It is a fact that weight loss is a very different challenge for women than for men. Yes, men also struggle with their weight and body image. Men, too, lose weight one pound at a time. However, weight loss can be much easier for men than women—partly due to biology, of course, but a lot has to do with society.
If you’re a man, being kind to yourself will help you on your weight loss-journey.
If you’re a woman, it’s even more important.
Kindness, Socialization, and Weight Loss
Socialization and kindness influence weight loss in the following way. Being willing to forgive yourself mistakes allows you to learn from them so you can change your behavior. This is absolutely vital for successful weight loss. That’s because losing more than a very few pounds of weight, then keeping it off, requires changing your eating habits and (usually) your relationship with both food and your body.
This takes time. You will have days when you eat really great, nourishing food that is wonderful for your body and makes you feel terrific. And there will be days when nothing but lunch at your favorite fast food restaurant will satisfy you. Even though it may not make you feel so great afterward. And you know what? That’s perfectly fine. Because one fast food meal will not hurt you any more than one terrific salad (that would make even the most dedicated carnivore say, Mine, all m-i-n-e) will help it.
Yet women face significantly more pressure than men to be attractive. Women are also bombarded with significantly greater amounts and substantially less realistic images of female attractiveness than men face of male attractiveness. It is inherently cruel to ourselves to judge our bodies against a physical standard that virtually none of us can meet.
Venus and Serena Williams are pure, womanly glory in motion and they can’t meet this standard.
All comparing yourself to a standard that is literally inhuman does is set you up for…not liking yourself very much.
And harsh, unrealistic self-criticism does not help you make good decisions for yourself. Including about weight loss.
Kindness and Decision-Making
Being kind to yourself for your decisions has a profound effect upon weight loss because willpower, the ability to make decisions and then execute them, is a finite resource.
Some of the most significant decisions women make directly impact body image.
There are very few social situations in which being attractive is a liability. However, as important as it is for a man to be physically attractive, it is even more important for women: for work, social and marriage prospects. Yet attractiveness is a much sharper double-edged sword for women than for men. Women must be attractive enough to be perceived as competent, but not too attractive lest they be perceived as incompetent or targets for manipulation. Or using their physical assets to get the job. Women are also considered more competent if they wear more makeup than if they wear less or none—but that doesn’t mean quickly troweling it on.
Every day, women face significantly more decisions about how to present themselves than men do. Women face issues about clothing, make-up, and hairstyles, as well as overall self-presentation, that men simply do not. And unlike men who gain weight, women who gain weight find their pay and their prestige decreasing.
Combine this with women’s frequently lower wages and often greater responsibility for the home and family, and many women have to make significantly more decisions than men. Many also face significantly more stress than men. This unending psychological stress triggers cortisol production, itself a driver of weight gain. High levels of cortisol increase your cravings for sweets and comfort foods high in refined carbs, which your body rapidly converts to sugar. Learning positive ways to relieve stress without engaging in comfort eating is often a significant part of weight loss, especially long-term, lasting weight loss.
Men who want to lose fat typically get very realistic weight loss advice. They are encouraged to eat enough and to eat enough protein and healthy fat, both of which are extremely important for sustainable weight loss. Men are also not told to deprive themselves. And that’s a good thing, because deprivation leads to binge eating, itself a major driver of weight gain and obesity. Men are also encouraged from the start to do one of the most important weight loss exercises there is: lift weights to build muscle, which burns calories.
Women are socialized to fear that lifting weights will turn them into the Incredible Hulk. In fact, most men can never, ever become Hulks no matter how hard they try. You see a lot of women fitness models holding little light dumbbells… that they absolutely did not use to shape their bodies. They used much, much heavier ones—and still look beautifully burnished rather than brawny.
Worse, women are almost exclusively targeted for diet scams that are little better than thinly-disguised starvation. And no one wins against hunger: these diets force your body to burn muscle, which slows your metabolism. Then, when you start eating again, as you have to, you often experience significant rebound weight gain. However, these scams ensure a vast pool of repeat customers who blame themselves for unsuccessful weight loss.
The female body is meant to be, wants to be, and needs to be, strong and well-fed. Being kind to your body by feeding it healthy, nourishing foods, not too much, not too little, and giving it the exercise it needs to be strong, are not the weight loss advice women receive.
The female body can be tuned to be strong and burn fat like the male body. The trick is knowing what is right for her, and acknowledging that it is not necessarily what is right for him—a disadvantageous trip-up resulting from much more health research having been conducted in men.
For example, the female body is generally significantly smaller than the male body, so portion sizes do us a lot more harm. Let’s take a look, shall we?
On average, a sedentary 125-pound woman needs about 1600 calories a day to maintain her weight. A sedentary 175-pound man needs about 2300 calories to maintain his.
But if you go to the Cheesecake Factory and order their Bistro Shrimp Pasta, that’s over 3,100 calories. About a day and a third of food if you’re that guy above… but nearly two whole days if you’re that gal above. Add an appetizer, like hot spinach and cheese dip (1030 calories) and a dessert like plain, original cheese cake (710 calories) and you can do the math.
Even worse? You are hard-wired to eat what you see: all of it. It is absolutely not a failure of your will if you find yourself eating a huge amount of food that has been set before you.
No wonder weight loss can be harder for women than men!
So instead of blaming yourself, don’t put yourself in a situation where you and your body lose. Treat yourself and set yourself up for weight loss at the same time.
If you can, frequent restaurants that serve “lighter” fare. This isn’t diet food, it’s normal food. If you still find the portions uncomfortably large, ask for half to be boxed up for take home. You’ll get two or more meals out of it and you will greatly reduce your temptation.
One of the keys to weight loss, especially weight loss that you can sustain over the long term, is simply to avoid temptation… which reduces your stress.
Hormones—With or Without
Finally, women have to deal with hormonal issues that men simply don’t face, or face at a much slower rate that affords them more time to compensate.
For some women, cramps are a very minor inconvenience (if that), bloating means perhaps loosening their belts a hole, and their emotions and appetites are stable. Other women suffer painful cramps, retain so much fluid that that they feel their skins are about to burst open, are extremely emotional, and suffer from cravings, often for sweet and carbohydrate-rich foods. (These foods raise your levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is widely accepted as stabilizing your mood.)
Bloating & Pain
There are no two ways about it when dealing with menstrual bloating. Don’t step on the scale, keep drinking water and avoid added salt. Get more of the foods that can actually help rid you of the excess, including those high in potassium. This will actually help you feel better—physically and psychologically. Instead, continue exercising, as it not only helps reduce bloating, lowers your cortisol and increases your serotonin levels, but many exercises can actually reduce menstrual pain. In other words, stay on target towards your weight loss goals by eating right and giving your body a chance to move. Don’t torment yourself over a physiological process that you really can’t control. That’s just another source of stress, and stress isn’t good for anyone’s weight loss.
Cravings & Mood
As for menstrual cravings, feed them. That’s right.
Though they may be calling your name, avoid refined carbs and simple sugars: these trigger a blood sugar spike, followed by an insulin reaction that makes your cravings worse. Avoid fried foods, as these may worsen cramps.
Instead, eat complex carbs balanced by proteins to stabilize your serotonin levels without triggering blood sugar spikes, and even some fat for an extra touch of satiety. A small serving of antioxidant rich dark (at least 70% cocoa; higher is better) dark chocolate is another excellent way to feed your cravings. Very dark, intense chocolate is so rich that a little is extremely satisfying. And it contains a compound that research suggests may boost your mood.
Two or 3 times a day, eat snacks of about 15-30 g of sweet and satiating carbohydrates, combined with satiating protein and soothing fats. Do this on an empty stomach.
Examples of these snacks could be
Fruits such as banana, as it not only kills cravings, but also provides nutrients that are key during your cycle.
Yogurt, as the calcium, B-vitamins, protein, and probiotics work together to balance your system.
“Good” fat, such as chia seeds, which send the right signals to the brain.
It’s nearly impossible to starve a craving. But feeding it nips it in the bud. And it’s not just better for weight loss, it’s better for how you feel and how you feel about yourself.
Finally, if your menstrual cycle torments you, have a conversation with your health care provider about conventional or alternative medical options. They are not all the same. Tiny differences in methods and/or dosages can make huge differences in your quality of life.
In midlife, women undergo the transition to menopause. Menopause is marked by a steep reduction in hormones that not only support reproduction, but also afford cardiometabolic health protection. One of these ways is through body composition that favors lean over fat tissue, and the loss of such a key protective mechanism is accompanied by an increase in independent risk factors, as well as body fat gain—especially in the dangerous belly area—that carries its own degree of risk. Add to this any social, economic, and family struggles, and it may seem like an insurmountable challenge.
Ironically, it can be anything but. Sometimes such a seemingly perfect storm can be the wake-up call you need to get your health in order. And the wisdom of maturity is just what the doctor ordered. Many of us who leaned on youth as a crutch to neglect our health can be empowered by the knowledge that the years ahead will polish away the tarnish of years past and be truly golden.
Lifestyle interventions such as exercise and health nutrition, especially types that are gender-friendly, can minimize and manage unwanted changes in body make-up and metabolism. And the best path? Easing into it, taking steps at your own pace, recognizing that perfection is not essential and backsliding is part of moving forward, and making it fit your life instead of the other way around. Ultimately, it is all about your life.
Kindness and Forgiveness are Vital for Weight Loss Success
A kind attitude towards your body, yourself and weight loss is not pretending that how your treat your body does not have consequences—of which weight loss is only one part.
Instead, it is acknowledging that treating your body and yourself kindly are absolutely vital for good health, which for most of us does include weight loss.
That’s because weight loss isn’t about punishing your body for your past mistakes. It’s about freeing your body from excess weight that is very hard for it to carry around. It’s about eating food your body can use to nourish you, not food it is forced to store as fat. Because food is also about pleasure, sometimes it’s about simply eating something you enjoy: eating for weight loss is most definitely not all-or-nothing. Indeed, in many ways eating for weight loss is about eating for pleasure: the pleasure of real, tasty, nourishing food. And yes, that sometimes means a rich dessert that appeals to your senses.
And it’s also about recognizing that just like weight gain rarely happens overnight, weight loss won’t happen overnight, and that establishing healthy eating patterns takes time… and positive reinforcement, even for small successes… rather than criticism for the inevitable blips that are life.