As though women didn’t have it hard enough when it comes to weight management, between stress and hormones, research out of Michigan State University suggests a woman’s brain may be biologically hardwired to overeat.
Using a rat model, MSU researchers began a binge-eating experiment, feeding and observing 30 female and 30 male rats over a two-week period. Rodents were periodically given vanilla-frosted food pellets. The study established gender differences in rates of binge eating, finding female rats were six time more likely to gorge in comparison to their male counterparts.
MSU examiners are continuing their research, testing the rats to see if female brains are more sensitive and responsive to rewarding stimuli such as food high in fat and sugar, and if chemicals trigger reward behavior.
Psychology Professor Kelly Klump, co-authored the paper, published online in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, with Cheryl Sisk, psychology professor, and graduate students Sarah Racine and Britny Hildebrandt.
Binge eating is a pattern of disordered eating which consists of episodes of uncontrollable eating. In some cases, a symptom of binge eating disorder (BED) or compulsive overeating disorder involves purging (bulimia).
During binges, a person rapidly consumes an excessive amount of food. Thereafter many try to hide this behavior from others, and often feel ashamed about being overweight or depressed by their chaotic behavior. Symptom of an eating disorder often stems from underlying stress and depression.
Based on the terms of this study, the tendency to binge eat is likely related to the brain’s natural reward system, according to Klump. Certain neural structures compose the reward system of the brain, which are critically involved in mediating the effects of positive reinforcement.
A reward, such as an appetitive stimulus, is given to alter behavior. Rewards typically serve as reinforcers or something that, when presented after a behavior, triggers the probability of that behavior’s reoccurrence. There are primary reinforcers – stimulus necessary for survival such as food or sexual contact, and secondary reinforcers – such as money, which in turn can be used to attain primary needs.
Women are up to 10 times more likely than men to have an eating disorder, an abnormal eating habit involving either insufficient or excessive quantities of food – detrimentally impacting the physical and mental health of the sufferer. Statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health states one in five young women have demonstrated behaviors indicative of binge-eating. Women account for about 60 percent of sufferers with a binge-eating disorder.
The results of the study suggest it is not just cultural pressures that are to blame for eating disorders, given the rats were not subjected to psychological pressure or shame. Essentially, women may be biologically preprogrammed to be more vulnerable to the psychological and emotional influence of their reward response.
Hence it’s not just the prevalence of societal pressure to unrealistically appear superficially perfect contributing to an increase of disorders like anorexia (anorexia nervosa) and bulimia (bulimia nervosa). Though in recent years there has been an upsurge of the aforementioned disorders among men.
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by immoderate food restriction, an irrational fear of gaining weight, and an obsessive distorted self-perception of one’s appearance. At times the condition can be so extreme it can lead to death.
Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by binge eating and purging, or consuming a large amount of food in a short amount of time followed by an attempt to rid oneself of the food consumed (purging), typically by vomiting, taking a laxative or diuretic, and or through excessive exercise, because of a compulsive concern over body weight.
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