By Bonnie Johnson
August 23, 1982 12:00 PM

Will it be a boy or a girl? By doing everything from eating oysters to drinking lion’s blood to wearing boots in bed, prospective parents have been trying to influence the answer to that question since the beginning of recorded history. Indeed, in some cases the desire to choose the gender of one’s offspring has altered the very course of history. England’s King Henry VIII went through six wives and resorted to divorce, beheading and breaking his country’s ties with the Roman Catholic Church in his attempt to sire a male heir.

Most modern-day couples don’t have the future of a nation riding on the sex of their progeny, but writer and registered nurse Sally Langendoen, 42, offers hope for those who have a definite preference in the matter. She has come up with a diet that she claims can help determine a baby’s sex. It is explained in The Preconception Gender Diet (Evans, $9.95), which Langendoen co-authored with free-lance writer William Proctor.

The book is based on the work of Dr. Joseph Stolkowski of the University of Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris and Dr. Jacques Lorrain of the Sacré-Coeur Hospital in Montreal. In their studies, first with cattle and then with humans, Stolkowski and Lorrain found that a diet high in sodium and potassium and low in calcium and magnesium resulted in male offspring, while a diet high in calcium-magnesium and low in sodium-potassium produced females. Of the 260 women who participated in the program, there was an 81 percent success rate.

With the help of two nutritionists, Langendoen has taken Stolkowski and Lorrain’s data and devised two eating plans to be used by women four to six weeks before trying to conceive. Their husbands may adopt the diet as a show of support, but their cooperation is irrelevant to the outcome. Once pregnancy is confirmed, the diet ends. “The structure of both diets is similar,” says Langendoen, “and they both have about 1,800 calories.” Dr. Lorrain says the book is “well written,” but adds, “I would not publish a book myself on this topic. I don’t think that’s the right way to do it. One should go through a physician.”

The girl diet is salt-free and features large quantities of milk and small portions of meats such as chicken, steak and lamb. The preferred, low-potassium fruits and vegetables include pears, peaches, apples, beans and peas. The boy diet, on the other hand, has no milk and favors salty meats such as bacon, sausage and ham. Oranges, grapefruit and bananas are prescribed, as are potatoes, artichokes and mushrooms. Because of the relatively high salt content of this diet, Langendoen warns that it may be detrimental for hypertensive women, and she suggests mothers-to-be check with their physicians before embarking on either plan.

How do the diets work? “We may be altering either the membrane around the egg or the environment within the woman to favor male or female sperm,” says Langendoen. “No one knows the actual explanation.” Not surprisingly, many scientists are skeptical of Langendoen’s hypothesis. “It seems pretty farfetched,” says Dr. W. Paul Dmowski, head of the endocrinology and infertility section at Chicago’s Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center. “No one has been able to show that an alteration in diet can induce a change in the environment in which the ovum develops.” Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, author of Boy or Girl?, agrees: “It’s a theory that has never been proven scientifically, and the authors are offering false hope.” Langendoen doesn’t make any promises for the diet but feels strongly that it “can’t hurt. In fact,” she says, “it can help the typical American woman who is running on potato chips and soda.”

The daughter of a retired supermarket manager, Langendoen grew up in Newton, Mass. She graduated from the Massachusetts General Hospital School of Nursing in 1961 and got her B.S. from Simmons College three years later. Recently divorced, Langendoen lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. with her son, David, 13. She made no attempt to give birth to a boy instead of a girl; indeed, Langendoen considers herself lucky to have conceived at all because of an irregular menstrual cycle. After David’s birth, she gave up hospital nursing, worked in a plant store and did some cabinetmaking before deciding to pursue a full-time career as a medical writer six years ago.

Perhaps the most reasonable response to The Preconception Gender Diet comes from Dr. Charles H. Debrovner, associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at New York University School of Medicine and author of the book’s foreword. Debrovner doesn’t recommend people “go and buy blue because of the diet.” He does, however, feel it should be used “by couples who primarily desire a child, no matter what the sex, but wouldn’t mind trying to give the laws of chance a nudge in one direction or the other.”