For many, weight loss involves numerous sustainable changes to eating and exercise habits. It can take a long time and there are often detours along the way. It can also be easier for some people than others.
“The answer — which we probably don’t want to hear — is ‘Yes it is easier for men,’” Lisa Martich, a dietitian specialists at UPMC Magee Women’s Hospital in Pittsburgh, told TODAY.
There’s a dearth of research comparing differences between how men and women lose weight. Experts really have a better understanding of how women lose weight because women are far more likely to seek help and work on weight loss more often than men.
“Seventy to 80% of people losing weight are women,” Colleen Tewksbury, a senior research investigator and bariatric program manager at Penn Medicine, told TODAY. “We don’t have parity, we don’t have data to measure the differences.”
Some new evidence reinforces what experts have long observed: Weight loss is actually easier for men.
In a study published in the journal Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism, researchers followed 2,000 people with pre-diabetes for eight weeks while they ate an 800-calorie, predominately liquid diet, including soups, shakes and 1.5 cups of low calorie vegetables.
By the time the study was complete, 35% of the participants had normal blood glucose levels and were no longer considered pre-diabetic. But the men reaped greater benefits: they lost 26 pounds on average, compared to a 22-pound average for women, and had improved health markers such as lower heart rates and less body fat.
“Small changes for men might make a larger impact on their weight,” Tewksbury said.
What makes it easier for men to lose weight?
The differences between how men and women lose weight begin when children develop into teenagers.
“Quite honestly, it starts at puberty and with our gender hormones,” Martich said. “Men have testosterone that helps them build their lean body mass. At puberty, women have estrogen that helps us build fat around our hips for babies.”
Having more lean muscle mass helps men burn more calories and it’s one reason they can eat more calories than women in a day, without an real effect. For maintaining weight, men can eat 2,200 calories and women can eat 2,000 calories. To lose weight, men should eat 1,700 calories and women 1,500 calories. This means men can eat more calories, but still shed pounds.
“More muscle mass, that gives them a higher resting metabolic rate, and because of that they have higher calories to play around with when they lose weight,” Tewksbury said. “Women, from a hormonal standpoint, from an evolutionary standpoint, need more fat stores.”
But, moving beyond hormone-drenched puberty doesn’t make it easier for women to lose weight. In fact, aging creates another problem: Starting at just 30, lean muscle mass starts depleting for both men.
“When we start to age, we lose 3 to 8% of that lean body mass,” Martich said. “The aging process does not help.”
Because women have smaller reserves of lean muscle mass, the loss makes a bigger impact. That’s why Martich thinks that women’s weight loss should include resistance training and lean protein consumption -- two things she’s noticed her female patients overlook -- to help women maintain more lean muscle mass.
Though diet changes contribute to more weight loss for women, Tewksbury said, exercise can help them maintain the weight loss and build lean muscle, which boosts overall health. It can help lower blood pressure, improve sleep and reduce depression.
"It has been very effective in preventing weight gain and maintenance,” Tewksbury added. “If people are not exercising, they are much more likely to regain the weight.”
While weight loss can be tough, Tewksbury said it’s important that people don’t compare themselves to others because everyone is different. It is a lifelong process, regardless of gender.
“If you are looking at a weight loss … it is never a straight line,” she said. “It can spike from day to day. The idea is to look at the trends.”