Although weight-loss programs abound, and men usually lose weight more easily than women (because of greater muscle mass and a higher metabolic rate), men tend to shy away from diet plans. And that's unfortunate, because obesity levels are almost as high in American men as in women, affecting about one-third of each gender.
Men tend to view the typical behavioral and lifestyle interventions of weight-loss plans as being complicated, time-consuming, and designed for women. Traditionally, too, grocery shopping, cooking, and food preparation have been portrayed as “women’s work.”
Although those gender lines are blurring, most men are still largely in the dark about the components of a healthy diet, not to mention those of a weight-loss diet, and they usually only begin to be concerned about their health and weight as they confront age-related health events, such as heart attacks and strokes.
It doesn’t help that there’s been relatively little research done on the types of weight-loss programs that might appeal to men—and that men make up only a quarter of the subjects enrolled in randomized controlled trials of weight-loss interventions.
Weight-loss challenges for men
Challenge No. 1 is that, thanks to the male hormone testosterone, men tend to carry their weight around the belly, the most dangerous site for excess pounds.
There are two types of belly fat—soft subcutaneous fat under the skin, and hard visceral fat, which is buried deep in the abdomen. Both types of fat protect the organs, but visceral fat produces chemicals that can lead to diabetes, heart disease, and dementia.
A waist size over 40 inches in men is considered a risk factor for these diseases. The good news is that visceral fat is one of the types of fat easiest and quickest to lose.
Other challenges have to do with men’s perceptions and motivations to lose weight. Surveys suggest that men have a lower awareness and less knowledge of nutrition and weight-loss diets than women. For example, some men view healthy foods as unpalatable, and men tend to associate protein almost solely with red meat (and barbecuing with manliness). While red meat is OK in moderation, it’s not the healthiest source of everyday protein.
In addition, men are more likely than women to eat high-calorie foods and less likely to eat fruits and vegetables. They tend to be less concerned and less aware of being overweight than women, who are held to a stricter societal standard in terms of body size (i.e., there’s more pressure put on women to be thin than on men). In fact, men often associate a large body size with being masculine, and because of their larger size, they often have higher caloric requirements than women.
A 2005 study in the Journal of Men’s Health and Gender shows that the most problematic consumption behaviors for men are drinking alcoholic beverages, followed by craving sweets and wanting to eat out. On the upside, while women often have a complicated relationship with food, fraught with emotion, men have a simpler, more enjoyable attitude toward eating.
Targeted interventions for men
With the recognition that overweight and obesity are spiraling out of control in our society, researchers are starting to investigate how to attract men to weight-loss interventions. One way is to develop male-only programs.
The Rethinking Eating and FITness (REFIT) trial, which was conducted in North Carolina, enrolled 107 men between the ages of 18 and 65 with a body mass index (BMI) between 25 and 40 for a six-month program (a BMI of 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight, while 30 and over is obese).
The men were randomly divided into two groups, with half assigned to a control group and half to an intervention group; the latter entailed two in-person meetings with health professionals and regular follow-up via the Internet. These men were instructed to reduce their daily caloric intake by 600 calories (by making six 100-calorie changes to their eating habits) and to increase their physical activity level.
At the end of the trial, 49 percent of the men in the intervention group had lost 5 percent of their initial body weight compared to only 19 percent of those in the control group. Most men lost about 11 pounds and were found to have maintained that weight loss six months after the trial ended.
An innovative trial conducted in Scotland tried to appeal to men in need of losing weight by using professional football (soccer) fan clubs to entice them into a program. The Football Fans in Training (FFIT) program entailed 12 weekly sessions, during which community coaches gave talks on weight loss, healthy eating, and physical activity and then led the group in exercise.
Men were encouraged to walk an additional 45 minutes on most days of the week and to follow a weight loss diet that reduced their usual caloric intake by 600 calories a day. They were also advised to establish goals for themselves and interact with other members of the group.
After the 12 weeks, half of the men who went to the talks had lost up to 5 percent of their initial body weight, compared with roughly the same percentage of men who gained weight in the no-intervention comparison group. When the researchers checked back with the men one year later, approximately 3.5 percent had maintained their weight loss.
In another study, called the Self-Help, Exercise, Diet, and Information Technology (SHED-IT) trial, men were found to do best with a weight loss program that was tailored to their gender, allowed them to have treat foods and drinks, and didn’t require a large time commitment.
Two approaches were tested during the trial: One was an in-person educational session plus a self-help handbook approach; the other entailed an in-person educational session and an Internet-based interactive program. Both worked.
When it came to advice, men in this trial preferred to receive a simple and straightforward message that spelled out precisely what they needed to do to successfully drop weight.
Strategies for men
For men looking to lose weight, consider this advice:
• Combine favorite physical activities with weight loss efforts, like the Scottish football fans. Step up the tennis game, become part of a softball team, go to the gym with a buddy, or go dancing with your partner.
• Reduce calorie intake as well as increasing physical activity. Small, simple changes, such as reducing intake of sugary sodas from three cans to one can a day, can make a difference.
• Look for male-only groups. You can find them on the Internet through such programs as Weight Watchers Online for Men. If you prefer the opportunity to socialize in person while losing weight, traditional group meetings may not work for you—many men may be embarrassed to be the only male in a sea of women at a Weight Watchers meeting. Instead, look for male-only groups at a local hospital, your place of employment, the Veterans Health Administration (if you’re a veteran), or a senior center—or ask one of these outlets to start a group.
• Work on lowering your stress level. A high level of stress not only makes a person more likely to make poor food choices and eat extra calories in an attempt to self-soothe, but also prompts the body to release the stress hormone cortisol, which boosts appetite and weight gain. Excess cortisol has also been implicated in stimulating fat storage in the belly. Regular exercise is one of the best ways to reduce stress, and it enables you to work on losing weight at the same time.