Study probes gender and self-control

Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine are exploring how gender affects eating habits and self-control.

While an existing body of research suggests that women may struggle more with self-control when it comes to overeating, a study led by associate research scientist in psychiatry Tomoko Udo seeks a more precise understanding of the behavioral and biological differences between men and women. The research is part of a larger $2.5 million project at Yale to uncover gender differences in risk factors for disease, responses to given treatments and gender-specific prevention strategies.

In the ongoing study, subjects choose between healthy foods and processed foods and then answer a series of questions about their decisions. Udo also monitors the heart rate and hormonal levels of each participant in order to learn more about gender differences in physiological responses to food choices. Udo said that our understanding about the processes that enhance or disrupt self-control is limited at present, so she hopes that her study will help inform people on how to improve their ability to exercise discipline.

It is an open question whether men and women express differences in self-control, said Lucy Faulconbridge, who is the director of research at the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

“Potentially, it is conceivable that there could be differences in self control for obese versus lean people,” she said. “And obviously men and women have different brains.”

While Udo’s study focuses more on biological factors that lead to overeating than on psychological ones, she said that social pressures can affect the way women view and react to food. Women are both more likely to be self-conscious about their bodies and to seek treatment for obesity than their male counterparts, she said.

Both men and women struggle more with self-control and impulsiveness when they are stressed, said the head of the Yale Stress Center’s weight management program Matthew Stults-Kolehmainen. He and his colleagues teach mindfulness skills in order to help overweight individuals manage their reactions to stress, which he said differ in men and women.

“There is evidence that women experience stress differently from men,” Stults-Kolehmainen said. “If women manage stress differently, they may approach self control differently.”

The $2.5 million grant supports the critical need for research to uncover and understand the differences between men and women, Director of Women’s Health Research at Yale Carolyn Mazure told the News in an email, adding that understanding gender differences can help tailor medical care to each gender to improve outcomes and efficiency.

Udo said that she has conducted approximately half of the data collection necessary to complete her study.

Udo is one of four Yale Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health (BIRCWH) scholars, funded by the National Institutes of Health.

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