January 22

Women’s Brains and Food Cravings

24  comments

As a follow-up to Mike’s wonderful post today about the Elephant and the Rider and the Warring Selves, here’s a little more food for thought on the subject.

An article appeared yesterday in the London Free Press about a new study (abstract free, full text not) purporting to show that female brains don’t as easily turn off the appetite signal when confronted with a favorite food (read: can’t as easily forget that there is a box of donuts in the breakroom) than those of their brethren.

Researchers, studying the mysteries of voluntary hunger suppression, were surprised when PET scans of fasted subjects–23 men and 23 women–presented with their favorite foods, showed marked gender differences. The ‘feeling’ or ’emotional’ parts of the brains of all participants lit up like a Christmas tree on sight of the favored food. The subjects had been taught ‘cognitive inhibition’ suppression techniques to consciously quiet hunger that they were asked to employ during the test.

When men employed the techniques, they reported that their hunger did abate and the PET scan showed dimming of the activity in those previously-lit-up parts of the brain.

Not so with the ladies.

“There is something going on in the female…The signal is so much different…Even though the women said[my italics] they were less hungry when trying to inhibit their response to the food, their brains were still firing away in the regions that control the drive to eat,” Wang said.

But what does it all mean? Who knows (and the authors didn’t speculate). But I can…

Is it that the female brain is less capable of focusing on the ‘congnitive inhibition’ or are women’s brains, once focused, more complex machines with greater RAM and therefore less easily distracted? Does the difference spring from the theory of the polychronic female brain, versus the monochronic male one? The difference that, some would say, allows a mother to juggle many things at once: cook dinner, talk to her mother on the phone, help Joannie with her homework, keep an eye on 2-year-old Billy and the new puppy, change the baby’s diaper, and do a load of laundry almost simultaneously?

Maybe that polychronicity allowed the female subjects to keep the image of the warm donut in the backs of their minds, even while willing themselves with another part of the brain to backburner it…for now…and report less hunger. While the male brain, able perhaps to focus on only one thing at a time could either think about the donut or not. Maybe the male brain operates on a binary system that means if they choose to think about something else…poof!…thoughts of the donut vanish. Whereas the female brain may operate more like an iMac, capable of having dozens of windows up on the screen, with one application overlaying the other, all of them there and quickly accessible, but running silently behind the one in the forefront.

All pure speculation, of course, and just a few of a score of other plausible explanations for the difference. The study doesn’t address any of the whys, but it provides such intriguing fodder for future studies, they will surely follow in due course.

Thus, although I completely agree with my husband about Dr. Glasser’s theory in general, it may prove to be the case that we of the fairer sex are wired to have more trouble than our brothers at sublimating the desire for the warm donuts through simple distraction. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to do so, just that it may be another of those inequalities/differences in the sexes that makes it a slightly tougher row to hoe…or in this case, donut to ignore…for us.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

  1. I am very skeptical of this for the main reason that women get anorexia nervosa far, far more frequently than men, and in anorexia the person is actually very hungry but CONTROLS their hunger. Of course that control is very abnormal: to not eat when starving, literally, and confronted with food, but it just shows what kind of control can be achieved….and it’s usually women. I suffered for many years with anorexia, recovered after intensive psychotherapy but gained a lot of self knowledge in the process.

    Anne

    COMMENT from MD EADES: It’s quite true that anorexia strikes far more women than men, but it’s, as you rightly point out, not the norm. Anorexia is also notoriously difficult to treat/overcome and I applaud you for the very hard work it has to have taken you to do so. Kudos to you and your psychotherapist for your success.

  2. It sounds like an evolutionary trait, women have a harder time fasting because they need to nourish young. Did the study make any mention of the age range of the participants? It would be interesting to see if there were pre and post menopausal differences.

    COMMENT from MD EADES: I can’t now recall. I’ll have to go back in look, but it’s an interesting notion.

  3. Women in hunter-gatherer tribes generally had to keep track of the whereabouts of food sources and all the details sourrounding them: when they fruited, etc. So a hard-wired connection to food and its location (forest or break room) would make sense.

    Scott W

  4. I think we *are* hardwired differently than men. We live under an incentive system we did not create but has purpose. Nature wants us to procreate and thus the desire to have sex and eat. Since women carry the fetus perhaps we got a little more of the drive to eat; Perhaps men got a little more of the drive to… um… procreate. It would be interesting to see what would happen if the same experiment was conducted with men and women deprived of sex and shown provocative images of the opposite sex… suppression skills you say? However, I do like your theory better.

    COMMENT from MD EADES: An interesting idea, indeed, and I would suspect that the results would be very different, possibly even reversed.

  5. Maybe it is not women’s brain physiology, but their chemical/hormonal make-up that causes women’s brains to tell them to eat carbs. Carbs increase insulin which stores fat, which can sustain them through pregnancy and child-rearing when food is scarce.

  6. Re anorexia nervosa: thanks for the kudos – it is the most harrowing and difficult thing to deal with. I had it from age 14 to 30 and the psychotherapy was the only thing that helped. Prior to that I had had insulin therapy, ECT and simply loads of medications, but those only made things ultimately worse as the psychs failed to find out and deal with the underlying cause of the anorexia. I’m now in my mid 50s and feel very well and fit but discovered two years ago the damage that this has caused me physically: osteoporosis and diabetes 🙁

    I was in The Times last Monday regarding osteoporosis and the UK medicine health regulator: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/health/article5542657.ece scroll down the left of the article to get to a link to the specific bit about me !

    bw’s
    Anne

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Thanks for sending the link to the story, but sorry to hear about your lingering sequelae. Take a good look at the vitamin D info on Mike’s blog and elsewhere relative to osteoporosis; there may not be any nutrient more important to rebuilding bones, particularly in Northern climes where the sun isn’t stout.

  7. Thank you so much for this post. It certainly clarifies part of the “why” women and men react differently to the low carb diet. In some of the research Dr Mike has been posting, men are able to lose weight on the low carb diet without counting calories but women cannot seem to be able to lose weight on the low carb diet without concomitant calorie restriction. Apparently we are hard wired to avoid what our bodies perceive as “starvation” and drive us to eat more or perhaps to store more in an attempt to keep us ready to conceive and bear children.

    Great post, thank you for bringing it to our attention.

  8. Thanks for this. I read the entry by Mike and laughed a little. I wish it were so simple as just gettig up and doign something else. Though I think I will try Mike’s suggestions, I am glad I am not the only woman who might find them difficult. Now, off to go clean the house, make breakfast, greet a visitor, homeschool my three kids and take a shower!

  9. The reason is that women are the ones with the child-bearing potential, and the Nature (genetically) always makes sure the species develops the traits necessary to enable it to survive.

    For female of any species it is definitely very important to not be able to just shut off the naturally strongly present desire to feed …

    What the study discovered is just the biological mechanism behind it. And if we’re wired differently, like Kris says, that is once again because of the same inherent natural predisposition of the female of the species.

  10. Dear MDE,

    Puleeeeeze post the recipe of the Andalusian gazpacho that your husband has made us drool about!

    Many thanks,

    Laurel
    COMMENT from MD EADES: I will, just as soon as I get back to where the recipe is.

  11. It certainly makes sense to me. All I hear from my DH (and yours, too LOL) is “just do it.” They don’t seem to “get” that it’s harder than that…

    Anyway, the reason I’ve been feeling sad about it all lately is that we all (who struggle with weight) tend to say, “If only I had a personal trainer. If only I had a personal chef. I would be thin like ______ (insert name of famous person).” The problem is, then you look at someone like Oprah. She’s as rich as Solomon, and can afford to command entire armies of folks to keep her on plan. Still, she struggles. Up and down. Down and up. Anyway, all that to say, if she can’t do it with all her resources, I don’t hold out much hope for myself.

    After 2 decades of 10-20 pound yo-yo dieting (the last decade of it with LC) I reached my lifetime high weight in fall 2006, needing to lose 40 pounds. I decided to give it a go again–and I said it would be the last time. I swore that this time, the changes and the effort would “take.” I have never tried so hard to do it right! I was convinced this time would be different! After all, isn’t a new habit supposed to be formed in 28 days??? (Yeah, like THAT has been my experience in the past with LC!)

    This last effort was exactly like all the others. I easily lost the weight, but had a lot of trouble staying on plan after the first 6 months of good dedication–just like every other time. May 2008 I was very near my ideal weight and had been for about a year, despite alternating between low carb and binging face-down-in-it. I got exhausted and the beach ball exploded out of the water and I threw in the towel.

    Jan 2009, I’m very near my lifetime high again. I’m pretty discouraged right now to be 40 pounds overweight again (with nothing to wear b/c I swore I’d never need them again and threw everything out) and in my mid 40’s.

    I really don’t think I can “do” it again. I really think last time was the “last time.” I just don’t have the strength to try again. It emotionally exhausts me, trying to control my eating habits in any way. Thank you for your great column, though, I enjoy reading it!

    COMMENT from MD EADES: True about Oprah and her ongoing struggle definitely points up the truth that the ‘if I only had x’ philosophy isn’t the end all and be all of weight loss. But look at it the other way: there are those who have none of those things and who have managed to lose hundreds of pounds, starting from an amount of weight from which they would likely dream of getting down to the point where they only have 40 pounds to lose.

    Stop for a moment and imagine you were afflicted with hypertension instead of overweight. If your blood pressure were controlled with a prescription medication and things were stable and you quit taking the medication, would it surprise you that your pressure would rise again? Probably not. Obesity (mild, as in 40 pounds to lose, or severe as in 180 pounds to lose) is like hypertension–a metabolic condition that must be controlled by an effective therapy or it will recur.

    Work with your physician to discover if there are new wrinkles in the metabolic story. Hormones (metabolic and reproductive) out of balance? Iodine stores low? These factors can impede successful weight loss.

    There is no magic in weight loss; it’s just evidence of having gained control over the problem. A once-overweight-now-thinner person hasn’t had a gene transplant or a metabolism transplant. If carbs were a problem before, losing weight won’t change that.The underlying genetic and/or physiologic tendencies that were there at peak weight are still there. They’ve just been collared, but turn them loose for more than a brief moment and the metabolic mayhem will return. As with alcoholism: it’s always recovering, never recovered. Maintaining control for the long haul (difficult to say the least) is the name of the game.

    For hypertension, maybe a pill will do it. For overweight, diet is the therapy of choice. And none of us ought to be surprised that when we stop the treatment, the manifestations of the disorder return. It’s frustrating; it’s not ‘fair’, but as my Daddy said so many times to me growing up, “Sugar, nobody ever promised it was going to be fair. It just is what it is and you have to deal with it.”

    I know it doesn’t make it less of a trial that you (and so many of us, especially we women) have this more difficult metabolic cross to bear. It sucks! Pure and simple! The bright side is that you DO have a proven, effective method to corral it, even if it means crawling back up on the wagon and giving it another go. You can do it again, by taking it one day at a time, one meal at a time, if necessary and by focusing on all the foods you CAN eat and how good you feel when you once again take charge of your metabolic biochemistry and bend it to your will again. It’s not easy and often not fun, but it will work.

    Don’t give up on yourself.

  12. Your husband said to ding dong your website if we wanted your version of the Andalusian style gazpacho. Ding Dong. Please. When you have time. 🙂 Thank you.

    COMMENT from MD EADES: I promise I will when we get back to SB where the cookbook is that has the xerox copy with the handwritten notes on it that was given to me years ago by a friend who was a great Spanish cook and lover of Andalusian gazpacho. I wish I could say I know it by heart, but I don’t.

  13. Hi Doc,

    The comment you wrote to Elle was beautiful, inspirational, and spot-on. I’m going to print that out and read it whenever I feel the need.
    I’ve never thought of myself as a recovering addict, but I suppose that all of us that are here reading your blog are.
    I think another thing that makes it so hard is that carbs are constantly pushed on us from everywhere. The Gov’t, restaurants, schools, fairs, loved ones, the circus- they are truly ubiquitous.
    Nobody would ever think to offer a drink to a recovering alcholic; but it’s perfectly acceptable to offer cake to a carb addict.

    COMMENT from MD EADES: I totally agree and have said many times that ‘white powders’ are addictive, whether they’re heroin and cocaine or sugar and flour. The difference is–just as you point out– that it’s a whole lot easier to kick alcohol and drugs than carbs, because no decent person would ever offer a bag of coke to a recovering junkie or a drink to a recovering alcoholic, but will put on the full court press to get someone to indulge in ‘just a bite’ ‘just this once’ without ever dreaming of what that could mean to the ‘sobriety’ of a recovering sugar junkie, and will keep insisting even when the junkie tells them politely ‘no’.

  14. Please publish your recipes for gazpacho and ice cream. Both were referenced recently in Dr. Mike’s blog.

    COMMENT from MD EADES: I’ll put the gazpacho up today. There’s already an ice cream recipe in the archives of my blog, I think, so search ice cream and see what you get. If there’s not, I’ll put it up soon.

  15. Thanks, Dr. Mary Dan.

    I want to point out, in case it isn’t obvious, that I have never viewed LC as a “diet” in the sense that I intended to use it for weight loss, and then go back to “regular” eating.

    Each and every single time I’ve done it, it’s been with the commitment that “this it *it.*” This is my new way of eating from here on out.

    I feel like if I could figure out what causes me to say “screw it” after a year or so, it would be a big help. Now that I know I have ADD and how we tend to approach things (all or nothing, hyperfocus or off the radar, with nothing in between), that explains some of it, at least.

    COMMENT from MD EADES: If it helps, you’re not alone 😉

  16. I immediately wondered if the difference was between being primarily a hunter vs. primarily a gatherer. If men primarily hunted, their prey tended to go crashing through the underbrush or in other ways make itself obvious. If women primarily gathered, they’d need to be able to remember that the tree by that bend in the river had tubers growing under it that became edible in the fall or that berries grew along that swamp over the next rise in the early summer. Remembering the location of food and its current/future state of availability would be an important survival skill for women.

  17. I just found this website and am impressed with the information available. This article about women and cravings has made me laugh a rather bitter laugh. It seems to me that women in Western culture might have more problems with cravings simply because women have for so long bought into the idea that you must be thin to be beautiful, and to be thin you must not eat. So a lot of women are basically starving all the time. A number of years ago, when I was making an effort to avoid junk food and get lots of protein and veggies, I ate pretty much what I wanted within those limits and was surprised one day when someone brought a big cake to work–and I (normally a super carboholic) had ZERO craving for cake. It was my first clue that EATING real food and NOT WORRYING about calories might be the way to go to avoid cravings and lose weight. I’m sure the brain scans of women who eat and eat well (that is, low-carb in some way) would tell a different story than the one reported in this article.

  18. Honestly, if i had a theory, I would say that of course we have polychronistic brains, but it all boils down to willpower with females. We can be in labor and concentrate on having a child, the end result. We can see food, be hungry, but remind ourselves of our diet and resist the temptation, all while smiling, saying, “Oh, I’m not hungry,” and swallowing our drool. I also think this carries into the anorexia/bulemia issue, where women can make themselves not eat by sheer will, or throw up something they really enjoyed. (However, women usually yo-yo with this type of thing, whereas men end up with worse problems because they literally cannot stop). Anyhow, the blog had me thinking, and those are my two cents.

  19. Just found your website and am impressed with your advice. I have lived and eaten this way for most of my life (most of the discoveries made by just listening to my body message). I am now 65 and weigh within 8 lbs of my high school (cheer leading)weight. As a practitioner of Oriental Medicine, I believe that any “medication” (even my herbal formulas) are best absorbed if taken as a liquid – not pill or capsule. Do you know of a good Omega 3 oil that is not encapsulated? Thanks. Phyllis

    COMMENT from MDE: There are some liquid gels, such as Omega Brite, but that’s still technically a ‘capsule’ of sorts. And then there’s fish oil itself, which is liquid, and Nordic Naturals makes a omega-3 product for children.

  20. Just found your website and am impressed with your advice. I have lived and eaten this way for most of my life (most of the discoveries made by just listening to my body message). I am now 65 and weigh within 8 lbs of my high school (cheer leading)weight. As a practitioner of Oriental Medicine in NYC for over 15 years, I believe that any “medication” (even my herbal formulas) are best absorbed if taken as a liquid – not pill or capsule. Do you know of a good Omega 3 oil that is not encapsulated? Thanks. Phyllis

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Be The First To Know When New Content Is Premiered!

Sign up to be notified about new blog posts, podcast interviews, tasty recipes, scheduled appearances or live talks, or interesting special offers. And especially sign up to learn when and where you can begin to pre-order our next book, Protein Power 2.0!

__CONFIG_colors_palette__{"active_palette":0,"config":{"colors":{"5e279":{"name":"Fun Blue","parent":-1}},"gradients":[]},"palettes":[{"name":"Default","value":{"colors":{"5e279":{"val":"var(--tcb-skin-color-0)"}},"gradients":[]},"original":{"colors":{"5e279":{"val":"rgb(31, 85, 173)","hsl":{"h":217,"s":0.69,"l":0.4,"a":1}}},"gradients":[]}}]}__CONFIG_colors_palette__
__CONFIG_colors_palette__{"active_palette":0,"config":{"colors":{"3e1f8":{"name":"Main Accent","parent":-1}},"gradients":[]},"palettes":[{"name":"Default Palette","value":{"colors":{"3e1f8":{"val":"var(--tcb-local-color-5e279)"}},"gradients":[]},"original":{"colors":{"3e1f8":{"val":"rgb(19, 114, 211)","hsl":{"h":210,"s":0.83,"l":0.45}}},"gradients":[]}}]}__CONFIG_colors_palette__
Sign Up