The Weight-loss Wars

In the eternal battle of the bulge, who’s the biggest loser – men or women?

‘If you lose one more kilogram, our relationship is over,’ Anisha Naidoo, 28, a beauty therapist in Johannesburg, jokingly told her husband after they had embarked on a weight-loss programme together. Both had stuck to the regime of eating healthier meals, going to gym and cutting out junk food. ‘The weight just fell off him, while I struggled to shed the extra kilos,’ she says.

It would appear this is often the case – men tend to lose more weight than we do. And a recent study seems to back this notion. About 34 000 dieters from Slimming World, a UK slimming programme, were monitored and the outcome showed that men lost more weight than women, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of their body weight. Men were also more likely to complete the programme.

Johannesburg dietitian Faaiza Paruk can relate. ‘Men do lose weight quicker than women do,’ she says. ‘My husband and I are a classic example – when we do the same amount of exercise and eat the same healthy food, he looks great at the end of the week and I just look okay.’

According to dietitians, men gain, lose and think about weight entirely differently from the way women do.

The Differences
The human body hasn’t evolved much in the last 10 000 years. Male bodies are designed for hunting, protecting the family and pushing large rocks – in general, for heavy manual labour. The modern man may sit in front of a computer for most of the day but once his muscles go into action, he’ll burn kilojoules faster than most women would because he has more muscle mass.

Women are designed for pregnancy and to store more fat than men. Fats are essential for foetal development, to develop the infant’s brain and to ensure there are enough kilojoules to keep mother and baby nourished during pregnancy.

Men tend to be more focused than women when it comes to dieting, says Paruk. ‘Generally, if they commit to a weight-loss regime, they follow through. They also tend to be more positive and confident about their weight loss. We tend to freak out when we see the numbers increasing on the scales; men generally take it in their stride,’ she says.

‘Women also tend to have an emotional relationship with food,’ says Johannesburg dietitian Sarah Wildy. ‘Women will eat when they are happy, sad, stressed, anxious or bored, and not only when they are physically hungry. Constant snacking obviously results in slower fat loss.’

Then there’s the fact that men and women generally have different goals when they set out to lose weight. ‘Women often set out to lose weight in the hopes of improving their body’s appearance, while men are more likely to be concerned with their health and fitness,’ says Canadian nutritionist Leslie Beck on the blog Theadventurouswriter.com. ‘This means men are less focused on the bathroom scale, and looser clothes are often enough to keep them motivated, while women get tied up in self-wroth and self-confidence issues.’

Dr Natasha Begg-Spiro, an aesthetic practitioner at Laserderm Med-Spa in Johannesburg, raises another difference in the bodies of men and women. ‘Men lose weight faster than we do because our bodies produce far more oestrogen,’ she says. Oestrogen is the main sex hormone in women and is essential to the menstrual cycle. It contributes to the development of breasts, a wider pelvis and increased amounts of fat on the buttocks, thighs and hips. ‘Oestrogen and body fat make it easier for women to fall pregnant,’ says Begg-Spiro.

Begg-Spiro also points out that men tend to be bigger and taller than women, which means that, overall, they have a larger body-surface area through which they lose body heat. Male bodies have to work harder to regulate body temperature in hot and cold weather. ‘The body-heat-related spikes add to men’s ability to lose weight,’ she says.

‘Studies show that the metabolism of a man is between five percent and 10% higher than that of a woman of the same weight and height,’ says Wildy. ‘This is quite a substantial difference when it comes to weight loss.’

Action
In a recent study conducted in Canada, 962 men and women enrolled in a two-year weight-loss programme. The results of the study showed that exercise alone was enough to cause men to lose weight, while in women, even a substantial increase in exercise wasn’t enough to produce weight loss if kilojoule intake was not reduced.

‘Men are likely to build muscle faster, thanks to the higher levels of the hormone testosterone in their bodies. They have more muscle mass – and it’s the muscle that burns kilojoules in our bodies. More muscle in relation to body fat also means a higher resting metabolism,’ says Beck.
Men are naturally more active than women, says Wildy. ‘Because of their higher muscle mass they are able to move with greater lung capacity and the relative heart rates in men and women are different too. This means that men burn more energy during exercise, resulting in more rapid fat loss than women.’

Wildy admits that the fact that men naturally lose weight more easily than women can be a demotivating factor for couples who exercise together. ‘Women need to put a lot more effort into their fat loss through vigorous exercise,’ she says. One study reported in the American Journal Of Physiology found that women burn 16% fewer kilojoules than men do while performing daily activities. And when women do exercise, the study found that their burn rate was 37% lower on average than men’s.

However, Marjanne Senekal, a professor in the faculty of health sciences at the University of Cape Town, and the author and publisher of the manual Love My Body, Love Myself, says that there is very little scientific substance to the claims that men lose weight easier than women do. ‘For both men and women, success with weight loss and long-term maintenance of the new weight is extremely poor, with estimations of long-term success being around five percent,’ she says. ‘One of the problems is that people are very reluctant to accept that weight-loss maintenance can only be achieved with permanent lifestyle changes. This is why diets and various predictors for success remain hot topics.’

Focus
The key is to stay focused on your own weight goals – and stop feeling defeated if you man is losing the weight quicker than you are. ‘Everything falls into place with commitment, patience and hard work,’ says Paruk.

Place less emphasis on the scale says Wildy. ‘Instead, monitor your progress through your clothing – looser clothes indicate fat loss. Break any emotional bonds you have with food and discipline yourself to eat only when you’re hungry.’

Women who are attentive to their weight do tend to eat more healthy food than men do, concludes Wildy. ‘We’re also good at finding healthy alternatives and we make good diet buddies because we’re usually very supportive.’

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