By Lisa James
It probably doesn’t surprise you to learn that more than half of all women in America (56.4%, to be exact) say they want to lose weight, according to a recent national health survey.
What you might not know is four men in every ten feel the same way.
A complex mix of body image issues and health concerns can complicate matters when both partners in a relationship decide to tackle weight loss together. But there’s a good reason to make the effort: One study found that spouses were six times more likely to adopt healthy habits if their mates did so.
So where does this leave you and your special someone if you both want to shed some pounds?
The key, say experts, is being aware that men and women tend to perceive weight issues differently—and finding ways to keep your dual weight loss efforts, and your relationship, on track.
Keeping Up Appearances
The problem stems from the ways overweight men and women are seen by society.
“There’s always been this ‘He’s a big/burly/stocky guy’ idea,” says psychotherapist Lydia Hanich, MA, LMFT, author of Honey, Does This Make My Butt Look Big? (Gürze Books). “Those terms are not negative, they’re descriptive.” In contrast, extra weight on women is often described in less-flattering language, such as “chunky.”
As a result, “women see themselves as overweight much quicker than men,” says psychologist Leslie Seppinni, MFT, PsyD, who specializes in weight-loss counseling. “This is in part because women wear more fitted clothes, and their weight gain is more noticeable faster.”
These gender differences can lead to hurt feelings. “Men don’t worry as much about weight so they don’t recognize the depth or intensity of a woman’s experience,” says Hanich. “For a woman, the issue of her eating habits is so complex on so many levels.”
The emotional differences in how men and women respond to weight issues are compounded by the fact that men, much to their mates’ exasperation, lose weight more easily.
“First of all, they have a faster metabolism because their bodies carry more muscle and women’s bodies naturally carry more fat,” explains nutritionist Rovenia Brock, PhD, author of Dr. Ro’s Ten Secrets to Livin’ Healthy (Bantam). “The more muscle you carry, the quicker you can burn fat and calories.”
Men tend to carry fat around their middles. Evidence suggests that such abdominal fat is more readily burned off than deposits in the hips and thighs, where women often carry their extra weight.
Finally, men even “have more collagen in their skin,” says Seppinni. “Therefore, they have less loose skin after weight loss.”
The fact that losing weight is easier for men, plus their tendency to take a do-it-yourself approach to the process, can create discord. What women really want, Hanich notes, is “reassurance. To have someone say ‘It’s okay, honey’ can be so comforting.”
Women need to improve their relationship skills, too.
“Women become frustrated when communicating with men regarding weight loss because men often wait until they are told that their health is in jeopardy from issues such as diabetes, hypertension and sleep apnea,” Seppinni says.
Working (Out) Together
Whether it’s for good looks or good health, weight loss for two has to be a cooperative pursuit. But simply agreeing to start a slim-down program isn’t the end of the story: Things tend to go more smoothly when partners talk things over first.
Seppinni suggests asking, “What is our goal as a couple? What is the goal for me as an individual? What is the motivation for losing weight together, and why now?”
For women especially, she says this means not focusing “on the number of pounds lost in comparison to their men but rather how they feel in their clothes and the inches they’ve lost.”
Both parties also have to agree that criticism is taboo. Instead, focus on encouragement.
“Complement each other along the way, even for the small successes,” Seppinni advises. “If one partner loses all their weight and the other continues to struggle, let your spouse know you are still the same person, simply healthier.”
Jealousy can arise when the weight loss is unevenly distributed. One way to avoid that trap is for couples to rediscover what drew them together in the first place. “Find other ways to spend time together, new hobbies and activities,” Seppinni says.
Brock suggests that couples “make a date. Light a couple of candles, have the table set and have a healthy meal prepared.”
What should be in that meal? “Three quarters of your plate should be colorful fruits and vegetables—steamed, raw, grilled—and we don’t want them swimming in fat,” Brock says. “Round out the final quarter with small amounts of lean protein—fish, turkey, beans, tofu or other soy, lean red meat; I would advise organic. And then you can introduce whole grains—brown rice, whole-grain pasta.”
Brock also suggests treating supper prep as playtime. “Prepare meals together; get him to chop vegetables, get him to grill the meat. Feed each other. Make it about the relationship.”
Exercise has to be a component of any couple’s plan. While aerobic exercise such as walking is important, don’t forget weight lifting—the perfect way to increase fat-burning muscle mass.
Brock says some women fear getting muscle-bound. “I tell them, ‘You don’t stand a chance because our bodies carry more fat. What you will do is become toned.’” Guys are generally self-starters in the gym, but women may be more comfortable getting some advice from a trainer.
Seppinni has seen duo diets succeed. “Many people have created a wonderful healthy new lifestyle where the focus is no longer on the scale number but on having a healthy body, and learning to manage their emotions between them,” she says.