that many “strong” males never have children, that males may be celibate, or that they may engage in homosexual/non-reproductive behavior. It also ignores the fact that in many species, the male is killed and consumed by the female. Knowing that we have transcended such behavior, we need to discontinue this process of talking in biological, evolutionary absolutes. When I go out for a cup of tea, I’m not looking to impregnate as many women as possible to sustain the human species. I’m just trying to rehydrate myself in a tasty way.

Amy // Posted 24 April 2008 at 10:44 am

I saw this on Channel 4 news last night. The report actually suggested that the supposed ‘drop’ in male births is coinciding with a ‘fall in the energy content of our food’. I had to do a double take. Has the news not been flooded recently with hundreds of reports saying that the UK is ‘getting fatter’ and obesity is a serious health problem? It doesn’t sound to me like the energy content of our food is falling (as if you could even test this anyway). If more people in the UK are eating high-calorie diets, as we’re usually told in the news, then according to this research women should be popping out boys left right and centre. I find it pretty outrageous that not only should the research get so much air time, but that it is propped up by such blatantly false statements. Just bizarre.

Kathy // Posted 24 April 2008 at 1:11 pm

This study looks more like an attempt to grab tabloid headlines; after all, the effects of living conditions on sex ratios in large mammals have been documented and studied before, and trying to apply this to humans is a fairly effective way of getting media attention.

I do wish someone would do some proper research on the subject, using a large and representative sample and considering more than one factor in order to figure out an actual cause instead of spotting a possible correlation and jumping hastily to conclusions.

What I’m also rather curious about is not just possible reasons _why_ the sex ratios are affected (and to what extent), but _how_. I would like to know what the actual mechanism is for making this happen, like whether it is something to do with how fertilized eggs develop or with the proportion of X to Y chromosomes in the sperm (or with something else altogether!). Given that it’s the sperm cell that determines the sex, surely it would make sense to look into the nutritional and other condition of the father as well as the mother.

Louise // Posted 24 April 2008 at 2:16 pm

Wow what lovely debate this has engendered. On the issue of the extent and significance of food habits and sex of babies – the researchers on Radio 4 said they were talking about women who ate breakfast having 12 baby boys out of 20 babies and women who didn’t having 9 baby boys out of 20 babies. That’s the extent of the significance.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 24 April 2008 at 4:37 pm

I get especially annoyed by the evo-psych stuff that suggests that it natural for one sex to ‘disperse’ and the other to stay at home, which shows no awareness of the incredible variety of marriage and living arrangements across the world and across history. It becomes awfully convenient that evolution fits the western model for family life.

Lynne // Posted 25 April 2008 at 2:30 am

The new theory about eating breakfast being conducive to producing a son when planning a pregnancy is interesting. I believe there is something about the condition of the mother’s body (and possible even that of the father) that makes a difference to the sex of the unborn child.

It might not be just a matter of a race between x-sperm and y-sperm.

When I already had a daughter and hoped to have a son way back in 1970 I used the method of making my body more alkaline before conception. My husband did he same and we had a boy.

We based this on the knowledge that most ‘single mum’ babies at that time were girls – due to the fact that many of those new mums were drunk at the time of conception and therefore had a tendency towards an acidic body type.

I think it helps for the mother to be acidic if a girl baby is required and alkalinic if a boy baby is required. I am not sure if it makes a difference for the father to be so – but just to be on the safe side you girls should get them to co-operate with the required diet. After all, it is the father who determines the sex of the child.

Take these items to help the body become alkaline: banana, raisins, yogurt, honey, non-fat milk.

(which could account for breakfast being a good idea.

Extremely alkaline are watermelons – so lots of these!

If your desire is a little girl, then the happy couple should try to make themselves acidic.

Whilst alcohol can do this, it is obviously not recommended but black tea, cranberry juice and coca-cola will also make the body acidic – as will bread, rice, spaghetti, and many other items.

What we eat or drink is always more acid or more alkaline.

To maintain health, the diet should consist of 60% alkaline forming foods and 40% acid forming foods. It can be dangerous to be seriously out of balance. Many people today have the blood condition acidosis.

Acidosis is more common in western society due to diet, which is far too high in acid producing animal products like meat, eggs, dairy products and far too low in alkaline producing foods like vegetables. Additionally, we eat lots of acid producing processed foods and drink acid producing beverages. We use too many drugs, which are acid forming; and we use artificial sweetners.

An acidic pH can occur from, an acid forming diet, emotional stress, toxic overload.

Acidosis could be the reason why developed countries are said to be producing more girls than boys.

Alkalosis is not as common as acidosis, but it also indicates an unbalanced condition.

Aparently, cold showers make the blood alkaline, while hot showers make the blood acid.

Further, from observation, it seems that when a baby is conceived again soon after giving birth, the second child is more often the same sex as the first. This could indicate that the mother keeps her acid/alkaline tendencies throughout the pregnancy and is still in the same condition just after the birth. I have wondered if this is why pregnant mums get food cravings – to keep the balance in the right direction for the growing baby.

Amy // Posted 25 April 2008 at 11:04 am

Lynne – the ph of blood is 7.4 and your body works very hard to maintain this, you can’t just change it by what you eat. It will only change if you have some sort of health condition like diabetes. Blood ph is vital to your body’s functioning. If it changes by 1 decimal point either way then you get symptoms, if it changes by 2 decimal points then you’re in serious trouble and any more than this means death. The fact that you had a boy after a so-called ‘alkaline’ diet is just chance. I’d like to bet your blood ph hadn’t changed one bit. It’s a 50/50 chance after all, and nature does a pretty good job of keeping it this way despite people’s best efforts!

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