In general, men lose weight quicker and more easily than women. This doesn’t mean women aren’t trying as hard as men. In fact, the opposite is often true. Women work out regularly, diligently count calories and restrict carbs, yet their weight loss can be a frustratingly slow process. Men, on the other hand, seemingly just cut down on the beer or get back into the gym and the fat melts off them. Why this injustice? It has much to do with the differences in hormones, size and body composition, food preferences and the relationship each of the sexes has with food. But ladies, don’t give up hope just yet. There are dietary and exercise tips and tricks to help close the gap a little.
Testosterone is a fat-burning hormone that helps to create more lean body mass. While women have a little of it, men have way more. High levels of testosterone is what gives men a distinct advantage when it comes to staying lean or losing their beer bellies with minimal effort. Women have higher levels of estrogen and progesterone that fluctuate throughout their monthly cycle, influencing appetite, insulin sensitivity, blood sugar, fat burning, food cravings and exercise performance.
For example, from ovulation to menstruation (roughly day 14 to 28), a women’s metabolic rate increases and she digests her meals more quickly with the result that she will not stay full for as long and is more likely to overeat. During this period women typically eat 200 to 250 more calories per day than during the rest of the month. If this increase in appetite is not well-managed, and one frequently gives in to cravings for starchy and sweet foods when pre-menstrual, those extra calories could result in weight gain over time or difficulty in losing weight.
Throw into the mix a case of hormonal imbalance like estrogen dominance, which hinders the body’s ability to burn fat, and weight loss can be near impossible to achieve. Women are also more prone to having thyroid hormone abnormalities. The thyroid regulates metabolism and weight and when one’s thyroid is not working optimally, weight gain or weight loss resistance can become an issue. Get your hormones checked and if the results indicate imbalances, work with your healthcare practioner to resolve the issue.
Size and body composition
Genetically men are bigger in size and are programmed to have more muscle and less fat than women, which enables them to burn more energy (calories) even when at rest. Men will therefore lose weight faster, simply because they have more metabolically active muscle. Women are predisposed to be smaller in stature, have less muscle and approximately 10 to 12% more fat mass. The extra fat mass provides an advantage for procreation and survival. The lower muscle mass, however, means that a woman’s fat burning potential is lower than a man’s. This is a big factor in why a woman’s weight loss is slower.
Due to their larger frame and muscle mass, and therefore their higher calorie requirement, men are more easily able to create a larger calorie deficit to expedite fat loss. Compare this scenario to that of a smaller women who is already eating only 1500 calories a day for example. She can’t very easily create the same large calorie deficit without running the risk of severely undereating. In other words, her calorie deficit will need to be smaller with the result that it will take her longer to lose the weight.
Relationship to food and food preferences
Women are more prone to use food for comfort, stress management or to lift their mood. It is also generally the women in families who spend the most time thinking about what food to purchase, prepare and feed to their loved ones. Women, therefore, have more of an emotional connection to food, whereas most men just ‘eat to live’. This emotional connection is also a contributory factor as to why very restrictive eating backfires on many women and why feelings of guilt are experienced when we cheat on our diet.
Another interesting fact is that women tend to have a taste preference for carbs, which then gets overemphasized in their diet, while men veer more towards protein. When carbs become the dominant feature in one’s diet, it becomes very easy to overeat as they can disrupt blood sugar balance, which increases appetite and cravings. If you are burning carbs for fuel and overeating, you won’t be burning body fat stores. Moderating carb intake can help a women to shift her metabolism more towards fat burning. If you happen to be insulin resistant, and therefore not processing carbs very well, a low carb diet becomes more important for both health and fat loss.
Can exercise help?
When it comes to exercise, men seem to have a more favourable reaction in terms of calorie burn. Due to her being smaller and having less muscle, a woman will burn less calories during any given workout. She will have to exercise longer or at a higher intensity to burn the same number of calories as a man. A women’s body will also tend to compensate for that exercise by either eating more or being less active for the rest of the day, thereby cancelling out some of her exercise efforts. It has been shown that for female fat loss, exercise alone is generally ineffective since the calorie burn is simply too small to matter. Diet is by far the major driver of fat loss for women. This doesn’t mean that exercise isn’t important when trying to lose weight. Quite the opposite. It is a great stress buster and mood enhancer. Weight training is a fantastic choice for combatting the loss of bone mineral density and lean body mass, which can occur when dieting and with age.
What does however have an even bigger impact on calorie burn (even more than formal exercise) is upping your NEAT. This stands for non-exercise activity thermogenesis. Just being more “active” and less sedentary in daily life is an excellent way to promote fat burning. This includes activities such as gardening, walking, cleaning, take the stairs instead of the lift, sitting less, doing stretching exercises throughout the day, playing with your pets or children, cooking a meal, dancing around the house to music, making the bed, etc.
Find what works for you long-term
If every day on your diet is a battle, then it isn’t the right diet for you. It is just way too stressful. Don’t sabotage your efforts by using extreme quick fixes, which promise instant results. You might achieve some degree of success in the short term but, inevitably, the kilos will start to creep back on since it won’t be sustainable. Women are made differently and need to work with their complex design instead of against it. The unique female physiology is truly geared around reproduction and survival of the species. Women store fat more effectively and lose it with greater difficulty. The playing fields are not level.
Women’s bodies are very clever at adapting to threats – even dieting and overdoing exercise. Restrict your eating long enough, physically push your body too hard and alarm bells start going off and you will find yourself in metabolic shut down. Rather take your time, be patient, take diet breaks, enjoy the process and reassure your body it isn’t in any danger.
Top 10 tips for enhancing female fat loss:
- Strive for hormonal balance as this plays a massive role in female fat loss.
- Eat more fibre-rich vegetables to help the body excrete used estrogen to avoid having undesirable levels, which block fat burning.
- Manage stress and prioritise sleep.
- Include resistance/weight training into your activity schedule to build more lean muscle to rev up your metabolism.
- Eat sufficient amounts of protein to assist the body to build lean muscle. Protein is also the most satiating of the 3 macronutrients, which helps to control appetite.
- Find daily ways to increase your NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis).
- Identify the triggers that cause you to overeat/cheat so they can be avoided.
- Seek professional help if you suspect your relationship towards food is unhealthy.
- Moderate your carbohydrate intake to enhance fat burning.
- Don’t become extreme in your approach. Don’t, for example, go too low carb or too low calorie as this can foster an unhealthy relationship with food and can lead to hormonal imbalance and a slowing of your metabolism.
Article written by Nicky Perks for Lose It magazine. (Volume 26)
Reference source: The Women’s Book by Lyle McDonald.