10 Scientific Reasons It's Harder for Women to Lose Weight from 10 Scientific Reasons It's Harder for Women to Lose Weight

10 Scientific Reasons It's Harder for Women to Lose Weight

Nearly everyone’s heard this story (or some variation of it) before: A husband and wife vow to lose weight as a couple. They start by exercising together and cutting soda from their diets. After a week, the husband is already down a few pounds, but the wife, well the scale hasn’t quite budged for her yet.

Sure, the story sounds cliché, but we hear slightly different versions of it all of the time because scientifically, it really is more difficult for women to lose weight. And for several different reasons.

“In my clinical practice, I see every day that women can have a much tougher time than men in losing weight,” said Dr. Linda Anegawa, F.A.C.P., founder of OSR Weight Management in Hawaii and metabolic medicine and clerkship director in medicine for the University of Hawaii. “Particularly, when I have patients who are married couples losing weight together, the camaraderie is sometimes overshadowed by the woman’s jealousy in how quickly her partner can lose weight compared to her.”

For any woman aiming to lose weight, though — whether with a male partner or on her own — it’s important to understand exactly why the endeavor poses a greater challenge for females.

Know that it’s not just all in your head or some crazy voodoo curse that makes it more challenging. There are several scientific reasons why it’s harder for women to lose weight, and by understanding each you can not only lessen any frustrations that might arise, but also develop a plan to work around some of the common obstacles.

Women Have Less Lean Body Mass

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In other words, women don’t naturally have as much muscle as men. “As muscle is our ‘engine’ that burns calories for us, given that men’s muscle mass is on average greater than a woman’s, men have a naturally higher basal metabolic rate,” Anegawa explained. “This means that even without any exercise, a man’s body will burn more calories daily, leading to a greater caloric deficit and weight loss.”

Women Have Less Testosterone

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“The big advantage men have over women, when it comes to losing weight, is more testosterone,” said Dr. Scott Schreiber, a chiropractor, licensed dietitian nutritionist and certified nutrition specialist who has been helping people lose weight for more than 10 years. It provides an advantage, he explained, because it’s an anabolic steroid that promotes muscle growth.  “In fact, men have seven to eight times more testosterone than women," Schreiber said. "In short, due to testosterone, men can build muscle a lot easier than women.” So not only do men naturally have more muscle to start with, but it’s much easier for them to gain more of it and effectively increase their metabolic rate even further.

Hormonal Fluctuations

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“Women’s hormonal fluctuations can throw off numbers on the scale,” Anegawa explained. “Pre-menopausal women have monthly fluctuation in levels of estrogen and progesterone, leading to cycles of water retention and loss. From mid-cycle to immediately before the monthly period, water retention is common.” As a result, a woman might not see the number on the scale drop, even though she’s eating well and exercising often. “This can be frustrating,” Anegawa said. “Which is why our practice measures body fat percentages rather than just following numbers on a scale. That way, we can reassure our female patients that even if the scale numbers didn’t budge for a week, they are still losing fat and optimizing their body composition.”

Women Store Fat Differently

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As Mark Sisson, author of The Primal Blueprint and creator of MarksDailyApple.com, explains it, “Female bodies ‘hoard’ certain types of fat and are [loath] to relinquish them ‘just [because] you had a simple caloric deficit.’” Basically, evolution is to blame. “Reproduction is far more nutritionally expensive for women than it is for men,” Sisson wrote. In other words, for the simple fact that women may at some point need to nourish another human being (i.e. pregnancy), their bodies have evolved not only to store fat in strategic places (like the hips, butt and legs), but also to hold onto it more “stubbornly.” “A man could go low-carb Primal and lose weight pretty easily because all he ‘has’ to be able to do is provide a bit of sperm,” Sisson explained. “A woman’s body has more important things in mind, like having enough body fat on hand to produce enough leptin for optimal fertility, or enough DHA stored in lower-body fat to build a robust baby brain.”

Women Burn Fat Differently

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“Women burn fat differently than men,” Sisson wrote. “Upper body fat goes first, while lower body fat tends to stay put. Except during pregnancy and lactation, when the lower body begins to give up lower fat stores far more readily. Interestingly (and not by coincidence), women tend to preferentially store the long chain omega-3 fatty acid DHA — the one that’s so important to the baby’s development during and pregnancy — in their thighs.”

Differences in Food Preference

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It turns out, women may actually be more inclined to crave high-fat and sugary foods compared to men. As Washington Post reporter Jennifer Van Allen points out, a study from 2009 found that even when women said they weren’t hungry, if they were asked to smell, taste and observe foods like pizza, cinnamon buns and chocolate cake, scans revealed activity in areas of the brain that regulate the instinct to eat. This, however, was not true for men. So not only is it physically more difficult for women to lose fat, but a natural inclination towards foods high in fat and sugar could also pose a greater dietary challenge.

Workout Habits

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It’s not fair to make generalizations, but still, it’s mostly true that many women stick to cardio workouts and shy away from weight lifting, which for some, could make it more difficult to lose weight.  “Women, worried about bulking up, tend to lift lighter weights and focus more on cardiovascular fitness, while men tend to gravitate toward the kind of heavy lifting that boosts muscle composition and metabolic rate,” Jim White, a Virginia Beach-based nutrition expert and certified personal trainer told Van Allen. Essentially, if the goal is to burn fat, women can benefit more from incorporating weight lifting in their routines and working with weights that provide a significant challenge to their muscles. 

Post-Workout Hunger Hormones

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Science has also shown that compared to men, women may be more likely to eat more after a workout. Van Allen points to another study from 2009 which found that for women, ghrelin — the hormone that tells us we’re hungry — rises after physical activity, while leptin — the hormone that tells us we’re full — tends to drop. The same effect was not found in men. In other words, after a workout, women are more inclined to eat more, which could make it more difficult to lose weight and even lead to weight gain.

Emotional Eating

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Not only are women more inclined to seek out high-fat and sugary foods and more likely to eat more after working out, but according to a 2013 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition  they may also be more prone to eat for emotional reasons, rather than only out of hunger. “And some emotional eaters, in an effort to feel better, are prone to reach for foods that will ignite the reward center of the brain, which tend to be the sugary, fatty, salty, hyper-palatable foods that can lead to weight gain,” Pamela Peeke, author of the The Hunger Fix: The Three-Stage Detox and Recovery Plan for Overeating and Food Addiction, told Van Allen.

Extreme Measures

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While this evidence is slightly more anecdotal, it’s not entirely outlandish and therefore still worth mentioning. As Cynthia Sass, a registered dietitian and author of S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim, explained to Van Allen, she often sees women resort to measures that most would consider extreme — like juice cleanses, skipping meals or highly restrictive diets for example — when they want to see quicker results or “get back on track.” “Most but not all men tend to just try to get back on track with the original plan, or build in a little more exercise,” Sass said. Basically, they’ll  implement strategies that are not only more balanced and sustainable, but also legitimately effective.