Did you know that male bell peppers have three humps and female bell peppers have four? Naturally, the differences between male and female anatomy extend outside the kingdom of flora and fauna. However, less conspicuous is the connection between sex hormones and weight gain in men and women. The role of sex hormones is so often overlooked when setting weight loss goals, or reflecting on the failure to meet those goals, that I decided to bring the issue out of the produce aisle and into the storefront window. Male and female sex, its what compelled Oscar Wilde to muse “Everything is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” It seems that this statement holds true for nutrition.
I want to begin with a study that was done in the early 1970s at the University of Massachusetts by a young researcher named George Wade. The account of Wade’s findings is retold in Gary Taubes’ book Why We Get Fat. “Wade set out to study the relationship between sex hormones, weight, and appetite by removing the ovaries from female rats. After a series of studies, Wade found that removing the ovaries from a rat makes its fat tissue absorb calories from the circulation and expand with fat. To put the importance of Wade’s findings into laymen terms, the removal of the ovaries serves the purpose of removing estrogen, the female sex hormone, from the body. Estrogen, in addition to its many other tasks, influences an enzyme called lipoprotein or LPL for short. LPL pulls fat from the bloodstream into either fat or muscle cells to be stored as fat or burned as energy. Estrogen inhibits the activity of LPL into fat cells allowing it to be attached to muscle cells and burned as energy. So, a loss of the ovaries, and therefore a loss of estrogen, makes fat cells fatten. These findings explain what happens to many women when they get their ovaries removed or after menopause; Less estrogen is secreted, and their fat cells produce more LPL.
This information has practical implications for everyone setting weight loss goals, or reflecting on the unsuccessful weight loss attempts. First, understand that women have on average 11 percent more body fat than men, an evolutionary adaption to help during pregnancy. Second, we mustn’t confuse fat with being unhealthy. If a woman has 11 percent more body fat than a man, it doesn’t mean she is 11 percent fatter. A perfectly fit woman will still hold 11 percent more body fat than a perfectly fit man. Thirdly, understand that men may lose more weight, but it’s usually early on; over time the playing field evens out.
The Fact that Women and Men gain weight in different areas and at varying rates tells us that sex hormones play a role in regulating body fat. This fact is bolstered by Wade’s experiment and others like it. Men and women lose and gain weights at different rates, but under no circumstance is this cause for comparison. Men and women are as varied as the humps of bell peppers lead us to believe. Why shouldn’t our goals be?