The idea of women’s loving sweets has become a cultural cliché reminiscent of an old Cathy comic strip, but I’ll confess to not being able to stop my sugar cravings. In my kitchen right now, you’ll find three boxes of Girl Scout cookies, brownies, caramel popcorn, and chocolate-covered almonds. (The two-pound bar of chocolate is on my desk at work.) I’ve also been known to eat ice cream for dinner on occasion.
Most men, on the other hand, claim that they’d rather snack on a bag of potato chips than a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. We might think of it as a worn-out trope, but it turns out that the stereotype of women’s loving candy has some basis in real life, because studies have begun to show that having a sweet tooth really is a girl thing.
An Estrogen Connection?
In 2004, a pair of psychologists at Florida State University studied rats that were fed either a standard diet or a sweetened version of the same food. The rats eating the sweetened food ate more calories than those eating the standard diet did, with the female rats eating the most. They consumed 35 percent more calories than the male rats, which ate only 10 to 15 percent more than usual. The researchers allowed some of the rats to exercise, and those rats did cut back on their calorie consumption, but the female rats cut back far less than the male rats did. This led the researchers to theorize that although both sexes have an innate preference for high-calorie, high-sugar foods, females’ preference is more pronounced.
Rats aside, human females report having cravings for sweets more often than men do. If those cravings have a biological basis, there are a few reasons why women would benefit from calorie-rich food. They need to maintain a certain percentage of body fat (about 17 percent) in order to sustain a pregnancy, so an innate preference for sweets would be an efficient way to pack on the pounds that keep the menstrual cycle in action. It’s also possible that women’s elevated estrogen levels during the cycle are what cause the cravings. A few studies have shown a correlation between higher levels of estrogen in the body and people’s increased cravings for sweets, but the evidence is not always clear. Some women claim to desire sweets more during their monthly periods, while others report doing so in conjunction with premenstrual syndrome or at other times during the month. Since hormones fluctuate constantly, many researchers feel that there’s more at play than just estrogen.
C’mon, Get Carb-Happy
Besides increasing fat reserves, consumption of carbohydrates (in the form of sugar) has one other major consequence: increased levels of serotonin in the brain. The human body needs carbohydrates to properly manufacture this neurotransmitter, which helps regulate sleep and mood. Women naturally have lower levels of serotonin in their brains than men do, which could account for their desire to eat sweet, sugary foods, since eating carbs leads to feeling happier. This theory would also explain why so many “comfort foods” consist of starches, breads, candies, and sweets. Women also tend to suffer from depression and anxiety in greater numbers than men do, and these afflictions may lead them to self-medicate with food—although it’s certainly easier (and healthier) to elevate serotonin levels naturally, via exercise or exposure to sunlight, than it is to eat a tub of Chubby Hubby.
Human beings naturally gravitate toward sweeter foods, but our tastes are also shaped by our culture and upbringing. Studies of binge eaters have shown that much of what we crave as adults is cemented when we’re children: kids who grow up eating candy and sugar are much more likely to turn into adults who eat candy and sugar. Adults who crave foods besides sweets often report that they preferred those types of foods as children as well. Humans make emotional bonds with food, and many people try to re-create happy moments with the foods from their childhoods, whether they be cookies, macaroni and cheese, pizza, French onion dip, or Snickers bars.
Of course, not all women prefer sweet snacks, just as not all men prefer salty or meaty ones. When my boyfriend returned from Japan with an armful of Cadbury bars for me, he also brought a bag full of Kit Kats, Pocky, and caramels for himself. For anyone with a sweet tooth, the challenge is to indulge without overeating and putting yourself at risk for obesity and other health problems. The downside to having a serious sweet tooth might be that I’m always fighting the battle of cookies versus carrots, but the definite upside is that it’s easy to buy me a birthday present by simply popping into an airport’s duty-free store.