16 August 2011,

Men and Women Eat for Different Reasons – Addiction to Food

I recently began chatting with a colleague’s’ son about why I became interested in eating behaviour. After what I felt was a satisfying and engaging three minute monolgue, he responded with:
‘”So… you’’re interested in what makes fat taste good?’”

I couldn’t relish even a millisecond of relief! His rhetorical question was a mixed bag of disgust and dismay, tinged ever so slightly with disinterest. And indeed, his observations seem to sum it all up rather succinctly (or at least one of my interests. The way fat tastes, and why, is the not sole one).

For anyone who has never had issues with eating, getting involved with eating behaviour seems to border on the outer rims of utter obscurity. Since I have a totally biased view that virtually every female – at some point in her life – will have ‘issues’ with food (be that too much or too little) I don’t think that studying the way fat tastes to be all that weird.

But I digress – this post is not about my attempt to defend my academic pedigree. In addition to being interested in why fat tastes so good, I have long held a hypothesis (or, perhaps superstition is more accurate) that men and women eat for very different reasons. When I write we ‘eat’ for different reasons, of course I am referring to the idea that our emotional eating is fuelled by entirely different motivators.

First, some obvious issues: women are especially sensitive to rewarding food during those blessed moments of PMS (I really don’t need to site that, but just in case: Tomelleri & Grunewald, 1987). Also women typically cite chocolate and High Fat High Sweet items as being their bête noir (in contrast, men often cite High Fat High Savoury foods) (Macdiarmid, Vail, Cade, & Blundell, 1998). This is important because sweetness is often a correlate for addictive behaviour. A point which I get to next.

From my view, women are more likely to report chocolate addiction. That women report higher levels of addiction may not mean that they are in fact ‘addicted’ to food- but this does draw our focus to the idea of womenˊs feelings of loss of control around certain foods. Why would this be?

In a recent paper, authors found that overweight women were more likely to make mistakes on a classic psychological paradigm called the Iowa Gambling Task.
The Gambling task requires a selection between immediate rewards (small) and long term outcomes. The more often you chose ‘immediate rewards,’ the worse your long term outcome would be. In obese women, but not men, authors found preference for immediate rewards in the presence of crappy long term consequences.

Here’’s the cool part!
They also found structural differences in the left dorsal striatum, and right dosolateral prefrontal cortex (for obese women only!).
The fact that women perform worse on the gambling task – specifically the obese women – is so totally interesting, mainly because this is coupled with a significant structural brain difference, thus beginning to show what underpins certain aspects of ‘poor’ decision making.

During times like this, I always question those experts that claim that food choice is 100% within our control. For overweight women, it would appear that biology to an extent is destiny. It’’s impossible to know whether being overweight has caused this structural change, or if it occurred before weight was put on. But also —I can quote my colleague’’s 21-year-old son here:
“Who cares?”

*Indeed, that WAS the context in which he snidely regarded my fascination with the way fat tastes.

The fact of the matter is that overweight women seem to have a real, measurable, biological difference when it comes to reward-based decisions. Obese women seem to fair significantly worse at these tasks, and the differences in the striatum and cortex.

Perhaps this begins to describe why women so frequently describe their issues with overeating as being related to ‘loss of control ’- itˊs not as though someone has active volition in eating the entire bag of chocolate ho-hoˊs, but rather an inability to stop the action of seeking pleasure with a myopic view of future conseuqences. Putting on another two pounds in two weeks sometimes may seem like an awfully petty consequence for the taste of chocolate at that immediate time.

If you were capable of ‘just’ eating less than you wanted, using words like ‘addiction’ and ‘helplessness’ wouldn’t come up so frequently. This study demonstrates that indeed, many obese women may be reporting their behaviour perfectly accurately: it is absolutely a loss of control of action in the presence of rewarding stimulus that leads to overeating. It is also seated in a measurable difference in the brain.

Yeah, so that’s what I thought too. Maybe studying why fat tastes so good hasn’t been an entirely futile exercise

Horstmann, B., Mathar, Mu?ller, Lepsien, Schlögl,, Kabisch, K., Neumann, Stumvoll, Villringer, & Pleger. (2011). Obesity-related differences between women and men in brain structure and goal-directed behavior. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
Macdiarmid, J. I., Vail, A., Cade, J. E., & Blundell, J. E. (1998). The sugar-fat relationship revisited: differences in consumption between men and women of varying BMI. International Jountal of Obesity and Metabolic Disorders, 22(1), 1053-1061.
Tomelleri, R., & Grunewald, K. K. (1987). Menstrual cycle and food cravings in young college women. J Am Diet Assoc, 87(3), 311-315.

2 responses on “Men and Women Eat for Different Reasons

  1. Sable says:

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