If you want to get a group of women talking for hours, all you need to do is mention the word: weight. From the latest diet trends, to physical trainers, exercise classes, meal-replacements and quick-fixes, everyone will have a story to share.
So what is it about weight issues that makes it the hottest conversation topic among women and not men?
Vivien Cameron, Director of Met-S Care, says there are several compounding reasons for why women struggle with weight issues that can be attributed to their physiological make-up, societal pressures and perceived expectations.
“While we’ve heard it before that women have to deal with juggling many roles each day, what isn’t understood is the impact that this juggling act can have on their bodies. Prolonged increased stress levels, lack of sleep and increased cortisol levels all inhibit weight loss and exacerbate insulin resistance. Along with that women have a less lean body weight and therefore a lower resting metabolic rate which also makes losing weight more difficult,” she says.
Hormonal fluctuations are also a contributing factor as is a woman’s dieting history which could have affected her ability to metabolise and burn fat. “Women also tend to be comfort eaters, using food to help cope with stress, while men will turn to other activities to de-stress.”
Cameron says there is also a lot of information out there targeting men about the health risks associated with being overweight and over-stressed such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, sexual dysfunction, premature aging etc. “The truth is that women are also susceptible to these health risks but they don’t seem to be the major motivators for weight loss. Generally women are motivated by the allure of being thinner. Being healthy is not necessarily a top priority hence the method of weight loss: crash diets, pills, shakes, injections and so on. Men are more often motivated to be fitter and stronger rather than aspiring to be thin.”
Different life phases also bring with them unique challenges for women. “During childhood and into our teenage years, caregivers will make our food choices which are not always the right ones. They are also the years where we develop our ideas about our physical looks, health and nutrition. If the wrong perceptions are formed at this stage it can be difficult to break them later in life. Hormonal changes, growth spurts, peer pressure and so on also affect our appetite and eating patterns during this phase.”
“As you enter young adulthood, leave school and become more independent there is the allure of convenience food. A lack of knowledge about good nutrition or a lack of time or facilities to prepare food also leads to young women putting on weight during this period as does the sudden decrease in exercise options once you leave school.”
“During middle adulthood there are the weight issues resulting from hormonal changes during pregnancy as well as the issues associated with post childbirth such as depression, lack of time and sleep and a poor self image from carrying ‘baby-weight’. While raising a family, women often put everything ahead of their own physical wellbeing which leads to incremental weight gain year on year.”
“Late adulthood brings with it menopausal hormonal changes where oestrogen levels drop and the metabolism slows down. Generally during these years physical activity decreases too. The reality is that women need to eat less and keep active which can also prove difficult with the emotional stressors that menopause brings.”
Cameron says that regular check-ups throughout the different life phases are important to encourage self-care and to understand and know the status of your physical self. “Just as you’d regularly service your car, you need to regularly check your body. You can only manage what you measure so it’s important to confront the demons and deal with them earlier rather than later.” She says women often use physical ailments such as an underactive thyroid as an excuse to be overweight. “At Met-S-Care we believe that food is medicine and through modifying eating behaviour women can do a lot to stave off serious chronic lifestyle diseases associated with Metabolic Syndrome. We have also seen those with pre-existing conditions radically improve or even eradicate certain health issues by making a change in their food choices.”
Aggressive dieting and excessive exercising is not the answer, she explains. “A reduction in calories and essential nutrients for a sustained period of time is seen as a stressor to the body. Couple this with rigorous training and the body feels underfed and over-exercised and will rebel. The human body is super smart and has a built-in hormonal negative feedback mechanism which is activated to overcome starvation and exhaustion if it is placed in such a situation. This inevitably destroys a woman’s metabolic rate as the body has to compensate in some way or another for the famine it perceives. If this becomes the norm, she will yo-yo between starving and then over-eating as the body tries desperately to maintain a level of homeostasis. We can never out run or control our physiological bodies needs by self-control or by our own will power. Aggressive dieting is not sustainable and will eventually be abandoned resulting in greater weight gain. Slow and moderate weight loss is key,” says Cameron.
While she believes the media has made progress in dispelling the myth that beauty comes in just one size and shape, she says there is still work to be done to affirm that healthy encompasses more than just physical looks. She remarks on the Body Shaming blogs and posts hitting the social media scene saying the damaging can be irreparable. “It is important for women to know that their physical shape and composition is only a small part of who they actually are and their mental, emotional and spiritual health are equally as important. When issues such as unworthiness and feelings of fear, guilt and shame are dealt with at an appropriate level then women find self-love, which leads to the ability to apply self-care principles successfully. This leads to sustainable health outcomes, including maintaining a healthy weight. The focus needs to be on health, not body shape.”
She urges women during Women’s Month to get rid of bad habits, enjoy their bodies for what they are, perfectly and wonderfully made, and to teach their daughters the same. “We have a responsibility to the next generation of women to instil a sense of health and wellbeing and to teach them to accept other women for their uniqueness, free of judgement,” she concludes.