Double Standard: Women Must Work Harder to Lose Weight

It's not a myth: women really are at a disadvantage when it comes to shedding pounds

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Trae Patton / NBC

Jeremy Britt shows off his weight loss during the season finale of "The Biggest Loser" on NBC

On The Biggest Loser, more than 60% of the winners have been men. Outside of the show, I’ve heard a lot of women complain that even when they aren’t really “trying,” men seem to have an easier time losing weight. Why?

The answer lies in body composition. Even when obese, men tend to have more muscle mass than women. Women carry approximately 10% more of their body weight in fat. Furthermore, several studies have shown that a man’s metabolism is anywhere from 3% to 10% higher than a woman’s of the same weight and age. That brings us to a physiological truth: the more muscle you have, the higher your metabolism will be and the more calories you will burn, even when resting.

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The type of extra weight you’re carrying matters too. Men tend to have more visceral fat, the kind that accumulates deep in the body, mostly around the organs in their midsections. It may not jiggle around, but it can give a guy some added girth or a big gut. Women have more subcutaneous fat, which sits just under the skin (most often in your hips and thighs). This type of fat tends to jiggle and move, and you might even (unhappily) be able to grab hold of it.

While visceral fat is the more dangerous of the two and has been linked to a long list of health issues, a 2009 study at Cairo University showed that it gets metabolized faster than subcutaneous fat. This means that subcutaneous fat is harder to lose, which is just another hurdle for women who are looking to lose weight.

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And then there’s the harder-to-pin-down issue of emotional eating, and a woman’s greater propensity for it. I can vouch for this from what I’ve seen on The Biggest Loser. On the show, most of the male contestants have become obese because of their off-the-charts portion sizes (and terrifically bad food choices on those big plates), while the women have found themselves in trouble because they steadily snack or binge to cope with stress, sadness or exhaustion. Could it be that women find it more difficult to curb their cravings and exhibit self-control than men? Perhaps, especially when it comes to food. According to a 2008 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, men are better able to handle self-control over food cravings than women are.

With all these factors working against them, it seems that women are at a weight-loss disadvantage, but body composition isn’t destiny — it’s just a minor roadblock. Women need to think smartly about how to make their bodies work for them, for example, by taking advantage of the connection between muscle mass and metabolism, or making note of the triggers for emotional eating and reversing them. These changes — while not always easy — can make a real impact on weight loss over the short and long term and help make the gender gap disappear.

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