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.
Abundant memes and jokes riff on the ease in which men lose weight versus women. But is there any truth to this? Do men have an easier time losing weight than women?
“The answer — which we probably don’t want to hear — is, ‘Yes, it is easier for men,’” Lisa Martich, a dietitian specialist 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 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, Ph.D., a senior research investigator in the metabolic and bariatric surgery program at Penn Medicine, told TODAY. “We don’t have parity, we don’t have data to measure the differences.”
One difference between men and women when it comes to weight starts in the brain, a recent, small study found. It looked at men and women who were overweight or had obesity and found that their brains have different pathways from peers who weigh less. Researchers also that these differences affected different parts of the brain in men versus women.
"This has implications for the way we view food, the way we crave it and how that leads to altered eating patterns and, in turn, obesity," Arpana Gupta, Ph.D., lead author of the study and director of the obesity program at the Godman-Luskin Microbiome Center at UCLA, told NBC News. "The brain patterns are part of the puzzle and show that the relationships with stress, environment, mood and early life experiences influence obesity and even that the gut has to be accounted for."
Researchers looked at 42 men and 63 women who had normal body mass indexes (BMI) and 25 men and 55 women with overweight or obese BMIs. Participants answered questions about their mental health, childhood trauma, food addiction and personality traits and underwent three MRIs that looked at their brains in action. That helped researchers understand brain structure and how it communicates. Participants also answered question about how much they felt sensations, such as indigestion, hunger and satiety. The researchers noticed a variance in the brain between sexes.
"The signaling pathways are different, which leads to more things like food cravings and food addition," Dr. Roshini Raj, a gastroenterologist and associate professor at NYU Lagone Health said on TODAY. "They did find distinct differences between men and women. Women tended to have more of the emotional triggers and things like anxiety and depression, early childhood trauma playing a big role, whereas for men, it seems to be more about sensation of hunger and fullness in the gut."
Raj said this study helps doctors better understand "what's triggering (obesity) and how that's different for men and women."
"In this study, what they showed for women, the reward centers of their brain — so the things that can make us feel stressed or upset, and we want them to make us feel better — (are) much more heightened in terms of food than they are for men," Raj said. "A thing I like about the study is it's not all about sheer willpower, and it's not a judgement associated with obesity. If you're looking at someone's MRI of their brain and it's different, you realize there's a lot going on there that they don't actually have immediate control over, but there are things they can do to really rewire that."
Past 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 with fewer effects.
“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 starting at just 30, lean muscle mass starts depleting for both men and women.
“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 efforts should include resistance training and lean protein consumption, two things she’s noticed her female patients overlook, to help maintain more lean muscle mass.
Although diet changes are more effective than exercise for weight loss in women, Tewksbury said, exercise can help them maintain the weight loss and build lean muscle, which boosts overall health. It can also 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.”