The Centers for Disease Control just released its biennial obesity report and unsurprisingly it shows that our national waistline is still increasing. One surprise, however, was who exactly was getting heavier. Not only are 41 percent of American women obese now, but our rate of obesity is steadily increasing while men are holding steady at 35 percent, according to the data.
The big question now is why? Other research has shown that women are more likely to choose healthier fare at restaurants, eat fewer calories than male dining companions, and go to the gym more often than men. So why are women gaining weight when men aren’t? And how is this even fair?
We don’t have any sure answers, says Scott Kahan, M.D., M.P.H., an obesity researcher and director of the National Center for Weight and Wellness, but we do know this isn’t a recent phenomenon. “Females have always had more body fat than men and their rates of obesity have always increased a little faster than men’s,” he says. But the key word here, he adds, is “little.” He points out that the difference, while significant, isn’t huge.
The real issue, Kahan says, is that obesity and overweight are a serious issue for nearly half of all women. He chalks this up to two factors: environment and biology.
“We live in a society that pushes eating more and moving less, and women may be more exposed to that than men because they are affected more by certain life changes that are associated with weight gain,” he explains. Certain big life changes like having a baby only affect women. But while divorce and job insecurity affect both genders, women are still more vulnerable to their negative economic effects—another big risk factor for weight gain.
And then there’s straight-up biology. Kahan points out that women’s bodies have evolved to store body fat. So our hormones powerfully resistweight loss in a way that men’s do not. Menopause, pregnancy, and even our monthly hormone cycles are all specific to women and have all been linked with weight gain.
Lastly, women are more likely to be sleep deprived, Khmelev says. “Women may need up to nine hours daily and most of us aren’t getting it,” she says. “Poor sleep affects the production of hormones like ghrelin that increase appetite. Additionally, fatigue can markedly affect self-control and the ability to make good health decisions.”
But before you throw up your hands in despair, Kahan offers a word of hope. “It’s still early in our societal approach to obesity, and just because we haven’t seen big changes yet doesn’t mean it’s not working,” he says. “It can take years but we are making good progress.”