Hunger Control: Women the Weaker Sex?
Women Less Able to Suppress Food Desire, Study Suggests
Jan. 20, 2009 -- Hungry women can't control their desire for food as well as
hungry men can, a brain imaging study suggests.
The finding may explain why women are more prone to emotional eating and why
women are less likely than men to lose weight while dieting.
"Women have a much stronger reaction to food, such that whether they try
to inhibit their desire or not, they have stronger signal [in the part of the
brain that controls hunger perception and desire to eat]," study leader
Gene-Jack Wang, MD, tells WebMD.
Wang, chairman of the medical department of Brookhaven National Laboratory,
Upton in N.Y., and colleagues have been using state-of-the-art brain imaging to
learn which parts of the brain are involved in eating behaviors.
They have previously shown that obese people are less able than others to
sense when their stomachs are full. Recently, they have looked at what happens
in the brain when a hungry person gets to see, smell, and taste -- but not eat
-- favorite foods.
In some of these studies, they saw very strong signals in parts of the brain
involved in emotional regulation and motivation. But in other studies, the
signals weren't so strong. Wang suspected this might be because of differences
between how men and women react to food.
So they tested 13 women and 10 men with PET brain scans. To make sure they
were hungry, study participants fasted for 18 hours before scanning. And to
make sure they were tempted, the researchers made the participants' favorite
foods: bacon/egg/cheese sandwiches, cinnamon buns, pizza, cheeseburgers, fried
chicken, lasagna, barbecued ribs, ice cream, brownies, and chocolate cake.
During scanning, participants were able to see and smell the food. They even
got tastes, applied to their tongues with a cotton swab. To make sure they
stayed tempted, researchers brought them new hot food every four minutes.
But subjects didn't get to eat until the 30-minute scans were completed, and
only after they completed a quiz on their feelings of hunger, desire for food,
Before their second round of scans, participants were asked to practice
ignoring the food or shifting their thoughts away from it. During this phase of
scanning, they were asked "to inhibit their desire for food and suppress
their feelings of hunger."
That worked pretty well for the men. Their brain scans showed much less
hunger-related activity when they tried to suppress their desire for food.
That didn't happen for the women, at least not as a group. Although some
women were better than some men at suppressing food desire, overall the women's
brains showed just as much hunger-related activity when they tried to hold down
Are the findings plausible? WebMD asked Rexford S. Ahima, MD, PhD, director
of the obesity center at the University of Pennsylvania's Institute for
Diabetes, Obesity, and Metabolism. Ahima is an expert in the brain circuits
responsible for feeding behavior and body weight regulation.