As the saying goes, men are from Mars, women are from Venusâeven when it comes to weight loss.
For various psychological and biological reasons, women tend to have a very different relationship with food than men do. Take this example: For a 2009 study, researchers had a small group of men and women fast for 20 hours, then undergo brain scans while being presented with their favorite foods (like pizza and chocolate cake). The volunteers were asked to smell and look at the foods, but not eat them. In the end, the researchers found that both men and women could stifle the urge to eat when asked to try, but only the men showed an actual decrease in activity in the motivation centers of their brains.
In other words, unlike the men's brains, the women's brains were still driving them to indulge. Scientists say this could be due to hormonal differences, or simply that women are hard-wired to eat when food's available because they need more body fat than men do.
Women also tend to have a different relationship with their bodies, and often have different reasons for gaining weight in the first place (hello, baby weight!). In my practice, I've counseled plenty of people of both genders working hard to shed pounds, and I've found that some tactics seem to work for men, but not women and vice versa.
Gender differences aren't true across the boardâeveryone is different. But with that caveat, here are four ways women differ from men when it comes to weight loss, plus the strategies that are particularly important, specifically for women.
How they think about the scale
Many (not all) of the men I work with are pretty objective about the number on the scale, and view it simply as a piece of data. For many women, however, an increase, no change, or not enough of a decrease, can trigger feelings of frustration, anger, or depression, leading to a loss of motivation. If thatâs true for you, banish the scale.
The truth is weight fluctuations are normal, no matter how much you weigh. And you could be losing body fat but still seeing no change on the scale because youâre more hydrated or gaining muscle. The bottom line: You've got to focus on the pattern over time. You know your body better than anyone, so use other means of assessing how well youâre doing, including not just how you look and how your clothes fit, but also how you feel (more energy, better mood, predictable hunger, and so on).
How they handle stress
One of the top weight loss derailers for women is emotional eating. It can be true for men as well, but in my experience, there is a definite disparity. One reason is that many men I work with have habitual activities that help them cope with stress, like playing golf or video games.
But many of the women I counsel either donât have regular ways to blow off steam, or their usual outlets revolve around eating or drinking (example: girls' night). If food has become your go-to way to either disconnect from intense emotions, or cope with them, no amount of willpower is going to break that pattern. The key is finding other healthy ways to address emotions so you wonât need chips, chocolate, or a sugary cocktail. What works for one person may not work for another though, so try different things (meditation, art, crafts, music, writing) to find your non-food escape.
This may be the single most important strategy for long-term weight loss success.
The kind of support they need
On a similar note, I find that support can make or break weight loss success, particularly for women. Many of my female clients feel that their significant others or family members not only donât lend support, but sometimes subtly sabotage their healthy efforts (just have a bite, letâs order a pizza). Most women really need someone in their corner who gets it, cheers on small successes (like not giving into emotional eating) and isnât going to talk them out of continuing on a healthy path. It can be a professional, a friend, or even someone you connect with online through social media who has a similar goal. If youâve had a challenging day and need a pep talk, having someone at the ready to turn to can allow you to hang in there and keep on keeping on.
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The all-or-nothing approach
While itâs generally not true for men, many women I counsel tend to have an all-or-nothing approach to weight loss, meaning one âbadâ meal or day leads to throwing in the towel. But deep down they know that it's not realistic, or even necessary, to go through life never eating dessert or a French fry.
The best solution, I find, is to plan splurges in advance. For example, if youâre going to a restaurant that serves one of your favorite desserts, order a healthy meal of lean protein and veggies to make room for it, then savor it, stop when you feel satisfied, and move on, without guilt. One of my clients recently followed through with this tactic, and while she reported that it âfelt weirdâ compared to her usual pattern of eating âperfectlyâ or going all out (drinks, bread, dinner, dessert) she felt great afterwards (satisfied but not stuffed), her clothes werenât tighter the next day, and she said it felt like a lifestyle, not a âdietââbingo!
If youâre a woman, some of these may not hold true for you. If thatâs the case, I do think itâs important to know what helps you boost your personal stick-with-it-ness. Regardless of your gender, understanding that is an important key to losing weight successfully, and keeping it off for good.
Cynthia SassÂ is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with masterâs degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen onÂ national TV, sheâs Healthâs contributing nutrition editor, and privately counselsÂ clientsÂ in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the New York Yankees MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Cynthia is a three-time New York Times best-selling author, and her brand new book is Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast. Connect with her onÂ Facebook,Â TwitterÂ andÂ Pinterest.