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Hunger Control: Women the Weaker Sex?

Women Less Able to Suppress Food Desire, Study Suggests
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

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, and alertness.

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 their desire.

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.

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