Men and women often try to tackle weight loss differently, but they’re usually more successful with a similar approach. Here’s why.
You’ve heard it before: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.
At least that’s how the popular relationship book tried to explain the reasons men and women often appear to communicate, behave, and express emotion differently.
But are men and women really so different when it comes to weight loss?
“Yes. But I think the differences were bigger historically, and the way men and women approach weight loss is more similar to each other now than it was a decade ago,” Dr. Rekha B. Kumar, medical director of the American Board of Obesity Medicine, told Healthline.
She says the differences are narrowing due to the obesity epidemic in the United States and an increase in diabetes.
“In the past, women were more focused on weight loss and being thin, potentially due to social [and] cultural pressures more so than health concerns. And men were more focused on building muscle and taking supplements that they thought could enhance their muscle,” Kumar said. “Now, everyone is more focused on reducing fat mass and being lean.”
Still, some differences between the sexes do exist.
Genetically, men tend to have more muscle and less fat mass than women due to higher levels of testosterone, which is why they need to eat more calories than women to maintain their same weight.
“If you take two people of equal weight but one has more muscle, that person is going to burn more calories and need more calories to sustain their weight,” said Kumar.
This is because muscle burns more calories at rest than fat — about 35 to 50 calories per pound of muscle, said Katherine Tallmadge, registered dietitian and author of “Diet Simple: 195 Mental Tricks, Substitutions, Habits & Inspirations.”
“That’s one reason why women need to build muscle,” Tallmadge told Healthline.
“When you lose weight, about half of what you lose is muscle so it’s really important to eat right and to strength train while losing weight to minimize losing muscle.”
She points out that both men and women start losing muscle in their 30s. In addition to having an effect on weight loss, losing muscle “affects the immune system and our ability to move, function, and not fall as we get older,” Tallmadge said.
Men and premenopausal women carry weight differently.
“Men tend to gain weight around the abdomen and tend to be more apple-shaped if they were to gain excess weight, whereas premenopausal women tend to gain weight more around the hips and less around the belly,” Kumar said.
However, postmenopausal women do gain weight more in the abdomen due to hormonal changes, such as losing estrogen.
For both genders, stomach fat that sits under the muscle and around the organs is dangerous inflammatory fat that increases the risk of diabetes, fatty liver disease, and cardiovascular disease.
“The soft fat that is just underneath skin is not necessarily metabolically dangerous fat. It keeps you warm and a little is healthy,” said Kumar.
Kumar says it’s true that men tend to lose weight quicker than women.
In her practice at Weill Cornell Medicine, she says on average, a woman might lose 0.5 to 1 pound a week in the initial phases of weight management whereas a man might lose 2 pounds a week.
“One theory is that this has to do with hormones and a woman’s set point for what healthy body fat is due to the brain sensing body fat and trying to keep women in healthy shape for reproduction,” explained Kumar.
For instance, she points out that women who are severe dieters might experience their period stopping and even infertility due to low body fat.
“We don’t know much about low body fat affecting men’s fertility. Men can be healthy at much lower fat masses than are considered healthy for women,” Kumar said.
“Females tend to be healthy at a higher body fat percentage, which goes back to the theory that this is due to reproductive reasons,” she added.
Tallmadge says men typically choose meat-related diets whereas women may focus on vegetables and fruits.
“That’s why the Paleo and Atkins diets attract more men,” she said. “Meat diets may not work as well for women because men can get away with eating more calories and still lose weight while women can’t, and meat tends to be high in calories.”
She adds that the reason many men lean toward meat may not be as physiological as it is cultural.
“Again, this may be due to the fact women typically have more experience dieting and reading about health or seeking out advice, so we are more attuned and educated about healthy eating and are less likely to turn to a diet filled with meat,” Tallmadge said.
However, Kumar believes food preferences are changing.
“I think those differences are what has narrowed. Historically speaking, a female on a diet would lean toward vegetables and fruit because she was focused on nutrition and weight loss where a male would lean toward a high-protein diet and take supplements to build muscle,” she said.
“Now I think men and women are realizing the importance of lean proteins, high vegetables, and low processed sugars, so they are both appreciating the benefits of a Mediterranean diet.”
This may be an area where men and women can learn from each other most.
“Women can learn from men in the process of dieting and losing weight that building muscle is really important to sustain your metabolic weight. Men can learn from women that in the process of dieting, getting good nutrition through adequate vitamins and mineral content of fruits and vegetables is equally as important as getting protein and building muscle,” said Kumar.
Culturally, Kumar says it still might be more acceptable for women to diet, and for them to discuss dieting.
“Currently, it’s as important for a man to diet, due to the fact that we have an obesity and diabetes epidemic, but it may not be as socially acceptable in certain cultures for a man to be on a diet,” said Kumar.
“This is old school stuff, but there are people who might comment on a man eating a salad versus a woman eating a salad,” she said.
Tallmadge agreed, adding that men tend to take extreme measures when trying to lose weight, such as skipping meals all day.
“Women tend to have more of a history of dieting since it’s been acceptable for women to diet for a long time, and so because of that they know that skipping meals can backfire,” she said.
However, in Kumar’s experience, men are more willing to take dietary and exercise advice and follow a plan.
“Whereas I’m seeing women will tweak and adjust regimens to suit their lifestyle because women may be juggling a lot of things like a home and job and caring for kids. This is stereotyping and generalizing, but overall I make more adjustments with women’s plans than men’s plans,” she said.
Still, both experts say they approach a weight loss plan for men and women in similar fashion, with the focus on an individualized plan.
“I get to know the person really well and the kinds of foods they enjoy eating and their lifestyle and we build on that to make changes,” Tallmadge said. “If they need more fruits and vegetables, we make that a goal or if they skip breakfast, we make eating breakfast everyday a goal. To lose weight, both men and women just need minor tweaks not major changes.”
While Kumar says cutting calories and moving more is still the bottom line of weight loss, she stresses that there are nuances within diets, such as macronutrient composition.
“Certain people might do better on low carbohydrates diets, such as women who are postmenopausal or those who have been treated for breast cancer. And some men might be more amenable to straight-forward calorie restriction across the board,” said Kumar. “It really depends on the individual.”