Life isn't fair. Exhibit A: The woman who watches every calorie like a hawk, exercises regularly and is frustrated by slow (or no) results…meanwhile, her boyfriend simply cuts out soda and drops 20 pounds without breaking a sweat.
We've all heard the common refrain "men lose weight faster than women," and it happens to be more than just an empty excuse. Science shows that, yes, males have a distinct advantage when it comes to dropping pounds. What gives, though, and is there anything the fairer sex can do to close the weight loss gap?
Why Do Men Lose Faster?
Ironically enough, men lose faster—at first, anyway—because they're usually starting with more body mass and lean muscle. This means that even if food intake and physical activity are identical, they'll burn more calories than a smaller, lighter woman, even at rest. From this perspective, the weight loss disparity is influenced more by size than gender.
"Men are generally in larger bodies than women that require more calories and therefore can create larger caloric deficits," registered dietitian Joey Gochnour told Medical Daily. "A larger body's organs will take more calories than a smaller person's organs, so their basic burn rate of calories is larger to begin with."
Women also deal with monthly hormone changes. Menstruation has a big impact on the amount of fluid the body retains, which can cause confusing fluctuations in weight. And then there are the aches and pains that often come with periods, which can sometimes hamper exercise plans—not to mention the hormone-triggered food cravings that threaten to crumble even the strongest willpower.
The Fat Storage Factor
Women generally carry between six to 11 percent more body fat than men, which a University of New South Wales study linked to higher levels of estrogen. This is biology's way of preparing females for childbirth, whether it's in the cards or not.
"Female puberty and early pregnancy—times of increased estrogen—could be seen as states of efficient fat storage in preparation for fertility, fetal development and lactation," said the study's author, Associate Professor Anthony O'Sullivan. "Women burn off more fat than men during exercise, but they don't lose body fat with exercise as much, suggesting women are more efficient fat storers."
Even so, a woman can be in shape and a healthy weight and still have more body fat than a man. That doesn't necessarily mean the man is in better shape—just that their bodies store fat differently due to different hormone distributions.
One upside for women is that they tend to store fat more evenly throughout the body, while men tend to carry it in their midsections. This visceral fat, which lies deep inside the abdomen, has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, certain types of cancers and other dangers much graver than feeling self-conscious in a swimsuit. So, although women may have more body fat overall, it's generally the healthier (albeit a more stubborn) variety.
Environmental Weight Gain?
It also could be argued that even without the hormonal and fat storage challenges, the decks are stacked against women when it comes to weight loss by societal standards. There's a subtle but very real perception that women should be more cardio-focused (running or walking, using the elliptical, going to spin class), while men belong in the weight room, spotting each other as they lift huge, "masculine" amounts of weight. The end result is that men build more muscle, which enables them to burn fat and calories more efficiently.
And lastly, there's the whole crazy portion issue. At any given restaurant, the menu is likely filled with super-sized dishes that comprise a whole day's worth of calories. If a woman eats an entire Numero Uno Deep Dish Pizza, it could take her twice as long to burn off those 1,800+ calories than it would a man. For women who lack the willpower to box up half the dish, those larger portions can be a big bump in the road to weight loss.
Can Women Close the Gap?
Although a woman can't change her height or frame, she can boost her body's calorie-burning capacity by building more muscle. The greater the muscle mass, the higher the calorie burn, even while sitting or sleeping.
(Another caveat: Men also have an advantage in the weight room. Studies have shown that because their bodies naturally produce more testosterone than women’s bodies, they are able to build more muscle tissue while performing the same exercises.)
The good news for women is that the weight loss journey seems to be a marathon, not a sprint. Although men may start out the "race" with a distinct advantage, lapping women when it comes to dropping pounds, the women do eventually catch up.
In a U.K. study, a group of overweight women and men started one of four popular weight loss plans. At the two-month mark, the men had lost twice as much weight and three times as much body fat as the women, but at that point the gap started the shrink. By six months, the rate of weight loss was roughly the same for both genders.
5 Quick Weight-Loss Boosting Tips for Women
- Remember that slow and steady wins the race. Don't be discouraged when the scale only dips a pound (or even less) each week. If you're dieting with a husband, brother or male friend, resist the urge to compare weekly weigh-ins. He may have more to lose, or his body may naturally burn more fat than yours, but that doesn't make your progress any less of a source of pride.
- Don't fall for detoxes, cleanses, crash diets or other scams. These types of quick-fix "shortcuts" seem to be marketed more to women. If it sounds too good to be true, it's probably an unhealthy and unsustainable route to weight loss.
- Don't weigh yourself every day. To avoid feeling discouraged by hormone-induced fluctuations day by day, switch to monthly weigh-ins.
- Escape from the cardio trap. There is a place for cardio in every exercise plan, but if you're spending hours each week on the treadmill or the sidewalk and seeing little change, step outside of your comfort zone and try some free weights or weight machines. Building more muscle mass is the single most effective way to burn fat and calories more efficiently, and to close the gender weight loss gap.
- Be compassionate to yourself. Women are naturally more self-critical than men, and also more fixated (perhaps even obsessive) about their weight loss efforts. This can lead to a cycle of self-deprivation, intense exercise and guilt when the desired results don't come quickly enough. Ever notice that men seem to lose weight without really thinking about it or trying too hard? Strive to accept your body as it is, and look at weight loss as a bonus of healthy living instead of the sole reason for it.