Women have more difficulty suppressing food cravings than men, according to a new study that could help explain why women are more likely to be obese and have more difficulty losing weight.
Researchers at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York studied the brain activity of 13 women and 10 men to see if their ability to resist hunger was influenced by biological differences in the sexes. The volunteers were interviewed about their favorite foods and asked to fast for 17 hours. The subjects were then presented with the foods they craved. "If you said you liked barbecued ribs, we'd put a big portion of them in front of you," lead researcher Dr. Gene-Jack Wang tells Time. "We'd warm them in a microwave first so you couldn't get away from the smell, and we'd give you a cotton ball with a bit of the food on it so you could taste it. Then we'd have one of the nurses describe how the food was made."
With their brain activity monitored by positron emission tomography (PET) scans, the subjects were told to suppress their hunger by thinking of other things for 40 minutes while looking at the food. While both sexes were able to lower their hunger, women were less able to suppress their desire to eat, and continued experiencing activity in the part of the brain that controls emotional cravings even if they weren't as hungry anymore. "There is something going on in the female," said Wang, according to MSNBC, "the signal is so much different."
The study does not explain what causes this difference in how the sexes experience food cravings, but the researchers suspect hormones are at work. Nora Volkow, co-author of the paper, speculates that the gender difference may be due to women's traditional role to provide nutrition to children and the female brain may be hard-wired to eat when food is available (obviously, more research on how female hormones function in the brain is needed). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 35.3 percent of American women and 33.3 percent of men were considered obese in 2006, and behavioral studies have shown that women have a higher tendency than men to overeat when they are presented with tasty food or are under stress. Scientists say they hope understanding how men and women react differently to their desire for foods will help develop better ways to combat obesity.