You wouldn't think that going on a diet could be a cause of marital discord but it often is. When couples try to lose weight together, husbands tend to drop the weight a lot faster than the wives, bringing about resentment, more often than not. Well guys, guess what? It is not because of your steely resolve or your many trips to the gym or your superior genes that are entirely behind this great weight loss. It is possible that it just might be your brain.
It is hardly a secret that women and men lose, gain, and think about weight entirely differently. It is also not news that the body-fat-percentage by itself, with females naturally carrying an extra ladling of adipose tissue, gives the males a head start in the race to lose weight. However, a new study from the Brookhaven National Laboratory looked deeper into the primal ways in which we react to the very presence of food and our desire to eat it.
Dr. Gene-Jack Wang, a nuclear-medicine specialist, started by recruiting a group of 23 female and male volunteers, none of which were obese and all in generally good health, and instructed them to fast for approximately 17 hours. During that period of time, he and his team interviewed the participants about their favorite foods and also asked them about to rank each of the foods on a scale of 1-to-10. Then, the researchers selected one food for each of the subjects, the only requirement being that the food scored a seven or above in desirability. When the 17 hours were completed, the volunteers were then injected with a nuclear tracer and placed in a brain-imaging PET scanner and presented with the food that they craved.
Actually, they were more than just merely presented with the food. Wang stated, "If you said you liked barbecued ribs, we'd put a big portion of them in front of you. We'd warm them in a microwave first so you couldn't get away from the smell, and we'd give you a cotton ball with a bit of the food on it so you could taste it. Then we'd have one of the nurses describe how the food was made."
When a person that is hungry is hit with such multisensory stimuli, it is no surprise that the brain then starts screaming it is time to chow down, and the PET scan showed that it was screaming very loudly. Hunger and appetite are processed in several regions of the brain, most notably the orbital frontal cortex, which is linked to our self-control; the striatum, which is liked to our motivation; the hippocampus, which is linked to our memory; and the amygdale, which is linked to our powerful emotions. In all of Wang's subjects, all of these regions were ringing the dinner bell saying it was time to eat.
Wang then told the men and women to do what few mortal people could do, think about something else other than food. For the next 40 minutes, while the PET scanner hummed, the volunteers fought very hard to close their minds to the thoughts of the food in any way they could, though they were required to keep their eyes opened. Wang said that they tried to make it a real-life experience for the volunteers. It was kind of like being in a buffet line, only it lasts quite a bit longer.
When the volunteer's scans were studied and the results were tallied, it appeared that both of the sexes were actually able to lower the overall sensation of hunger. In most people, the brain may grow partially habituated to an empty stomach over time, and the volunteers in this study did a very good job of hastening that desensitization. However, it was shown that the women could not quit ruminating on food, successfully suppressing, if only just temporarily, the conscious desire to eat like the men could. The women in the study continued to experience emotional cravings even if their hunger has subsided.
Wang is still not certain what is behind the differences, though he suspects that hormones may play a significant role. From the results he did get a better sense of the areas of the brain those hormones effect most, owing to the facts that he used a long-running PET scan rather than a shorter session with a functional magnetic resonance imager (fMRI), which is usually how such studies are conducted. This afforded him a very good look at the amygdala, which is the deepest and most primitive of the involved brain structures. When the amygdale doesn't work correctly, it is exceedingly hard to bring it to heel, as anyone suffering for anxiety conditions such as phobias or obsessive-compulsive disorder could attest. The men in this study had some success disciplining their amygdales was an undeniable accomplishment, but it was one that required a lot of effort.
That, no doubt, is why even the most routine dieters, both female and male, so often fail, and eventually pounce on the plate of barbeque ribs. While that does nothing for your waistline or you cholesterol count, it may mean a brief peace in your marriage, that is until the next diet begins.