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Obesity is Unfair to Women

Photograph by Karen Kasmauski

Photograph by Karen Kasmauski

in the recent Scientific Statement of the American Heart Association on Population-Based Prevention, a section on gender disparities caught my attention.

The basic tenor here was that although women appear far more concerned and conscious about healthy eating and weight issues, obesity prevention may actually be more difficult for women than men.

Here is why:

1. Women have lower caloric requirements than men on average and must, therefore, consume less food than men if they are to remain in energy balance. This may be particularly disadvantageous for women when eating out, given that restaurant and take-home portion sizes are the same whether the customer is male or female. (both genders tend to lick their platters clean!)

2. Because of their lower caloric requirements, unwitting consumption of a few hundred extra calories is more detrimental to energy balance for women than men.

3. Offsetting excess caloric intake by extra expenditure through physical activity is more difficult for women, because of their smaller body size and substantially lesser amount of lean tissue.

4. Depression, which has been associated with overeating and weight gain, both with respect to using food for comfort and because many antidepressants cause weight gain, is substantially more common in women than in men. Also, more women than men reported overeating under stress.

5. Leisure time or recreational activity levels are lower for females than males, declining markedly in adolescence. Moreover, opportunities for physical activity in women are constrained by greater caregiving responsibilities and safety concerns that affect times and places available for physical activity.

6. Socially acceptable forms of physical activity may be fewer for women than men, particularly in some ethnic groups. Social concerns may include displeasure of spouses or other household members, because exercise may be perceived as taking a woman away from family responsibilities.

7. Occupational activity levels are also often lower for females.

8. Women are more likely to diet or weight cycle, both risk factors for long-term weight gain.

9. Women are at risk of retaining the weight gained during pregnancy.

Reasons enough for women to have a much harder time preventing weight gain than men.

Perhaps something to keep in mind when counseling your female patients.

Edmonton, Alberta


  1. Great comments Arya. I tell many of my women patients this fact, it helps them to understand that they cannot eat the same amount as their husbands. They often come in and say, my husband is a rake, he can eat anything. Well, this clearly identifies that you “my female” patient cannot follow her male partners lead, due to the vast differences you have mentioned. It helps to empower them to eat better. Great points Arya.

    Sean Wharton, MD, FRCPC
    Weight Management Centre, Hamilton, Ont.

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  2. Very interesting topic. As an R.D., my biggest challenge is getting my female clients to remember that a decrease in inches, even in the absence of weight loss is still a win! This links into point 6, and also to the fact that many woman have been “programmed” that the scale number is all that matters. When they initiate an exercise program, especially involving resistance (weight) training, they may become discouraged due to a perceived “lack of progress”, when in fact they are progressing fine! I can also relate to points 8 and 9, which I’ve repeatedly seen in my practice. Great site!

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  3. I really enjoy to read your posts! I´m a brazilian psychologist and I work in the obesity field for 15 years. I was thinking about the gender differences in my practice… men and women have different motivations and report different worries when they search a treatment to lose weight. They also report different onset for their obesity. Women usually come with a long diet and weight cycle history. Most of them come incredulous and suspicious about the treatment, they don´t really believe it could work. Men come worried about their health and tell they haven´t change their eating habits, but they had to stop exercising when they got married, or started studying or working. When they look for help by themselves, they are motivated to change. I know that´s not the rule, but gender differences is an interesting subject to better think clinical practice.

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