The gender fat gap: Scientists find sex-specific brain signals that fuel obesity — with women more likely to indulge when they’re sad and men more likely to binge-eat
Scientists have found sex-specific brain signals that fuel obesity — and it could open the door to ‘his and hers’ weight-loss pills.
They found obese women are driven more by comfort eating and cravings compared to obese men, who are more likely to be binge-eaters who eat lots of calories in one sitting.
Researchers in California asked 183 participants, who had varying BMI levels, to fill out questionnaires and undergo a series of brain MRI scans.
They discovered changes in parts of the brain network connectivity of people who had a higher BMI across both genders.
Obese women were more likely to have brain changes in emotion-linked areas, while obese men were more likely to have alterations in relation to gut sensations (stock image)
However in women they identified certain regions and networks linked with early life trauma – consistent with previous studies that found females with obesity may have greater anxiety than obese men.
Females may be more susceptible to the sight, smell and taste of ultra-processed foods, the study found, with an increased risk of developing cravings and food addiction.
The findings back up previous research, carried out by the same team, that revealed emotional eating and compulsive eating played a major role in obesity in women, but that men’s eating behaviour tends to be affected by a greater awareness of gut sensations.
Around four in 10 adults are obese in the US, and nearly a quarter are too fat in the UK, with men slightly more likely to be overweight.
Writing in the journal Brain Communications, the team said: ‘To our knowledge, this is one of the few studies demonstrating an association between sex differences in brain signatures in individuals with high BMI.
‘Alterations in these networks suggest that compared to men, women with high BMI have greater vulnerability to develop hypersensitivity and salience to highly palatable foods, and increased alterations in ingestive behaviours such as food cravings and food addiction.
‘Our findings shed light on the importance of personalised treatments for obesity that consider the sex of the affected individual.’
The latest study, led by scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), recruited 42 men and 62 women who were a healthy weight and 23 men and 55 women who were either overweight or obese. All were aged 18 to 55 years old.
Each was questioned on their behavior and mental health, including childhood trauma, food addiction and any bouts of anxiety or depression.
They then also underwent three MRI scans to assess the structure, function and connectivity in their brain.
For obese women, results showed alterations in the areas linked to early life trauma — consistent with previous studies that found females with obesity may have greater anxiety than obese men.
The scientists also found that these women may be more susceptible to the sight, smell and taste of ultra-processed food.
This could drive over-eating and give them a higher risk of food cravings, they warned.
Learning how to target the different areas in the brain responsible for cravings in men and women could lead to sex-specific drugs, the researchers said.