Food cravings, or a strong desire to eat, are common for both men and women, but the similarities may end here. Women and men not only experience cravings differently, but they also have different hormones regulating their craving cues for various reasons.
If men do experience cravings, they tend to prefer savoury foods, especially under stressful conditions. Women report more cravings for sweet foods (e.g., chocolate, pastries, ice cream). Consistently, studies have shown that more than 92% of those who experience strong chocolate cravings are female.
Brain imaging suggests that women may be slightly more food-motivated than men, as imaging studies found that craving regions in female brains show a lot of activity when looking at food photos. The craving regions in male brains also light up, but not to the same degree. Research surveys show that half of men find cravings easy to ignore, compared to just one in five women.
In addition to neurological differences, there are hormonal explanations, too. Unlike men, women’s hormones fluctuate throughout the month. Hormones (testosterone in men; oestrogen and progesterone in women) and appetite are inextricably linked.
Women experience monthly variations in sex hormone levels across the menstrual cycle, whereas men do not have such cycles. The menstrual cycle is often described as having two primary stages based on ovarian changes: the follicular phase, when oestrogen is more prominent, and the luteal phase when progesterone is more prominent.
Image description: Women experience monthly variations in sex hormone levels across the menstrual cycle. During the follicular phase, the egg develops and increases the release of oestrogen (estradiol is the most common type in menstruating women). Ovulation is the release of the egg from the ovaries. During the luteal phase, when cravings are most common, oestrogen levels decrease, and progesterone levels increase. Progesterone is required to support the uterine lining if a pregnancy occurs. If the egg is not fertilized, menstruation (shedding the uterine lining) occurs, and the cycle continues.
Dips in oestrogen levels during the luteal phase and before menstruation are often correlated with increased food consumption and a preference for sweeter foods compared to women in the follicular phase. A meta-analysis of studies on female cravings and the menstrual cycle suggests that this difference amounts to ~238 additional calories per day during the luteal phase compared to the follicular phase, which could result in a yearly weight gain of up to 10 kg.
So, are you craving more sweets than usual?
This may be due to food triggers at the Christmas table, but it can also be a sign that you may be in your luteal phase.
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