Why do so many men have a problem with their weight? A recent report from a British think tank Social Market Foundation found that men in the UK were significantly more likely to be overweight than women (41 vs 31 per cent), based on their body mass index. The group called for new strategies for helping men to lose weight including setting up advice and support sessions in barber shops.
In recent years the ‘gender weight gap’ has been identified as a major talking point in the ongoing fight against obesity. Men seem to be more prone to putting on weight, for a series of reasons, but women are far more likely to take steps to address the issue. Of those who engage with structured weight loss regimes, the overwhelming majority are female.
Joining a group has consistently been shown to be one of the most effective routes to sustainable weight loss - and the problem of how to get more men to do so has perplexed obesity experts around the globe, including Fiona Gillison, a professor of health psychology at the University of Bath. She says men feel support groups aren’t ‘for’ them. "The people attending are predominantly women, so they may look visibly off-putting, and lower men’s expectations that the service is really for them, and relevant to them," Gillison says.
It matters because studies show even modest amounts of weight loss, where individuals shed five to 10 per cent of their initial body weight, have been associated with numerous benefits from cardiovascular health to sleep quality. And such achievements can be achieved with fairly simple changes.
Researchers like Gillison find this tantalising because when men do commit to losing weight, they tend to be better at doing so than women.
But why might men find it easier to shed pounds? Scientists who study metabolism believe it may come down to their different body compositions. To begin with, men tend to be larger on average than women, and as such, studies measuring the energy expenditure of men and women while sat in a metabolic chamber have found that men tend to burn between 70 and 100 more calories per day.
"Bigger people use more energy to stay alive, roughly in proportion to the size of them," says Paul Aveyard, professor of behavioural medicine at the University of Oxford. "Someone with a BMI of 30 needs to eat more food to stay at a steady weight, than a person with the same height, and a BMI of 22. In general, when people try to restrict the energy they eat, bigger people will tend to lose more weight for that reason – 1,500 calories per day in a bigger person will lead to a greater energy deficit, and hence more fat burning, than 1,500 calories a day in a smaller person."
Size alone is not the only factor. As well as sex hormones – fluctuations in oestrogen make it harder for women to lose weight in middle age – Aveyard points out that men naturally have more muscle, while fat tissue makes up a larger proportion of women’s bodies. "Fat tissue uses less energy to keep the cells alive than does lean tissue, so men will tend to need to eat more food a day," he says. "When men and women restrict by the same amount, men will tend to lose more weight than women."
But the major issue remains finding a way to persuade men to commit to losing weight in the first place. Research has shown that structured exercise programmes, and particularly intensive low fat diets tend to work better in men than women, though scientists suspect the reason for this is perhaps more psychological than biological.
A problem is that general stereotypes about obesity and weight loss being female-only problems may have influenced perceptions within the scientific community. In recent years, it has been noted that the majority of academic research on obesity and methods of losing weight has been focused on women. While many other areas of health have recently been shown to be at risk of bias because of women being under represented, one review of 244 trials of weight loss programmes found that just 27 per cent of those involved were men.
Such perceptions have filtered over into clinical practice. Earlier this year a study from the British National Institute for Health Research found that nine in 10 GP referrals for weight management regimes are for women. Aveyard believes that because GPs do not tend to refer men to such interventions, fewer men take the problem seriously.
"GPs don’t get taught about how to help people with obesity in medical school or beyond, so they are doing the best they can on a scientifically informed lay understanding of obesity. But in the same way that we see weight loss programmes as typically for women not men, so do GPs," he says.
New technologies could provide a more practical way of getting men engaged with weight loss advice and support. Gillison suggests that digital apps could provide a means of helping with goal setting and behavioural management when it comes to men’s relationship with food.
"Men are big users of gadgets that allow us to set and monitor fitness goals which can be extended to diet so can be a good way in," she says.
In 2019, Swedish researchers at Linkoping University pioneered a program which successfully recruited overweight male supporters of football and ice hockey clubs, aged between 35 and 65, and enrolled them in male-only weight loss programmes. A similar programme called Football Fans in Training which started in Scottish football clubs, but has now spread around the globe, has also shown promise. Of course not all men are interested in football, nor do they live near clubs to deliver this.
However, "these are weight programmes that men are happy to be seen going to, that feel relevant and designed for them", says Gillison. "Men and women are not that different – we all need social support to help get through something as difficult to do as lose weight – but who we get it from and how we talk about it is."
The Daily Telegraph