The Guys' Guide to Dieting

Is Weight Loss Different for Men?

By Leanna Skarnulis
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson, MD

A weight-loss expert gets a phone call from a friend: "I just made a $50 bet to lose 20 pounds in a month. Tell me how to do it." Guess the caller's sex.

"I get these calls from friends and relatives," says Gary D. Foster, PhD, clinical director of the Weight and Eating Disorders Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. "These types of calls are always from men."

That's probably what you'd guess, but you'd be hard-pressed to find research supporting that or any other assumption about how men and women differ when it comes to dieting, Foster says. "Most of the weight-loss research is about women," he says. "There are probably fewer than 10 good studies that separate men and women, and what they address is that men lose more weight and lose it faster."

Still, he and others in the field have run across some anecdotal differences in the two sexes' approach to weight loss. One, Foster says, is that men typically tend to be less process-oriented than women.

"Men don't want the fluff. 'Don't give me all the reasons I'm overweight. I just want to lose weight, not talk about it.' And they don't want to talk about maintenance. They'll deal with that later. Women stereotypically spend more time talking about how they got where they are and about things like emotional eating."

Is It Easier for Men?

"Men are more prone than women to build muscle and have more muscle tissue, and that makes their metabolic rate higher," says Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, WebMD Weight Loss Clinic's "Recipe Doctor." "With many women, their bodies encourage them to lay down fat, to insulate and be a baby incubator."

But age slows metabolism in both sexes, making it harder to maintain a healthy weight.

"If you're 20 pounds overweight, whether you're male or female, it's challenging," says Kathleen Zelman, RD, WebMD Weight Loss Clinic's director of nutrition. "When my husband and I decide to lose a few pounds, it's no easier for him than for me."

And today's more sedentary lifestyles are at odds with your body's design to be more active. For many, the most activity they get is driving to the store to pick up vast quantities of food, to be eaten while lounging in the La-Z-Boy and vigorously waving the remote at the TV.

The Harvard Health Professionals Study, which has tracked more than 50,000 men since 1986, cites three lifestyle factors that predict weight gain for men: less time exercising, more time watching TV, and eating between meals.

Lifestyle changes in recent decades have had a profound effect. Four decades ago, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey estimated that 49% of men and 40% of women age 20 or older were overweight (having a body mass index of 25 or higher) or obese (with a BMI of 30 or higher). By 2000, those statistics had been supersized: 67% of men and 62% of women made the list.

The same survey found that obese women outnumbered men: 34% of women vs. 27% of men fell into the obese category. But that's small comfort, because even men who are moderately overweight gamble with serious health risks.

Cultural Challenges

Despite their biological weight-loss advantages, do cultural expectations make it harder for men to diet?

"If you think about a vice president or CEO of a company, our culture could imagine a big, powerful guy of 250 pounds being acceptable," says Foster. "I can't imagine that the social norms would find it acceptable for a 250-pound CEO to be female. The words 'big and powerful' don't have good meaning for a female but do for a male.

"I think the biggest gender difference is, it's more socially acceptable for women to be dieting than men. If you're out with guys and say, 'Please hold the salad dressing,' it has a different ring to it than a woman with her girlfriends."

Still, Zelman says, these cultural messages aren't keeping men from weight-loss success. "I think men are getting the media message about eating properly," she says.

Magee agrees. "I live in California, and 40% of the readers of my nutrition or recipe columns are men. About 30% of the people on my web site guest book are men. And when I do cooking in my daughter's classroom at school, the boys are as excited as the girls."

But typically, men are less likely to seek the support and advice of others -- something that experts agree is important in overcoming the challenges of weight loss.

Foster says it's difficult for men to seek support in group weight-loss programs, where women are likely to outnumber them by four or five to one. "The things women talk about are different," he says. "When you talk to men about cooking and preparing food, a lot of them tune out because in homes where roles are stereotypical, cooking is something their wives do."