Washington - You're not imagining it: There really are differences between the way men and women diet, lose weight and respond to exercise.
Some of the differences stem from biology; other differences are behavioural. But though many of these seem to give men a head start, they shouldn't be taken to imply that guys have it easy. No matter who you are or where you're starting, the road to your ideal weight is difficult at best, and confusing for most.
But the information that researchers are unearthing about the differences in the way that men and women lose weight inspires hope that the next generation of weight-loss advice will be more tailored and effective than the generic tips that have gotten Americans no closer to sliding into their dream jeans. (More than a quarter of Americans are obese, according to a May Gallup poll, a number that has been ticking upward for years). Although experts have long insisted that losing weight is simply a matter of burning more calories than you consume, they now say that it's much more complicated than that.
First, there is the matter of muscles and metabolism. Men tend to have more muscle than women, and because muscle burns more calories than fat, men tend to have a faster metabolism, too - anywhere between 3 to 10 percent higher than women, studies have shown.
And at the gym, that difference just gets exacerbated. Women, worried about bulking up, tend to lift lighter weights and focus more on cardiovascular fitness, while men tend to gravitate toward the kind of heavy lifting that boosts muscle composition and metabolic rate, says Jim White, a Virginia Beach-based nutrition expert and certified personal trainer.
When it comes to food, there is evidence that men and women's brains are wired differently. In a study published in the January 2009 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, even though women said they weren't hungry when asked to smell, taste and observe treats such as pizza, cinnamon buns and chocolate cake, brain scans showed activity in the regions that control the drive to eat (not the case for men).
Then, there's biochemistry. In women, ghrelin - the “I'm hungry” hormone - spikes after a workout, while leptin - which tells the brain 'I'm full!' - plummets, according to a 2009 study in the American Journal of Physiology - Regulatory, Integral and Comparable Physiology. Not so in men. So post-workout, women tend to eat more, which puts them at risk to gain weight. Men don't experience this same hormonal fluctuation.
Researchers speculate that this is basically a Darwinian issue, in that it's the female body's natural way of fighting energy deficits in order to preserve fertility and perpetuate the species. When women aren't getting enough calories, ovulation and hormones that make reproduction possible get suppressed.
But there's more than just biology at work here. A motley complex of emotional and behavioural issues have a powerful impact on the way men and women approach weight loss.
Cynthia Sass, a registered dietitian and co-author of “The Flat Belly Diet!,” says she has seen many women gain weight as soon as they get into a relationship with men because they start eating as much and as often as their male partners. “That turns out to be too much,” she says.
And then there's the question of what drives men and women to eat: hunger for food, or some more profound craving. A 2013 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition established that women are more commonly emotional eaters than men.
And some emotional eaters, in an effort to feel better, are prone to reach for foods that will ignite the reward centre of the brain, which tend to be the sugary, fatty, salty, hyper-palatable foods that can lead to weight gain, says Pamela Peeke, author of the “The Hunger Fix: The Three-Stage Detox and Recovery Plan for Overeating and Food Addiction.”
“They're not bingeing on arugula,” says Peeke, who is an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland. But a sugar high is short-lived, of course. Shame quickly floods in as food wrappers pile up.
Both men and women are prone to an all-or-nothing approach to weight loss (for example, after a binge, figuring, “Well, I blew it. I might as well go all out!”). But Sass says she sees more women take extreme measures to get back on track, with tactics such as juice cleanses, skipping meals or extreme dieting - not the most sustainable methods. “Most but not all men tend to just try to get back on track with the original plan, or build in a little more exercise,” she says. That is, they take a more balanced approach to getting back on track, just trying to regroup and get back on the diet, or build in a little more exercise.
One area where women get a boost, however, is in support systems: Men tend to “go it alone,” Peeke says, which could lead them to give up in times of stress. Women are more likely to reach out to friends, family, a dietitian or a group such as Weight Watchers.
So what can we do with all this knowledge? Tempting as it is to get discouraged, we can actually find it encouraging. Biology is not destiny, after all. “Lifestyle choices are immensely powerful,” Peeke says. And on the heels of any tidal wave of new research is sure to come a trickle of weight-loss advice that can be more customised and more effective to help men and women with their weight-loss obstacles, no matter what they are.
Weight-loss advice for men and women
These steps can help you overcome your weight-loss obstacles, regardless of your sex.
* Start strength training. Muscle burns more calories than fat, even when at rest. To maintain your strength, do a strength-training routine twice a week - three times per week if you want to improve your strength, says personal trainer and registered dietitian Jim White.
* Put tempting foods out of sight, out of mind. We naturally gravitate toward foods that are easiest to reach. So put candy on a high shelf or inside another bag behind something else so you'll be less likely to go get it, says Cynthia Sass, co-author of “The Flat Belly Diet!” Put smarter choices, such as fresh fruit or popcorn, in bowls where they're visible and within arm's reach. Keep a water bottle with you so you won't have to rummage through the fridge or walk to a vending area to get a drink.
* Keep a journal. Most of us overestimate how active we are and underestimate how much we eat, Sass says. Studies have shown that keeping a food diary can double your weight loss. Writing everything down, even for a short period of time, is the best way to stay mindful of what, how much and also why you're eating.
* Personalise your portions. If you're a woman eating with a man, customise your portions to suit your body's needs, says Sass. That might mean more veggies and smaller servings of protein and foods with starch and fat. For example, on burrito night, skip the tortilla in favour of a bed of greens, and stick to a piece of lean protein the size of a smartphone, a small scoop of a healthful starch such as brown rice and a dollop of guacamole.
* Halt bad eating habits. Before you cave to the crave, hit the pause button, recommends Pamela Peeke, author of the bestseller “The Hunger Fix: The Three Stage Detox and Recovery Plan for Overeating and Food Addiction.” Ask yourself: “Am I hungry? Angry? Anxious? Lonely? Tired?” Get in touch with your emotions and ask, “Am I'm emotional right now? Am I about to knee-jerk into overeating?”
* Sleep. Ideally, get seven to eight hours of sleep each night, no less than six. Compromising sleep will cause your appetite and hunger hormones to get out of whack and prompt you to overeat.
* Meditate. Do some form of introspective activity each day to stay in touch with feelings and adjust to stresses, Peeke says.
* Plan ahead. Always pack your own “safe” and tasty foods when you're away from home so you're not prone to eating unhealthful foods - or oversized portions - because that's all that's available.
* Don't get too hungry. Eat every three to four hours. If you're too hungry, you're more likely to cave to cues and triggers that cause you to overeat, Peeke says.
* Go vertical. Avoid staying sedentary all day long, Peeke says. Walk, stand and move around as much as possible to increase the secretion of mood modulator hormones such as serotonin, endorphins and dopamine. Simple moderate-intensity activities such as walking will help rein in appetite and help you stay energised.