Should men and women take different nutritional approaches to weight loss?(Photo: Getty Images)
Jay Rishel, 34, still dreams of tater tots. But that’s about all the computer systems administrator in York, Pennsylvania, misses about his old, carb-heavy lifestyle. Since going on a ketogenic diet last July – trading his potatoes for bacon – he’s lost more than 30 pounds and rarely feels hungry. “It kind of changes your whole relationship with food,” he says.
His wife has a different story. A few months after adopting a less restrictive version of her husband’s diet, she experienced stomach pain so severe she wound up in the emergency room. Doctors suspected gallstones, which can be triggered by dieting.
Needless to say, “it seemed that my high-fat diet wasn’t working well for her,” Rishel says. The pair now eats leaner meats that Rishel tops with cream or another high-fat sauce, and his wife’s stomach pain has lessened. His words of wisdom for other couples considering the same diet plan? “The advice might be don’t,” Rishel says.
While experts say the central components of a healthy diet – high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy – are gender-neutral, there are both biological and behavioral differences between men and women that may make some types of diets more effective, or at least more appealing, to each sex.
As for the Rishels, their experience demonstrates just how much diets can affect people differently, regardless of gender, says Elisabetta Politi, the nutrition director of Duke University’s Diet & Fitness Center and one of U.S. News’ expert panelists for the Best Diets rankings.
“I don’t sit down with a client so much thinking of the gender,” Politi says, “but from the conversation I have with them, [we come] up with what is a sustainable plan.”
Battle of the Sexes: Weight-Loss Edition
Here’s a fact of life that many women resent: Men lose more weight and faster. They’re bigger and have more muscle mass in general, which means that they burn more calories – whether at rest or at play. “They wake up every morning with a bonus that women don’t have,” Politi says.
Melissa Musiker, a registered dietitian in the District of Columbia who works in public relations, knows that firsthand. When her husband decided to try Weight Watchers with her in 2013, “weight would just melt off of him in the most obnoxious way,” she says. “For me, it was a struggle.”
Men’s brains might also give them a leg up when it comes to resisting temptation.
In a 2009 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers measured the brain activity of 23 hungry men and women while tempting them with their favorite foods. (Among their choices: a cheeseburger, ribs, chocolate cake and a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich.) While both men and women reported to be less hungry when told to resist the treats, only men’s brains actually mirrored that.
The results support what Musiker has seen with her husband: Women have a tougher time controlling cravings. “He’d say, ‘I just don’t eat that anymore,’ whereas I’d be sitting there measuring out how much cheesecake I could eat for 3 points,” she says.
But there’s a silver lining for the ladies, Politi says. Just because a man sheds pounds faster, doesn’t mean he’ll sustain the weight loss longer. “How fast you lose weight is not a predictor of how well you’re going to keep it off,” she says. “Some lose very well and regain it.”
Choosing a Diet
In U.S. News’ Best Diets rankings, the results apply to both men and women: The DASH Diet and TLC Diet ranked in first and second place, respectively, while the Mayo Clinic Diet, Mediterranean diet and Weight Watchers tied for third.
“I would group men and women together when discussing a ‘best fit’ diet, simply because – aside from differences in energy and nutrient needs based on body size and muscle mass – the fundamental needs are very similar,” says Lawrence Cheskin, director of Johns Hopkins’ Weight Management Center and a U.S. News Best Diets panelist.
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Still, components of some diets might appeal more to one gender than the other – an important consideration since it’s really the diet that you’ll stick with that will work the best, says Musiker, chair of the District of Columbia Board of Dietetics and Nutrition. “Any diet can make you lose weight because you eat less,” she says. “What’s really critical is that maintenance phase and figuring out what’s going to empower you to maintain it – not just help you lose it.”
For women, that’s often diets that emphasize fruits and vegetables, such as DASH and the Mediterranean diets, because women tend to eat more of those foods in the first place, says Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietitian in Boston and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In Cheskin’s experience, he’s seen women drawn to meal plans that are lower in fat and offer sugar-free alternatives to their traditional choices.
Men, on the other hand, are often more attracted to high-protein diets, such as Atkins and paleo, “some because they prefer the taste, others out of a desire to build additional muscle mass,” Cheskin says. (High-protein diets, however, don’t necessarily build muscle, he adds, noting that Americans already tend to consume adequate protein and need resistance exercise to boost muscle.) Men also tend to prefer diets that don’t require calorie counting or impose limits, but rather eliminate certain food groups altogether, Politi says. “When it comes to portion control, men have a hard time,” she says. “They just like the diet where you don’t have to count calories, where you don’t have to control the portion, where you’re just told to eat certain food – and especially food they like.” That was the case for Rishel, whose ketogenic diet requires him to eat lots of fat, few carbs and moderate protein.
The built-in support system that comes with some plans, including Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, also seems to be a bigger factor for women than men. “[Dieting] can feel a little bit socially isolating, and I think men and women respond to that in different ways,” Musiker says. For her, the added support from her husband made following the plan “100 times easier,” she says. “When you do something like that alone, your partner’s bad habits can be sabotagers for you.”
Of course, any healthy diet can work for both men and women. Emily Dubyoski, a dietitian who works with Cheskin at Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center, endorses both the DASH and TLC diets, but says the Flexitarian and Volumetrics diets “may be good places to begin, since they are a little more flexible and may be easier to start out with.”
That leeway was key for Musiker and her husband, who found Weight Watchers to suit both of their priorities: He could still eat Chipotle (minus the chips and guac), and she could still enjoy a taste of cheesecake. He could still meet friends for a beer; she could still do the same for lunch. “It’s less focused on what you eat and more on the behavior of how you’re eating it,” she says.
Overall, there’s less gender division in diets today than in the past – and that’s a good thing, Blake says.
“The boomers are raising millennials who are very conscientious about what’s in their food, where it comes from … and that’s gender-free,” she says. “The tide is changing where you’re going to see less of a gender difference and more of just people in general understanding and looking for healthier options.”
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