Are Women's Brains Hard-Wired to Have Trouble Resisting Temptation?

By Eliza Strickland | January 20, 2009 9:54 am

woman donutA small study suggests that men are better able to resist food cravings than women, which researchers say could partially explain why more women than men are obese, and why women are more prone to overeating when they’re under emotional stress. In a new brain-scan study, researchers flashed tasty food in front of men and women who hadn’t eaten anything in at least 17 hours. Both were told to fight their hunger, but only men showed a drop in activity in brain regions involved in emotion and motivation [CNN]. However, some researchers say that it’s risky to generalize based on a study with just 23 test subjects.

In the study, which will be published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers engaged their volunteers in a somewhat torturous experiment. They first surveyed the volunteers about their favorite foods: Did they favor pizza, chocolate cake, burgers, or fried chicken? Then they were asked to fast overnight. When they returned to the lab the next day, the subjects got PET brain scans while being subjected to a barrage of craving-inducing stimuli. They looked at pictures of their favorite food, smelled its aroma wafting in from the next room, and even tasted it with cotton swabs placed on their tongues.

The volunteers were given three brain scans: One without the food stimuli, one with the food but no instructions, and a third when they smelled and stared at the food but were told to suppress their desire for it. After the men were told to resist their cravings, there was far less activity in regions of the brain called the amygdala, hippocampus, orbitofrontal cortex and striatum. All of these have been linked by other studies to “emotional regulation” and memory activation – suggesting that the men were retrieving their memories of the desired food less – perhaps making them less affected by the thought of it [BBC News]. The women’s brain activity was about the same as when they weren’t trying to suppress their cravings.

Lead researcher Gene-Jack Wang says the findings may partially explain different dieting outcomes: “The decreased inhibitory control in women could underlie their lower success in losing weight while dieting when compared with men…. We have seen in clinical studies that men following a diet are able to lose about 10 per cent of their weight on average over a three-month period, whereas women manage a decrease of only about 5 per cent” [Telegraph], he says. Other researchers suggest that female dieters looking for a lesson in this study should try to minimize their exposure to temptation, by avoiding junk food aisles in the grocery store, for example, and not walking past the Dunkin’ Donuts shop.

Related Content:
80beats: For Obese Women, a Milkshake Brings Less Pleasure to the Brain
DISCOVER: Is Overeating an Addiction?
DISCOVER: The Biology of Appetite

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain
  • Nick Jordan

    Now if only this were true for sex . . .

  • CW


  • nick

    Re: Nick. Yes, yes, yes!

  • Sundance

    How do you know it isn’t true of sex – or at least flirtation? If so it may partly explain why more women than men seem inclined to experiment with bisexuality (i.e. once the risk of getting pregnant is removed from the equation.)

  • Bystander

    A little discipline and self control is the great equalizer??

  • Bob Snyder

    Sundance… the experiment used the favorite foods of the individuals. Moreover, the parts of the brain that showed less activity were linked in other studies with memory activation. Your analogy uses “temptation to experiment” with sexual endeavors but this is not consistent with the study above. If the study were about temptation of experimenting, they wouldn’t have wafted the smells of the subjects favorite foods and it wouldn’t have used the pictures of those foods, etc. They would have used new foods. So instead of experimentation, it might help explain if a study were to show that women had a tendency to cheat on their significant others more than men. However, the study would have to control for age of sexual peak among many other factors which could contribute to such a phenomenon. Do i think this is the case? No, I’m just clarifying the correct analogy. This is all conjecture at this point anyway because a sample of n=23 is hardly qualified to be extrapolated to an entire population, there are just way too many errors or biases that could exist.

  • Sundance

    Bob: Yes I’m aware of the differences you pointed out between “temptation to re-indulge” and “temptation to experiment”. I was however responding to earlier comments which seemed to dismiss out-of-hand the idea that women succumb to sexual temptation more readily than men. Rather than jumping to a conclusion, the proper thing to do is propose a hypothesis (which I did, kinda) and then design an experiment (which you did, kinda), and look at the data determine if the hypothesis is falsified or not.

    Just as the described experiment involved asking the subjects about their favourite food, and then showing them pictures of it, perhaps one could conduct an experiment in which the subjects are asked to describe their favourite sexual fantasy, and then watched appropriately-themed porn.

    Of course, one could certainly question the value of such research… :-)

  • Bob Snyder

    lol, I’m not sure what value it would have but no matter the outcome, it would inevitably end up being ammunition in the ever-continuing gender war.

  • noureddine

    is just a point in nonstoplooking to build family

  • Chubbee

    noureddine, what language do you normally speak? Something is getting lost in translation.

  • qbsmd

    How could they have controlled for sample bias? I would think that only people with above average temptation resisting abilities would agree to go 17 hours without food for the experiment in the first place.

  • http://- Phil Doran

    If the Serpent had offered the apple to Adam it might have saved a lot of trouble!

  • Andrea

    Seems to me this may be a case of nurture, not nature. In the article, it says the regions of the brain with less activity in the male participants have been linked by other studies to “emotional regulation.” Men in our society are conditioned to not let their emotions show – “be a man”, “real men don’t cry”, etc. whereas women expressing emotion is more accepted. I wonder if this has anything to do with the results?


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