Monday, February 2, 2009

On Resisting Temptation

As if men did not already have enough advantages in the world, here’s the latest.

Researchers at the Brookhaven National Laboratory were trying to figure out why some people overeat and gain weight and others don’t. So they made a bunch of study participants fast overnight, exposed them to their favorite foods and did brain scans.

Women’s brains went wild. All sorts of brainwaves dancing like it was a disco. Men's brains? Not so much.

The conclusion: Faced with their favorite foods, women are less likely to resist temptation than men. Researchers think this may expain the higher obesity rate among women.

The researchers speculated that the reason women’s brains are hardwired to overeat is linked to the traditional role of supplying nutrition to the young. Translation: Hormones. Big surprise.

I read this on the Internet with a stack of Stella D'oro cookies next to me. The small, butter cookies with the chocolate top. I devoured them in support of the study, because both the utter unfairness and the reality of it rang true.

There are certain foods that I know I can’t defeat. When willpower just doesn’t stand a chance. Pizza, for instance. I must eat four slices. Every time. No matter what size the pie. Lasagna: I won’t stop eating until it’s gone. Any form of potato – which is why I often serve rice. And any dessert with a crumbly cinnamon top.

So what do you think? Is this study just more anti-female propaganda or does it ring true? And what’s your own unconquerable temptation?


HALLIE: Patooey. To use the technical term. Although I can see why it makes Darwinian sense for females to pack on the calories and fat in anticipation of famine... but we don't get famine any longer, we just get poverty with endless nights of beans and spaghetti for dinner.

Personally, I am so not hardwired to overeat. I'm full, I stop. And most foods are relatively easy for me to pass up. Exceptions? Any kind of shellfish. Sweet potato fries. Almonds. Aren't those the three main food groups?

HANK: I think the three main food groups are coffee, cheese, and hmmm. I agree, Hallie. Almonds.

And I think, actually, that women have MORE willpower. Couldn't those statistics just as easily be explained as women "seeing a problem and solving it?" Preventing it from happening again? Seizing the moment? Planning for the next time some weird researcher decides to starve them?

My temptations? The fragrance of those Cinnabons--about a million calories each. And yet, I've never tasted one. Take that, researchers. (Although when we were kids our favorite thing was white breed toast with butter and cinnamon sugar.) Now, I'm more tempted by crispy potato pancakes with sour cream and caviar. Street pizza, with crispy crust goooey gooey gooey stretchy cheese. French bread with sweet butter.

RO: I agree with my esteemed colleague, Dr. Ephron - Patooey. Men's bodies generally have more muscle mass and muscle burns fat. Fat doesn't burn fat. Men are just as tempted by food as women there's simply less evidence of it, which can be interpreted any number of ways.
And I've watched my husband plow through a sandbag sized bag of (can't be very tasty, Wal-Mart) peanuts while watching a football game, so I believe they too have the "eat it 'til it's gone" chip.

If anything's unfair it's that my husband will always have a lower percentage of bodyfat than I do even though he has a three course dessert every night, usually after three full meals and his customary 6:00pm glass of single malt scotch while I'm trying to pretend that water is interesting.Bitter? I'm not bitter.

Unconquerable temptation? Champagne. Unopened bottles are safe. If it's opened, it's gone. And peanut butter. PB can sit in my pantry, untouched, for years, but once that foil is pulled back, spoonful by spoonful, it will find its way to my hips. No bread or jelly needed.

RHYS: I have never been a big eater and there are only a couple of foods that I can't resist and can't stop eating once I've started: salt and vinegar potato chips qualify, as do After 8 mints, cookies called Jaffa Cakes, oh and See's Candies but all in all I'm disciplined about food. As a child

I used to make my Easter eggs last until my birthday in September, biting off just a tiny piece each day. Okay, so I'm strange. My brother would devour all ten huge eggs the first day and then want some of mine. Interestingly enough he has battled weight problems all his life, and I have remained skinny.

HALLIE: Oh, Rhys, I'm a sucker for After 8's, too, and I can make a pint of Haagen-Daaz rum raisin ice cream last weeks...just nibble or two after dinner. I buy it because it's the only flavor my husband can't abide.

JAN: Hallie, I think the reason the rum raison ice cream lasts for weeks is the same reason your husband can't abide it. The raisins -- they don't belong in ice-cream!!! But that's a whole other controversy. Let's stick to this study, and whether it's got any merit: Do you think women have more trouble resisting their favorite foods?? And what are your own demons?

Don't forget to check out Jungle Red on Wednesday when I'll be interviewing cybercrime experts Felicia Donovan and Kristyn Bernier about the dark side of the Internet.


  1. Darn it, somehow my answer got deleted off this post! First I wanted to say that I love Hallie's technical jargon:).

    But I'd also like to see the statistics that say there are more heavy women than men in the world. Seems like I see plenty of big bellies around...

    My weakness is salty, spicy hors d'oeuvres, like the amazing cheese ball rolled in pecans and spread on spicy, salty bagel chips that we served at a mini-superbowl party last night:). The only way I can not overeat that kind of food is not to bring it into the house. I could let a container of ice cream sit in the freezer until it was coated in ice crystals!

    It may be that women are primed to react to emotions by eating more, and yes, there may be some vestiges of hormonal reactions there too, but I think a lot of it is habit and nature.

  2. I cling to the theory that humans are programmed genetically to eat as much as possible when food appears, assuming that famine will follow shortly.

    Cookies. I hear cookies calling me. And, yes, my husband eats as much if not more than I do, and he does not gain weight (but I have to hide desserts from him, if I want to have any).

  3. Brookhaven, you need to reassess your findings. Men's favorite foods? Beer and pizza. They get a steady diet of it. Of course their brains react by scanning, "Ho hum." Women are more cultured with defining tastes. Our favorite foods are special treats and we are wired to appreciate such gifts.

    Well, that's my story and I'm sticking to it! Food demons? Fresh, hot bread straight from the oven. And lobster tail dripping in REAL butter. Oh. Chocolate covered almonds. I can graze through a box of those without blinking.

  4. I'm with you on the food temptation, especially sweets, for many women. But I wonder about alcohol? I'm wondering if alcohol is more of a temptation for men, especially if you look at the DUI and AA membership statistics. I wonder if it's the same temptation factor, just different "poisons"? The old saying, "candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker" comes to mind.

  5. Penny,
    I like your theory!

    Sheila, the thing that makes me crazy about my husband, is that I won't even be THINKING about cookies until he goes and gets the bag out. But nothing ever sticks to him.

  6. The candy vs. liquor debate is interesting. Both are, or become, carbs when you metabolize them. And former alcoholics are generally big candy eaters.
    I can't resist nuts although they almost always give me stomach pains if I eat too many! Hubby can't stop with anything sweet or things like chips. He will eat till it's gone.

  7. Oh, there are these new vegetable chips...taro, and carrot, and sweet potato and whole green beans. I'm addicted.


    And I go through phases...years agok I went through about six months of eating only baked potatoes wtih sour cream and broccoli for dinner. I CRAVED that. I used to think about it during the day at work.
    And then suddenly, poof. Yuck.

    Then I started on Lean Cuisine lasagna. I could not wait to get home to have it. Then after a few months, it was over.

    It happened with bagels,too, toasted sesame bagels with sugar-free strawberry jam. NOw I can't even look at one.

    Penny, don't forget to send me your address!

  8. Hank, I sent it to you last night from the contact page on your site. You might check your spam box. I have an HTML signature that sometimes freaks out spam filters. Oh, and a suggestion for your cravings - Rosemary and Olive Oil Triscuits. With cheese. Or spinach dip. Onion dip is good, too. *wanders off to find the box*

  9. Sometimes I think we're either sweets persons or fats persons. I love my dark chocolate, but I can stop after a piece. Give me anything with a high fat content, though, especially cheese, and I have a hard-time limiting.

    And Hank, I tried those vegetable chips - but thought they had a remarkable amount of calories, considering.... maybe I had the wrong brand.

  10. Lemon Coolers are the only thing I can't seem to resist. There used to be more things (Godiva chocolates), and then I got sick and was nauseated a long time, and with wellness came the ability to turn cravings off like a light switch.

    Even my sweet tooth is affected. I can get a beautiful five-star dessert and only eat half, or a third, and not regret the un-et portion on the plate.

    I've got a pint of Ben & Jerry's Chubby Hubby sitting in the freezer that's been there awhile. Back in the day, oh man, I could have so gone at that whole pint and not looked up until the spoon touched bottom.

  11. Okay, Jan, now I'm worried. They're not really chips, they're like whole green beans, and slices of carrot and sticks of taro.

    (Does this sound like I'm hanging on to faint hope?)


    Mags Mentionables

    Please email Hank via
    click on contact
    and send me your address!

    (If you don't hear back from me instantly, leave a comment here and we'll connect somehow..
    it just means you were caught in the spam filter.)

  13. I thought I'd assist in providing a male point of view and hence, balance to the conversation.

    First let me say this - science is ALL stories and opinion based on phenomena and is not absolute or fact in any sense - except that actions and results - cause and effect - have been correlated in relation to what has been observed. They have been correlated such that in a reasonable sense there is a good degree of predictability.

    Now, given that context, it would seem that the female metabolism and indeed their whole way of processing life is somewhat different than the male. The female focus is different, if you will. Why should the metabolisms of male and female be the same.

    What I have noticed personally is that the human female has what I would call a fat based metabolism. They process, store and utilize fats very well for energy and hormone production. Therefore, I would assume that fat based foods would be natural enticers.

    That said, different people have different metabolisms because as we enter this life plane on Earth we enter to address various unresolved issues. Some need to handle the temple of the body among other things. What they look like and are comfortable with, for instance. Or, what true beauty really represents.

    The most startling thing I ever read was that the kind of carbohydrates in beer are very easily stored in the male omentum layer of fat that closes the top surface of the abdominal cavity, noted as the belly. Hence, the name beer belly. AND, I can tell you it is absolutely true for me. At one point I found myself drinking a lot of beer at business dinner meetings etc. and Lo - where did it go... that wonderfully efficient storage machine put it right where it could protect my vitals - small intestine, large intestine, stomach, pancreas, gall bladder etc. Then my wife noted one morning... ummmm... honey what is this... as she patted my belly.

    I can't say I crave beer, but I do brew it and really, really enjoy well brewed micro brews.

    However, the discipline that Susannah C, has noted kicks in and I say - I can do without that! Keeps my tummy flat!!!

    Food cravings can be both good and bad. However, sometimes it takes discernment to tell whether it will assist or degenerate the body. Thats really the trick. A craving can be a sign of a deficiency as well as a sign of allergy, for instance. Sometimes your body naturally needs certain nutrition. Broccoli-very high in vit A, C and is cruciferous vegetable, along with cauliflower, brussel sprouts. These in some studies are anti-cancerous. Sweet potatoes - very high in A, and literally sweet. My point being that what foods we crave sometimes may actually be assistive to our health.

    And Kathryn - I have seen studies that infer that alcoholism is related to b vitamins and the way the alcoholic body metabolizes them. This also relates to pancreatic function and insulin production. This is the reason drinkers are prone to pancreatitus or an inflammed pancrease... its relation to insulin production... not to mention its effect on digestive enzymes... following the nutritional dots in all these cases can lead to at least the rudiments of a solution. Of course the next biggest element is the head and where's it at.

    The theory proposed here is as far fetched as genetics is. Oh, yeah - it's in my genes... did any one ever consider that families tend to eat the same kinds of food? And, has anyone ever looked at the fact that particular food groups eaten by certain families may not support that genotype, overall? And, as a result produce less than optimum health for memebers of that family. Yes, it may be in the genes but not as a karmic deficit. Nutrition is the root.

    hmmm.... genetics... hmmm... female vs. male and predispositions.. hmmm.

    All very thin "scientific" ground...

    So... I'm with Roberta "I think a lot of it is habit and nature."

    Wow! I cuda said all that in
    one sentence...:-)!


  14. Bread -- any kind -- and butter, lots of it. I could live just that for years and be fine about it. (Okay, toss in a pizza now and then, but that's bread, too, right?)

  15. Lorna,
    I'm with you on bread and butter. As long as it's fresh bread, not the bagged stuff (unless its rye, I'll eat any kind of rye bread.)

    The vegetable chips I'm thinking of are definitely fried chips made with some sort of vegetable flour. Not slices, so I think whatever you are eating is okay.

    And Mike,
    Thanks for the male perspective. Although I agree that habit has a HUGE role, I also think a lot is built in. I never thought of taste buds being a genetic thing until my daughter was born. Up until then, the only person I knew who loved to eat lemons was my husband. At about two, she reached for one and devoured it. I watched her, completely stunned. Like my husband, she also ate all her vegetables first. So I think we definitely come here with our own nutritional agenda.

    But I also think that a lot of people, mostly women, get messed up really early by the diets themselves. I think they separate eating from its purpose - and start a boom and bust cycle.

    But back to the study, I like Hank's interpretation. Maybe the women's brain waves responded more to food after a fast -- because we're just problem solvers. Not overeaters!

  16. Jan - I would not disagree with anything you said! - The comment about habit and nature - the "nature" part for me is all of it - genotype, life lessons etc.

    The great thing about kids is that they eat uncensored. Eating is not about anything except what they are "attracted to at some level". With your daughter she needed that citric acid and probably the lemon bioflavonoids and oils - so her buds were tuned. That's exactly what I mean about genes. Genes don't define or confine you - they express you. So... if you nourish yourself properly in alignment with your genotype - you can avoid many ills. That's what I meant by Karmic deficit. Many people treat genes like a sentence in life. Whereas, it's what you do with that info that makes your life and health sparkle.

    That is very, very interesting about the parallel between your husband and daughter. Thanks for sharing that and adding to my info poole.

    By the way one of the better books on personalized nutrition is:

    "Eat Right for Your Type" D'Adamo & Whitney. It uses blood type as the guide.

  17. I'm certainly glad I was eating an apple while I read this. Good lord, girls!

    Three food groups: Coffee, cheese, and chocolate.

  18. Yes, Kira. Coffee, cheese, and then crunchy something.

    **Hey--free books!** If you entered last's weeks contests from Jordan Dane and Wendy Burt Thomas, check the comments for this blog and Fridays. Some books are already in the mail to lucky Jungle Redders,, but I'm still waiting to hear from a few winners.

    Last call! We'll wait a couple more days.. then pick again.

  19. "Even though the women said they were less hungry when trying to inhibit their response to the food, their brains were still firing away in the regions that control the drive to eat," Wang said. (Okay, I give up, I have no idea how to punctuate that.)

    I think "hunger" is a very, very subjective thing. The implication is that the women were lying? I think the whole study sounds a little sketchy.

    As for me, I weaken immediately when I'm confronted with any sort of cheese. And butter is my very favorite kind of cheese!

  20. Laura,

    Butter is cheese??

    Well, that explains everything.