Weekend Pleasure

Are Women More Sensitive to the Pleasure of Food?

We eat for many reasons, and one of those reasons is pleasure. Beautiful, appetizing food beckons us, even when we’re not physically hungry. Researchers label those qualities of food as hedonics. Food marketers know that these are the qualities that sell their products. And now, neuroscience suggests that women may be more sensitive than men to visual cues for the pleasure of food.

A Small Study of Brain Responses to Hedonic Food

Kristina Legget and colleagues used functional MRI scans to measure responses to visual food cues in a sample of 56 men and women. They tested when people were fed and when they had fasted. The cues they tested included both hedonic foods and neutral foods.

And what they found were significantly greater responses to the hedonic foods in women than men when they had fasted. The differences showed up in the response of two regions of the brain that process rewards – the nucleus accumbens and the insula.

Differences in Brain Function to Explain Differences in Behaviors

Differences between men and women in how they relate to food and weight and health are nothing new. But what is new in this study is an understanding that these differences may be rooted in how our brains function. This study brings some important clues to how men and women are responding differently to our food environment.

Explaining the significance of this study, Legget says:

This study is the first to investigate whether sex-based differences in neuronal responses to food cues vary based on hedonic properties of foods. This is also the first study to determine whether sex-based differences in neuronal responses to food cues vary based on the propensity to obesity. We included both obesity-prone and obesity-resistant study groups.

The pleasurable properties of food are an important reason for eating. We now have a food supply abundant with pleasurable foods. Food marketers know that the promise of good taste wins over everything else when people are choosing what to buy. It brings people back for more.

So if we want to understand how our food supply is promoting obesity, we need to understand how our brains process the pleasurable qualities of food. This study offers a helpful piece of the puzzle.

Click here for the study and here for more on the study from Helio. For more on hedonic responses to food, click here, here, and here.

Weekend Pleasure, photograph © Nicola Holtkamp / flickr

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January 27, 2018