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Hunger Control: Women the Weaker Sex?

Women Less Able to Suppress Food Desire, Study Suggests

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"More and more we see there is a structural basis for why we eat the way we do. Maybe our brains are hardwired to predetermine the way we eat," Ahima says. "The interesting thing about the Wang study is that when they present food to people and ask them to consciously inhibit the urge to eat, men are better able to do it than women."

Ahima notes that the study only shows men to be better at inhibiting their brains' response to food. But can men really resist emotional eating better than women can? That, he says, will have to be tested directly.

Sex Hormones May Affect Hunger

Why do men's and women's brains respond differently? Wang and Ahima suspect that female sex hormones play a major role.

"There is a link between female hormones tending to promote weight gain and overeating," Ahima says. "There are some women who tend to binge eat in synch with their menstrual cycles. And look at pregnancy -- it makes some women overeat, but some do not. So while there may be overall differences in terms of gender, this may differ for individuals."

Wang suggests that women may have evolved to seek food more avidly than men do.

"There could be evolutionary needs for that, because women have a very important mission: They have to carry the baby," Wang says. "And for most of human history, you could never get enough food to eat. Now that's no longer a problem in developed countries -- but now this brain circuit is a problem when we are surrounded by attractive, high-calorie foods."

The solution, Wang says, is for people who find themselves unable to control their eating to keep filling, low-calorie foods close at hand.

"Our lifestyle now is so much different from that of our grandparents," Wang says. "Our jobs and our living status is very stressful. So when we see food we eat it, because we want to do something to compensate for our problems. Inhibition control is very important -- but if you can't have it, surround yourself with nutritious foods."

Wang's study appears in the Jan. 15 early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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