Study sheds light on men’s vs. women’s response to food

Maybe it really is a guy thing.

Men appear to be better than women at controlling their brain’s response to their favorite foods, a unique brain-imaging study has found. The results were published online this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

The researchers who led the study believe the findings might help explain why women have higher rates of obesity and eating disorders than men do, and why women often have a harder time losing weight.

The study was conducted at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and involved 23 volunteer subjects – 13 women and 10 men who underwent positron emission tomography scanning of the brain.

During one set of scans, they were presented with their favorite foods, such as pizza, warm cinnamon rolls or barbecued ribs, and asked to smell, taste, observe and react to the food but not eat it. During another set of scans on a separate day, they were told to inhibit their desire for food before being tempted with the same foods. Control scans also were conducted with no food.

The volunteers were also asked to rate the food and describe their feelings of hunger and desire to eat during the scans when food was present.

Among both men and women, several brain areas associated with emotional regulation, conditioning and motivation lit up in response to tempting foods, indicating increased brain activity. When asked to inhibit their response to food, both men and women described themselves as less hungry – but only the men showed a corresponding decrease in food-activated brain activity. Among the women, activity could still be seen in regions of the brain that control the drive to eat.

The study did not explore possible reasons for this gender difference, although the researchers speculated that differences in sex hormones, such as estrogen, might play a role.

The authors said their findings are consistent with behavioral studies showing women are more likely than men to overeat when they’re presented with tempting food or are under emotional stress.

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