Better Sex: What's Weight Got to Do with It?
Being overweight does affect your libido. But small changes can jump-start your sex drive.
By Colette Bouchez
Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson, MD
From Sex in the City to Desperate Housewives, there's one media message that's louder and clearer than ever: Looking, feeling, acting, and just being sexy is the order of the day.
But cultural messages also continue to tell us that no one bigger than a size 6 should be singing the siren song of sexuality. Much like oil and water, being overweight and sexy just don't mix. For those already struggling with weight and image issues, that powerful message can easily throw a wet blanket on even the most active libido.
"Unfortunately, people are internalizing society's definition of what it takes to be involved in sex, particularly the body shape -- there are clearly societal biases out there that are influencing us on an individual level and not in a good way, " says Martin Binks, PhD, a clinical psychologist and director of behavioral health at Duke University's Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, N.C.
But it turns out that cultural messages aren't the whole story. New research suggests certain physical conditions that go along with obesity also affect sex drive, further dampening the desires of those who are overweight. The good news: You can make some changes to your body (and how you think about your body) to enhance your libido. You can:
How to begin? Start by identifying the physical and psychological obstacles that could be standing in your way to a fulfilling sex life.
How Too Much Weight Hampers Sex Drive
According to a recent study conducted by Binks and his colleagues at Duke, up to 30% of obese people seeking help controlling their weight indicate problems with sex drive, desire, performance, or all three. Often, the latest research shows, these problems can be traced to physical conditions that co-exist with obesity.
"Medical conditions such as high cholesterol and insulin resistance [an early indicator of type 2 diabetes] do have the ability to impact sexual performance, which in turn impacts desire, particularly in men," says Andrew McCollough, MD, director of sexual health and male infertility at NYU Medical Center in New York.
Because both conditions can cause the tiny arteries in the penis to shut down, particularly when vessel-clogging fatty deposits begin to form, McCollough says impotence or erectile dysfunction is often the result.
"A man who has problems having an erection is going to lose his desire for sex in not too long a time," says McCollough.
Men aren't alone with sex problems caused by poor blood flow. Research shows overweight women's sex drive and desire are affected by the same problem.
"We are beginning to see that the width of the blood vessels leading to the clitoris [the area of the vagina most closely related to sexual response] in women are affected by the same kind of blockages that impact blood flow to the penis," says Susan Kellogg, PhD, director of sexual medicine at the Pelvic and Sexual Health Institute of Graduate Hospital in Philadelphia.
When this happens, says Kellogg, a woman's body is far less responsive, and a drop in desire is not far behind.
Complicating matters further for both sexes: The more body fat you have, the higher your levels of a natural chemical known as SHBG (short for sex hormone binding globulin). It's aptly named because it binds to the sex hormone testosterone. Doctors theorize that the more testosterone that is bound to SHBG, the less there is available to stimulate desire.
What can you do to improve your physical conditioning for sex? Plenty. Experts say losing as few as 10 pounds can often free up testosterone and almost immediately give a boost to your love life.
Even better news. Making the same diet changes -- such as following a low-fat diet and eating lots of fruit and vegetables -- that help get blood sugar and cholesterol under control can also help turn your sex drive around -- even if you don't lose weight.
Says Binks, "I've noted that very often when patients start to take better care of themselves, they also report a substantial increase in their interest in sex -- I think participation in a healthy lifestyle really helps, even if you don't lose the extra pounds."
Also, Kellogg says exercises designed not for weight loss but to increase circulation to the genitals can make a big difference, particularly for women.