March 21, 2024/Weight Loss

Why It Really Is Harder for Women To Lose Weight (and What To Do About It)

Genetics, metabolism and hormonal fluctuations can all make weight loss more difficult

Female struggling to push a large rock up a hill

A wife and husband go on a diet together. Are they both motivated? Yes. Do they each faithfully count calories? Yes. Nevertheless, the husband is more likely to shed unwanted pounds earlier in this process than the wife.

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Why?

Blame it on your genes, some experts say.

“We hear this all the time, and it can be frustrating for women,” recognizes endocrinologist Marcio Griebeler, MD. “But unfortunately, it’s true: Their genetic makeup can make losing weight a little more challenging.”

So, what factors are at work here? Dr. Griebeler walks us through the basics. But first, we need to acknowledge how tricky this topic really is.

An imperfect science

We’re focusing here on biological sex, not gender identity or expression. The word “women,” in this context, refers to people assigned female at birth (AFAB). Likewise, we use “men” to describe people assigned male at birth (AMAB).

People who are undergoing medical transition don’t fit neatly into this conversation. Neither do people with certain intersex conditions, thyroid conditions, inherited metabolic disorders … the list goes on.

We’re painting with broad strokes here. And there are exceptions to almost every rule.

We hope the general principles we’re outlining prove helpful for understanding your personal circumstances. But speaking to an endocrinologist or weight loss specialist about your situation is the best way to get medical advice tailored to your body, medical history and weight loss goals.

OK? OK. Now that we have a foundation, let’s talk about weight loss.

Body composition and metabolism

Women typically have more body fat and less muscle than men. That affects the basic metabolic rate (BMR), or how many calories your body burns while at rest.

“Metabolic rate is, in part, driven by your muscle mass,” Dr. Griebeler explains, “and most women naturally have less muscle and more fat than men.”

It’s important to keep in mind that there’s a good reason why women have more body fat than men. It’s an evolutionary adaptation: Those extra pounds can come in handy during pregnancy.

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It’s also worth noting that shape matters. Men and women have different bone structures and tend to store fat in different parts of their bodies, with women’s fat storage typically being more spread out. That means many women have to lose more weight to see the same change in their appearance.

Pregnancy and menopause

Women undergo multiple different kinds of hormone fluctuations throughout their lives. In addition to puberty — which both men and women experience, though in different ways — women also go through menopause. Many women’s hormones also fluctuate as a result of pregnancy.

Pregnancy

When a person becomes pregnant, they gain weight and body fat. And it doesn’t always go away when the pregnancy ends.

Dr. Griebeler notes that it can be difficult for a new parent to find the time for physical activity and sleep — two things that are crucial for weight loss. But if you breastfeed (chestfeed) your child, it will burn calories and help with weight loss.

Menopause

Women gain weight in their abdomen — as opposed to the hips or thighs, for example — during menopause due to a loss of hormones and a slower metabolism. Muscle mass also decreases with age, which makes it still harder to maintain your pre-menopause weight, much less lose weight.

Hormonal imbalances like PCOS

It’s not unusual for women to experience hormone imbalances at different points in their life. Some are temporary, but others, like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), can be a lifelong struggle. According to Dr. Griebeler, between 5% and 10% of women have PCOS. It’s a condition characterized by a hormonal imbalance that makes weight loss more difficult and causes menstrual irregularity.

But PCOS isn’t the only condition that causes hormone-related weight gain. Cushing’s syndrome, Hashimoto’s disease and hypothyroidism are just a few examples of conditions that cause hormone imbalance leading to weight gain. These conditions are also much more common in women.

How to overcome weight loss obstacles

Despite the challenges biology creates for women trying to lose weight, it’s always possible to take steps in the right direction. Dr. Griebeler offers three suggestions.

Include resistance and weight training

Building muscle mass boosts metabolism. Having more muscle mass helps you burn off calories, even when you’re sitting or at rest.

You can maintain muscle by doing resistance training at least twice a week, for 20 to 30 minutes per session. Dr. Griebeler stresses that this is especially important as you grow older. (Your metabolism naturally slows down and you lose muscle as you age.)

There are several ways to approach resistance training. You can:

  • Use machines at a gym or home.
  • Use free weights or resistance bands.
  • Participate in a group fitness class, like Pilates.
  • Use your body for resistance by doing push-ups, squats and lunges.

Dr. Griebeler encourages women to get comfortable with weights.

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“Women should be weight training to gain the benefits of building muscle, such as increased metabolic rate and prevention of osteoporosis,” he says.

Weight-bearing exercises aren’t only healthy because they’re a good workout, or even because they improve your metabolism. Burning extra calories also decreases insulin resistance, which may help prevent diabetes.

Find the eating pattern that works best for you

Let’s say that a middle-aged man and a middle-aged woman are both interested in losing weight. The amount of calories a man needs for weight loss is about 1,500 per day (depending on height/weight/level of physical activity), but the woman’s calorie needs will be much less — typically about 1,200 calories per day.

Of course, if they’re both getting regular physical activity, those calories may shift slightly higher. For women, maintaining weight loss may mean eating less than men in the long term.

Dr. Griebeler often recommends a balanced eating plan like the Mediterranean diet. He also endorses lower carbohydrate and ketogenic diets, especially for people with PCOS or diabetes who may not tolerate higher-carb meal plans.

“Research on weight loss does not show that there’s one effective eating pattern,” Dr. Griebeler clarifies. “The plan you choose needs to be individualized to your health needs and behaviors.”

Whether you follow an eating plan that’s low in fat, low in carbohydrates or some other plan, make sure your meals are balanced and nutritious. That means eating:

  • Lean proteins.
  • Healthy fats like nuts, olive oil and avocados.
  • Limited, simple carbs (no sugar, white bread, sweetened drinks).
  • Lots of vitamins and minerals from fruits and veggies.

If you’re over age 50, Dr. Griebeler also recommends getting plenty of calcium and Vitamin D, either from food or supplements.

Focus on the long game

When it comes to weight loss, it’s really important to be patient. Men tend to lose weight more quickly at the start, but women do catch up. It’s sort of a tortoise and the hare situation. You’ll both make it over the finish line eventually, but it’s best not to compare your results to other people’s. Somebody will end up discouraged in the process, and nobody needs that!

And remember: Healthy weight loss tends to be gradual. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that people who only lose one to two pounds a week are more likely to avoid gaining it back than people who drop weight quickly. That’s because crash dieting is unsustainable. Slow but steady weight loss promotes broader (and healthier) lifestyle changes.

“If you aren’t seeing results, talk with your healthcare team,” Dr. Griebeler advises. “You may need to try a different plan that will better fit your lifestyle.”

Learn more about our editorial process.

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