For Comfort Food, Is Gender Destiny?

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Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine want to know if gender affects our ability to put down the french fries and pick up an apple instead.


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A new study, designed by researcher Tomoko Udo, seeks to understand why women and men tend to react differently to food. Existing research has hinted at neurobiological similarities between addiction and compulsive eating, but Udo want to go deeper. She’s looking for evidence that women are more prone to addictive eating than men. Her work could have big implications for the obesity epidemic and beyond, experts say.

“To understand why women are more susceptible to emotional stress eating, we have to understand how they’re different from men,” said Udo, who holds a PhD in public health. “On the flip side, we need something to help men, because it’s their problem too.”

Participants in the study will be asked to choose between healthy foods like fresh fruits or nuts and unhealthy, processed foods like potato chips or cookies. They’ll be asked questions about their choice and may be given cash incentives to pick the healthier option.

“By understanding these basic behaviors and how they’re different between men and women, we might also inform research into other addictive behavior,” she said.

Working with senior researchers at Yale, Udo has designed a series of lab experiments that she hopes will show how hormones, mood and other factors influence a subject’s food choices. Udo is especially interested in two measurements: regulation of the appetite hormone ghrelin and changes in the subject’s heart rate.

Ghrelin levels usually spike with hunger and drop quickly once eating begins, but past research has shown that the hormone behaves differently in obese people. Udo hopes to learn if ghrelin levels affect food choices and cravings among study participants.

Monitoring the heart rates of research subjects, meanwhile, will give Udo information about their autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system controls the body’s involuntary activities like breathing, digestion and perspiration. She hope to learn how different foods affect those functions and if the results are different in obese people.

Udo’s work is part of Yale’s broader effort to understand how gender differences affect health and disease. Until federal rules changed the mid-1990s, clinical researchers were not required to include women in their trials. The studies that did include them seldom considered how gender influenced the results. Yale’s program — called Building Interdisciplinary Careers in Women’s Health — is designed to help correct that imbalance.

It provides mentorship and financial support for scientists like Udo who hope to build a career around gender-based research with the long-term goal of shifting how the scientific community views gender.

“A growing body of evidence confirms that women and men have different risk factors for disease and responses to treatment,” Dr. Carolyn M. Mazure, director of Women’s Health Research at Yale, said in an e-mail. “Research on gender differences in health and disease reveals how, where and when these differences should affect a course of treatment or prevention strategies.”

Udo’s project is one of four Mazure is overseeing as part of a $2.5 million grant designed to support the work of junior faculty members.

Formal research aside, the people on the front lines of the obesity epidemic see daily how men and women approach weight loss differently. Jill Tanner, a nurse practitioner at the Medi-Weightloss Clinic in Shelton, says women tend to have more complicated relationships with food.

“Women do more emotional eating and reward eating,” she said. “If they’re upset or stressed, they tend to go towards food.”

Female clients are more likely to skip appointments because of care giving responsibilities, and they have a harder time moving past a setback.

“Women, overall, need more nurturing, especially if they’ve had a gain,” Tanner said. “They really want to talk about it.”

Gender differences have also been an increasingly important topic for Weight Watchers, which maintains different websites for female and male members.

“There are a myriad of social, cultural and attitudinal differences in the way that the genders tend to be aware of, think about and react to excess weight,” Weight Watchers’ chief scientist Karen Miller-Kovach said in an e-mail. “Understanding the differences is important to develop the effective treatments.”

Miller-Kovach, author of “He Loses, She Loses: The Truth About Men, Women and Weight Loss,” says men and women even use different words to describe their goals. Men, she explained in an e-mail, “get in shape,” while women “diet.” Their strategies differ, too. Women view weight management as a lifelong struggle; men see it as a temporary problem.

Research like Udo’s is crucial, Miller-Kovach said, and especially as science uncovers more about the complex relationships between psychology and biology.

“Understand what is going on within the brain and body of a person with excess weight is and will continue to be the key to developing ever more effective treatments,” she said.


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