Study Looks at Gender Differences in Addictive Eating

Article excerpt

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.

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 wants 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 doctorate 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 more healthful foods like fresh fruits or nuts and processed "junk" foods like potato chips or cookies. They'll be asked questions about their choice and may be given cash incentives to pick the more healthful 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 such as 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 in 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. …