Brain Scans Reveal What May Drive Obesity in Men, Women


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Obesity can stem from genetics, food and activity, and social and environmental inequities.

We also know from past research that brain structure and mental function are linked to being overweight or obese.

Now a new study has identified differences in the brain’s neural pathways that help explain differences in obesity among men and women.

“In women with obesity, changes in the brain tended to be centered on regions related to emotions, while in men with obesity, the changes tended to be found in regions that play a role in gut sensations, such as how hungry or full a person feels,” according to NBC News.

For this study, researchers from the Goodman-Luskin Microbiome Center at UCLA studied brain scans – along with participants’ reports of their behavioral and mental health, as well as mood, food habits, and childhood trauma – to find neurobehavioral features that could predict high body mass index (BMI) versus non-obese BMI in over 150 men and women.

Let’s analyze the results of the study, what they mean for how men and women perceive and eat food, and how this impacts Latinos.

Obesity Differences in Men and Women

UCLA Researchers identified multi-modal brain signatures in certain networks of the brain that suggest sex-specific cortical mechanisms underlying obesity.

In other words, the study found that emotion-related brain changes were more common in women and sensory-related changes were more common in men, according to NBC News.

Photo Courtesy of Brain Communications.

“While obesity in women appeared to be driven more by emotions and the reward of food, obesity in men appeared to be driven by the way they process feelings in the gut,” according to NBC News.

Researchers also identified higher childhood trauma and anxiety among women with high BMIs compared to women who had lower BMIs and men.

“The researchers compared all the data and found that … some of the changes were also associated with childhood adversity and mental health issues,” according to NBC News.

These findings highlight the importance influence of how a brain is structured.

“The brain patterns are part of the puzzle and show that the relationships with stress, environment, mood and early life experiences influence obesity and even that the gut has to be accounted for,” Arpana Gupta, study leader and director of the obesity program at the Goodman-Luskin Microbiome Center at UCLA, told NBC News. “We have to take this whole-body approach when helping individual patients with weight loss.”

Latinos and Obesity Risk

This is important for Latinos, who struggle with high rates of obesity.

Latino adults have higher obesity rates than their white peers (47% and 37.9%), the same with Latino children (20.7% and 11.7%).

There are several factors that contribute to high rates of obesity in Latinos, including health disparities like diabetes and a systemic lack of access to healthy and nutritious food.

Fast food restaurants and corner stores are easily accessible in in many Latino neighborhoods. These neighborhoods also have one-third fewer grocery stores and fewer farmer’s markets than non-Latino ones, according to a Salud America! research review.

Safe places to play are also more limited in Latino neighborhoods.

Latinos are also disproportionally impacted by a number of health problems related to brain health and obesity, such as Alzheimer’s.

“Latinos face a higher risk for some of our country’s most common health problems, including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, high blood pressure, stroke, Alzheimer’s and other dementias,” according to a Salud America! resource.

When looking at mental health, Latinos living in the US still experience disparities.

Over one third (37%) of Latino parents (US and foreign-born) have experienced a mental health disorder—depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, or PTSD—at some point in their lives.

College-age Latinos and Latino youth also face mental health struggles, which worsened with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new UCLA study on sex-specific obesity status warrants further data to contribute to better treatment and effective lifestyle interventions in relation to obesity.

“This has implications for the way we view food, the way we crave it and how that leads to altered eating patterns and, in turn, obesity,” Gupta told NBC News.

Latino Participation in Clinical Trials

With these health issues disproportionately impacting the Latino population, it’s imperative that Latinos participate in studies like the UCLA one on obesity.

While there can be stigmas behind participation, clinical trials can provide volunteers potentially life-saving treatments and help researchers learn how to manage and treat different diseases for their family and communities.

“Latinos who volunteer in clinical trials are helping themselves. And they’re also building a future with better treatments that can help their families in the years to come,” said Patricia Chalela, associate professor at Institute for Health Promotion Research at UT Health San Antonio.

Wanting to participate, but not sure where to start?

Find the right clinical trial opportunity with the Salud America! clinical trials webpage.

Browse through open clinical trials and find the one best fit for you or someone in your family!


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