Brain study shows why women are more prone to eating disorders

By Rebecca Burton • Published: January 31st, 2017
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

In the U.S., nearly 30 million people have an eating disorder, and about 20 million of them are women, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Why are these disorders more prevalent among women? The answer lies in the way their brains are wired.

According to a small study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, women are more at risk than men for brain activity related to a negative body image. This negative perception of body image among women has long been attributed to social pressures. However, previous research shows that patients with anorexia actually perceive themselves as bigger than they are in reality.

This study examined the neurological responses in the brain that are responsible for this overestimation of body size. The team measured the height and weight of 16 male and 16 female healthy individuals, none of whom had a history of eating disorders. The participants were given virtual reality headsets. When they looked through the eyepiece, they saw a body that looked like theirs, but either really slim or obese. While the video was playing, the research team poked the participants’ bellies with a stick to enhance the effect.

Each participant had his or her brain activity monitored using an MRI. When obese bodies were shown, there was a direct link between the parietal lobe, or area of the brain associated with body perception, and the anterior cingulate cortex, the area that processes negative emotions such as fear and anger. This link was more prominent in women than men.

While researchers couldn’t say why women are more prone to eating disorders and negative body image, they showed that a large part of the problem resides in the brain itself.