This year, my friend Alexandra and her boyfriend, Jesse, made a New Year’s resolution that’s all too familiar to many of us—lose those extra pounds they’d both gained since moving in together. The Santa Monica, CA couple started strong—joining a local gym, biking with their dog along the beach, and swapping buttery morning croissants for low-fat granola and yogurt. And it worked. Well, for one of them, at least. Two months in, Jesse had lost all the weight and then some.
“He was in the best shape of his life,” Smith laughs. “Despite the fact that I was working just as hard (if not harder to try to compensate) as he was, my jeans were maybe a tad looser. It seemed like so much less work for him.”
Reality or Our Imaginations?
As if the whole childbirth thing wasn’t enough, many women have felt the frustration of packing on the pounds faster—and holding on to them a lot longer—than their testosterone-packing counterparts. Why is it that a man can turn his stomach into a six-pack faster than you can say “beer belly,” while quitting carbs and working out six days a week barely moves me down a pants size?
The good news is that women aren’t imagining this. Men do tend to lose weight more easily according to fitness and nutrition experts.
“Men tend to weigh more, so they burn up more calories,” says Mark Jellinson, a San Francisco-based personal trainer. The bigger you are, the more calories you burn through just living day-to-day, sort of like how my tiny apartment barely eats up any electricity, but my friends’ bigger suburban homes go hand-in-hand with much bigger bills.
And the size difference isn’t the only thing women have going against them.
HSL vs. LPL: What’s the Difference?
There are physiologic reasons (meaning we can’t fight ’em) for why men and women store fat differently and lose it at different rates. It’s no random coincidence that most women develop soft curves, where men stick with their beanpole shape (give or take a few muscles) from childhood into their senior years. These differences in our body shapes stem from our different concentrations of two hormones: lipoprotein lipase (LPL) and hormone-sensitive lipase (HSL). LPL encourages fat storage and HSL stimulates fat removal. Women have more LPL, especially in areas like our bellies, hips, and thighs, making it a lot harder to avoid and lose fat in those spots.
Those Dastardly Hormones
When it comes to losing weight, our hormone receptors (found on our fat cell walls) play into things, too. Alpha receptors inhibit fat breakdown and beta receptors stimulate it. Again, guess which one women have more of? That’s right, women have more alpha receptors—especially in the hip and thigh area. This is why men—even if they start out with larger bellies than us—shed them much easier and faster than us beta-impaired ladies. Our fat cells just aren’t as willing to break down and leave us behind.
The Estrogen Factor
Women also have higher levels of estrogen. This hormone keeps fat on our bodies because more fat makes it easier for us to get pregnant and successfully carry a baby. (That darn survival of the fittest thing, again.) Since birth control basically tricks our bodies into thinking that they’re already pregnant, this is why starting the pill causes some of us to pack on a few extra pounds. Our bodies plump up as if they were preparing to care for us and our growing fetus. Fattier breasts, hips, and thighs are Mother Nature’s way of preparing us to reproduce.
Fat vs. Muscle
Yet another weight-loss windfall for the men—muscle burns more calories than fat. Men have a higher mass of muscles than women thanks to the higher amounts of testosterone they have coursing through their bodies. This means that even at rest, men are continuously burning more calories than women. “The more muscle you have in relation to fat, the higher your resting metabolism,” says Jellinson.
Women Need More Than Exercise
“Exercise will contribute just a fraction to what your body looks like,” says Jellinson. “It’s 90 percent what you eat.” One study of 962 men and women enrolled in a two-year weight loss program found that exercise alone was enough to help men lose weight. On the other hand, the study found that in women, even significant increases in exercise didn’t produce weight loss alone. Women were more likely to need to reduce their daily calorie counts to see results.
“Women’s bodies are made to survive,” says Jellinson. “They’ll hold on to fat longer than guys’ will.” This goes back to that alpha- and beta-receptor factor. Jellinson emphasized that this shouldn’t discourage women from exercising, though—there are still tons of benefits to be had from an active lifestyle, like increased happiness, lower stress levels, and stronger bones, to name just a few.
Our Approaches Are Different
Blame our mothers, blame society, blame yourself—whatever the reason, it’s hard to deny the heavy set of issues women have surrounding dieting and body image. Men generally have fewer body image issues than women and therefore go about losing weight in very different ways. “Male clients come to me because they’re concerned about their overall fitness and health,” says Jellinson. “Women usually show up to change their appearance as fast as possible.” This means guys are a lot less focused on the bathroom scale and quick results, and focused instead on the long-term, life-changing benefits of exercising and eating reasonably portioned, healthy meals.
“I see so many women beating themselves up over a few meaningless pounds,” says Jellinson. Women are also much more likely to eat because of their emotions, turning to ice cream for stress, anxiety, boredom, loneliness, even happiness. “Guys usually have a pretty strong link between their physical hunger and their eating patterns,” he says.
Whether we’re born guy or girl, there are just some things we have to come to terms with. Regardless of the speed of our weight loss, all the studies I read and health experts I talked to emphasized how important exercise and a diet of whole, fresh foods are, regardless of our jean size. Because even if we look darn good on the outside, it’s not going to matter for too long if our insides aren’t healthy, too. Next step—keeping up my newfound positive attitude until my next trip to the dressing room …