Who do you think has a higher rate of being overweight or obese, men or women? According to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation,1 overweight and obesity rates are higher for men, while other research2 suggests that obesity prevalence is generally higher in women. Still another report from the National Center for Health Statistics3 indicates that the overall prevalence of obesity doesn’t differ between men and women—although more non-Hispanic black women were found to be obese than the same group of men. So while the jury is still out on the answer to this question, there are other related facts that are well established. One of those is that there is a gender difference in body fat distribution, and it also seems to be easier for men to lose weight than it is for women. This can be partially explained by the influence of sexual hormones on body composition and appetite.4 While such differences appear to give an unfair advantage to men over women during the weight-loss process, that is not the end of the story. There are other significant differences between men and women where weight loss is concerned, some of which favor women. In any case, understanding those differences may help women have a healthier and more productive experience in losing weight.
Advantages for Women During Weight Loss
The leptin advantage
Let’s start out with a discussion about a study5 of overweight men and women who were put on a weight loss program. Not surprisingly, men lost more body weight: 13 percent versus 6.7 percent in women. However, this lesser weight loss in women may be more important for long-term weight-loss success. The reason why has to do with the hormone leptin, which has a major influence in suppressing food intake, and thereby inducing weight loss. Therefore, you might expect that if a person had more leptin present, that person would tend to be thinner. Strangely, the opposite is true. In obese people, circulating levels of leptin is increased because they are leptin resistant. WebMD describes it this way: “In leptin resistance, your leptin is high, which means you’re fat, but your brain can’t see it. In other words, your brain is starved, while your body is obese. And that’s what obesity is: it’s brain starvation.”6 Consequently, a reduction in leptin levels is a good thing and an indication that your body is functioning more normally with regard to food intake. Now back to the results of the weight-loss study which also found that only women showed reductions in leptin which correlated with a reduction in trunk fat (around the belly and hips) and total body fat. This reduction in leptin bodes well for helping the women to keep off the weight that they lost. So that dark cloud of less weight loss for women has a silver lining. More fat loss advantage
Another advantage that women have over men is the type of weight that they lose. A 2012 study7 found that during weight loss, men lost relatively more lean mass (i.e. muscle) and less fat mass than women. To be clear, women were found to lose more fat during weight loss and less muscle. Other studies8,9 also observed this same result. The high protein/low carb advantage
Pretty much everyone who has tried losing weight is familiar with one or more iterations of the high protein/low carb diet. But did you know that men and women have a different response to such a diet? Research10 has found that men tended to burn more calories and fat on a high protein/low carb diet, whereas women experienced greater satiety (i.e. feeling full after eating). While both results are good, it could be argued that improved satiety lends itself to greater long-term weight-loss success since there will likely be less overeating.
Neutral Differences Between Men and Women
Food variety makes a difference for women
Research11 has demonstrated that women tend to do better on a weight-loss plan when they have a greater variety of dietary choices. This contrasts with men who prefer direction in their weight-loss advice and do less well with choice. For women, the take-home message from this research is to make sure any weight-loss diet they decide to follow offers a large variety of menu plans to help them avoid boredom with what they’re eating. Predictors of weight gain
In following a large population of healthy adult Americans for one year, researchers found that there were different factors that were more likely to be associated with weight gain in men versus women. In women, predictors of one-year weight gain included increased total caloric intake and decreased leisure-time physical activity. In men, the primary predictor of weight gain was greater anxiety.12 This suggests that, to avoid gaining weight, women need to find strategies for decreasing caloric intake and making time in their schedule for some level of physical activity. With regard to reducing caloric intake Orafti Synergy 1, an oligofructose-enriched inulin derived from chicory root can help. Double-blind, placebo-controlled studies13-16 have demonstrated that supplementation with 16-21 g/day of Orafti Synergy 1 was effective in significantly reducing food intake and improving satiety. In one study,17 the Orafti Synergy 1 group ate 29 percent less calories than the placebo group.
Disadvantages for Women During Weight Loss
Reduction in bone mineral density
We all know that women, especially post-menopausal women, are more prone to osteoporosis than men due to a loss in bone mineral density (BMD) associated with estrogen reduction. But did you know that weight loss in women could also be associated with a reduction in BMD? In a two-year study,18 researchers examined the effects of different weight-loss diets in 424 overweight and obese adults, 57 percent of whom were women. They found that, in women, weight-loss diets tended to decrease BMD in the spine, hip and neck, while men experienced an increase in spine BMD.
One obvious approach that women can take to maintain BMD while losing weight is to supplement with calcium and vitamin D. In addition, two other supplements have specific value. One is vitamin K2 (as MK-7, 180 mcg/day), which was shown in a placebo-controlled study19 to significantly decrease the decline in bone mineral content and bone mineral density in women, while improving bone strength. The other supplement is known as milk basic protein fraction (MBP). In various studies,20-24 40 mg/day of MBP was not only shown to maintain BMD, but to actually increase it in women ranging in ages to pre-menopausal to post-menopausal.
Less loss of abdominal fat
Research has shown that men and women tend to have differences in the location from which they lose body fat. In a weight-loss study25 in obese men and women, men lost more visceral or intra-abdominal fat (i.e. belly fat) than women, whereas women lost more subcutaneous fat (i.e. fat under the skin). A similar study26 also found that men lost more abdominal fat than women. This means that women could benefit from strategies that help them achieve a greater reduction in abdominal fat.
One such strategy is supplementation with Sinetrol, a proprietary blend of citrus extracts with guarana. In a double-blind, randomized, study,27 overweight men and women followed a fairly normal calorie diet (2,500/day for men and 2,000/day for women) with only 30 minutes of exercise per week. In addition, one group took 900 mg/day of Sinetrol and the other group took a placebo. Abdominal body fat was decreased by 9.7 percent in the Sinetrol group, whereas the decrease was 4.8 percent in the placebo group. Furthermore, the Sinetrol group decreased waist circumference by 7.5 percent versus 2.1 percent for the placebo group, and decreased hip circumference by 5.3 percent with 1.9 percent for placebo.
Snacking and weight-loss attempts
A study28 of 4,667 male and female twins found that snacking and eating in the evening were characteristic of women with at least two previous weight-loss attempts. Furthermore, eating in response to visual and emotional cues was very pronounced in women attempting to lose weight, but much less so in men. In addition, there seemed to be a greater likelihood to “inherit” the trait of trying to lose weight: 66 percent in women and 38 percent in men. While not much can be done to affect genetic inheritance, the use of Orafti Synergy 1 may help to reduce snacking.
Stress and weight gain in young women Gender differences in gaining weight are also evident in young adults. In a study29 of 396 college freshmen, males had an average weight gain of 5.04 pounds, while females gained 5.49 pounds. For males, weight gain was related to increased alcohol consumption, and for females it was related to increased workload. This suggests that, for young women, strategies for managing the stress associated with an increased workload may be beneficial. Sensoril, a standardized extract of Withania somnifera root (aka, ashwagandha) may help.
A double-blind, placebo-controlled study30 examined the effects of various daily doses of Sensoril (125 mg, 250 mg, 500 mg) or placebo in men and women who had chronic stress. The results were that all dosage levels of Sensoril had significant effects in helping to reduce anxiety scores and alleviate the effects of stress and tension.
While men may tend to lose more weight than women during a weight-loss program, women have some advantages over men regarding long-term weight loss. On the other hand, women have certain disadvantages compared to men during weight loss, although these may be mitigated to some extent through the uses of certain evidence-based dietary supplements. These include Orafti Synergy 1, vitamin K2 (as MK-7), milk basic protein fraction (MBP), Sinetrol and Sensoril. VR
1 Overweight and Obesity Rates for Adults by Gender. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. 2013. Retrieved November 27, 2015 from http://kff.org/other/state-indicator/adult-overweightobesity-rate-by-gender/#.
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4 Lovejoy JC, Sainsbury A; Stock Conference 2008 Working Group. Sex differences in obesity and the regulation of energy homeostasis. Obes Rev. 2009 Mar;10(2):154-67.
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Gene Bruno, MS, MHS, the dean of academics for Huntington College of Health Sciences, is a nutritionist, herbalist, writer and educator. For more than 30 years he has educated and trained natural product retailers and health care professionals, has researched and formulated natural products for dozens of dietary supplement companies, and has written articles on nutrition, herbal medicine, nutraceuticals and integrative health issues for trade, consumer magazines and peer-reviewed publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.