It’s not in your mind, ladies – men and women do not live in an equal world when it comes to body fat. Men, with their taller bodies and larger muscles and bones, lay claim to a faster metabolism. At puberty, girls put on fat and boys put on muscle. From fertilization to breastfeeding, women have and need more fat than men. As you read on, keep in mind that although the odds may appear to be stacked against us, we can overcome stubborn fat and make improvements to our shapes and health. First a brief explanation of the fat burning challenges women face, and then the secrets to overcoming them.
Body Fat Distribution
Women bear almost double the amount of body fat as men, primarily to help them carry and nourish babies. Fat is the major energy source needed for fetal development and protection. We have no control over where the fat cells decide to swell and shrink.
The fat cells in the lower body, where women tend to put on inches, are more prone to fat storage. The fat cells in the upper body, where men tend to carry extra weight, are more prone to releasing fat. Women who have dieted will notice that as they lose weight, body fat starts melting away from the upper body first, followed by the persevering lower body fat.
Yet the reverse is true when gaining weight. The fat cells in the hips, thighs, butt and abs will enlarge first. Woman who have yoyo dieted for years have an upper body that is disproportionately smaller than her lower body.
During pregnancy and the menstrual cycle, hormones encourage water retention in the fat cells. The excess fluid slows down circulation and makes it even more difficult to mobilize fat.
The progesterone in women’s bodies affects appetite and mood. It causes hunger during the second half of your menstrual cycle and is responsible for the ravenous appetite experienced during pregnancy. Progesterone also causes sluggishness and sleepiness making one less inclined to exercise. Women who take birth control pills gain on average 3 – 5 pounds as a side effect.
Throughout pregnancy, fat cells in a woman’s body not only expand, but often multiply in number. When the pregnancy is over, those fat cells remain and are always ready to enlarge when the body takes in more calories than it uses. In addition, the thyroid gland, which drives the metabolism, becomes notoriously sluggish during pregnancy to help the body hold onto fat. Not surprisingly, after two or three children, the weight loss dilemma may be compounded.
During Peri-menopause (the 10 years prior to menopause), women begin producing less estrogen, which is a protective hormone. We also begin to sleep less and our appetite becomes stimulated. As Peri-menopause begins, fat tends to accumulate around the waist and chest, increasing our risk of heart disease.
Beginning in the mid-20s, women lose an average of about 7 pounds of muscle mass each decade (compared to 5 pounds for men). To make matters worse, non-exercising women typically gain 1 -2 pounds of fat a year – for life. And the fat gain number can be much higher depending on lifestyle choices.
So, by your mid-40s, you have probably lost close to 15 pounds of metabolically active muscle and replaced it with over 20 pounds of lethargic fat – and that’s conservative! Your metabolism has dramatically slowed and your body composition has changed in unfavorable proportions.
To make matter worse, if you have dieted (I imagine you’ve attempted one or two), you have accelerated the muscle loss process. Dieting without exercise can lead to 25% to 28% muscle loss.
Aging also makes excess fat harder to hide. As skin begins to lose its elasticity and sag, it has a harder time containing fat cells, giving the skin a rippled appearance often referred to as cellulite.
Now that you understand the special physiological challenges women face, let’s talk about how to overcome them to attain the strong, trim, fit body you really want.