A Dainty Diary of Lifting

Why is weight loss so hard for women?

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I’m having one of those days where I just want to open myself up and poke around to find out what’s going on, because I have no insight from my current perspective. Tomorrow is my second BTFC check-in and after a very strong start, I feel like I’ve already hit a wall. Given the amount of calories that I’ve eaten and my activity level, I feel a little bit shocked that I haven’t lost weight this week. Even with a bit of eating entertainment on Sunday and Monday, I’ve still been running a pretty steep caloric deficit overall.

One of my friends suggested that hormones were coming into play this week and initially I discounted the possibility. Then I started reading “5 myths about your ideal weight” and when I read the last piece of advice, I got a little misty eyed. If tearing up over the most trivial and insignificant things is not a sign of being hormonal, I don’t know what is.

Of course I know, in my head and in my heart that being happy is not just a number on the scale. I have a hard time accepting anything told to me from a women’s health magazine, which tend to be bastions of misinformation, but I’d agree with this sentiment no matter where I found it because this wisdom is entirely self-evident.

The problem is that even when I try to focus on what I’m doing right, there are all of these other voices competing for my attention, and sometimes they are more successful in grabbing my attention and raising doubt in my mind. Lately it feels like the scale has been yelling the loudest and I just can’t escape the number screaming back at me. It’s like a bad relationship and I just need to delete the scale from my Facebook and hit the gym.

This whole week has me thinking about the differences in men and women when it comes to weight loss. It seems like time and time again, I see transformations of chubby guys who hit the gym for 90 days, knock back a couple of protein shakes and get absolutely shredded. Meanwhile, women who post pictures of themselves after doing p90x religiously and overhauling their diets seem to achieve only mediocre progress. Sure, their waists are a bit thinner or their stomach is flatter, but their transformation is never as dramatic as the guy who went from fat to fit. Why does this happen?

I can speculate on a number of reasons. First, men are not subject to the same hormonal fluctuations as women. No guy sat at their desk yesterday and PMSed while craving poutine, doughnuts and cake. I realize that guys get hungry when they run a caloric deficit. But the intensity of hunger during one month of the week is much greater both mentally and physically during one week of the month, for me. Guys never have to worry about that extra-gruelling week. Ant that’s to say nothing about the fat-storage properties of increased hormone levels during a certain time of the month, because even when if I exercise the willpower of a Saint, I can never seem to lose weight during that time frame. Ryan and Stewart (1995) summarize the issue of weight loss for women pretty succinctly, noting that “Female sex hormones, particularly progesterone, adversely influence food intake and energy expenditure, and the menstrual cycle and exogenous hormones for contraception or symptoms of menopause may adversely affect weight. […] Psychologic factors may also play a role. The American culture’s excessive drive for female slimness may promote excessive restrictive eating patterns, which can then trigger binges of overeating.”

There are also physiological differences which come into play: men are able to achieve and maintain lower levels of body fat percentages overall, which better allows them to show off just how jacked they are. They also tend to have a larger base of strength and greater potential for strength. Add in some testosterone and muscle-building – the dreaded “bulking” that so many women fear – becomes a breeze for gentlemen. The end result would naturally be better progress in a shorter time frame.

The problem I have is that everything I’ve said comes down to subjective observations, and while some of these things may seem intuitively true, attempts to quantify these differences seem to disagree. Ballor and Peohlman (1994) conducted a meta-analysis and found that men and women “did not differ with respect to either the amount of body weight lost (mean = -10 +/- 1.4 kg) or fat mass lost (mean = -8 +/- 1.1 kg).” Likewise, Flechtner-Mors et al. (2000) found “no gender differences in percentage weight loss” during a 4-year weight loss study conducted using meal replacements. More recently, Evans et al. (2012) compared weight loss in men and women over a 1 year period and found that both groups lost similar amounts of weight, although it is interesting to note that men lost more body fat in their abdominal area than women.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter whether boys vs. girls holds up true or not. I can’t worry about anyone else’s weight apart from my own, and then I’m left feeling like the hamster that’s been spinning her wheel without progress all week. I’ve been to the gym and killed it all week. I lifted. I swam. I ran. I danced. I did yoga. I ate within my calorie goal for most of the week, and when I went out with friends for supper, I ate a salad. When I ate a piece of cake, I stuck to a single piece and not the whole cake. Overall, I feel like I’ve done all that I can do to get myself closer to my goal this week, even if the scale’s verdict disagrees. So maybe what I need to do is exactly what Women’s Health says I should do: stop obsessing over my weight.


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