By Darragh O’Keeffe
Have you ever noticed that almost all advertising around weight loss focuses on women?
This is odd, as it is Australian men who are increasingly losing the battle of the bulge.
Figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show 70 per cent of Australian men are overweight or obese, compared to 56 per cent of women.
These extra kilos put men at risk of a whole host of health concerns including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and sleep apnoea — to name a few.
There are many reasons why men are carrying more kilos, but Professor John Dixon said in part it was because their support networks and willingness to seek help was often wanting.
“The studies show about 70 to 80 per cent of those attending [weight loss programs] are women, so there is a tendency for men not to seek treatment as often,” said Professor Dixon, head of clinical research at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute.
Professor Dixon said there was a wider perception weight management programs were designed for women, which he attributes in large part to how they are marketed, and the fact that very few programs specifically target men.
His research into why men and women seek help with their weight shows some marked gender differences.
“Women are far more likely to say they’re attending because of issues around body image, embarrassment over their appearance, or social stigmatisation,” Professor Dixon said.
“Men are less likely to say those things and are more likely to indicate they’re seeking help because they have been diagnosed with heart disease or diabetes or are worried about their physical fitness.”
Weighty health issues.
Men who are overweight or obese are at higher risk of developing any number of health conditions.
Overweight men are far more likely to develop sleep apnoea, for instance, while the levels of sexual dysfunction — both impotence and fertility issues — are higher for obese men than women, according to Professor Dixon.
“The greatest risks are in young adults, and those of Indigenous and Asian ethnicities,” Professor Dixon said.
“For the younger adult males, there’s the risk of getting bigger with time and the increased risk of weight-related complications. For high risk ethnic groups, there is a much higher risk of serious metabolic and cardiac complications at a lower BMI.”
Men’s mental health is also affected by carrying excess kilos, with studies showing increased rates of depression amongst overweight men.
Complex factors at play.
So what are the barriers preventing Australian men from maintaining a healthy weight?
Last year researchers from the University of Newcastle asked a group of young men about what hindered and motivated them to eat healthy and exercise.
The 60 men aged 12 to 25 identified the barriers to healthy eating as:
- Internal factors such as the perceived effort
- Logistical issues including cost
- Social factors such as peer influence.
When it came to getting enough physical activity, it was busy lifestyles, logistics, thoughts and feelings of inferiority, and social factors that got in the way.
So what motivated them? Having better physical and mental health, improved physical performance, appearance and social influences all played a part.
Exercise physiologist Alex Lawrence said a lot if it came down to priorities.
“With busy lifestyles, particularly as we get older, it’s very easy to put less priority on our health and wellbeing,” Mr Lawrence said.
Men’s activity levels often decrease once they reach age 45, and by age 75 just a third of Australian men are considered “sufficiently active”.
“Many people have developed a negative relationship with things like exercise, where we view it as a chore as opposed to something we do to reward our bodies.” Mr Lawrence said.
Get in the kitchen.
Dietitian Joel Feren said getting men more involved in cooking the food they eat would go a long way to helping them manage their weight.
Like Professor Dixon, Mr Feren said most of his male clients came to him for help only after they had been diagnosed with a condition.
“No-one comes to see me for disease prevention, it’s always about disease management. They have heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes or blood pressure issues. That’s when they act,” Mr Feren said.
Mr Feren recently created a to help men become more involved in preparing the food they eat.
“I’m trying to encourage more blokes to get in the kitchen and have a crack at cooking their favourite meals, but trying to make them healthier,” he said.
“It’s about increasing your fruit and vegetable intake and cutting back on some of those extra sugars and salts.”
His approach is to take meals that he believes are popular amongst men, and make them heathier — but no less appealing.
The message, according to Mr Feren, is simple: you do not have to resort to rabbit food.
“In the same amount of time that a take-away pizza takes to be delivered, you can whip up one at home fairly easily,” he said.
“I use things like wholegrain wraps, lean meats and smoked salmon, loaded up with vegetables and a low-fat cheese on top.”
Small subtle changes.
It is important to note there is no magic bullet when it comes to weight loss, and what works to help one person lose weight will not necessarily work for another.
So how do you make sure your approach to weight loss will work for you?
The first step always is to figure out why you want to lose weight and what your health goals are, Mr Lawrence said.
“It might be a man who has young children and he wants to be able to engage with them more. For someone else it might be they have a high-pressure job and they would function and perform better if they weren’t carrying excess weight,” he said.
“It’s really important to understand those personal reasons that are motivating the desire to lose weight.”
Weight loss as the sole goal can be problematic, given many people’s weight tends to fluctuate; men are often quicker to lose weight but can struggle to keep it off in the long-term.
Finding an activity or exerise you enjoy doing could also be a big help, Mr Lawrence said.
“As humans, we respond to instant gratification, so if we’re doing exercise that we like then that enjoyment is instant and we’re getting gratification straight away,” he said.
Mr Feren’s advice is to make small subtle changes that will have a lasting impact.
“It’s about portion control, tweaking recipes to make them healthier, maybe cutting down on alcohol, and increasing your fruit and vegetable intake,” he said.
“As I tell my patients, it’s not about finding the perfect option, it’s about finding a better option,” he says.
Needing some extra help.
While striving for increased physical activity and a nutritious diet is always beneficial for health, Professor Dixon stresses men who are seriously overweight or obese may require medical assistance.
For these men, their physiology is a significant part of the problem, and therefore weight loss through lifestyle factors alone will likely have limited impact, he argues.
While genetics explains about half the tendency for obesity, environment in the early years of life is also a huge factor, Professor Dixon said.
“Genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger,” he said. “This is very poorly understood.”
Some men may need to visit their GP for an assessment and to consider things beyond lifestyle changes, such as very low calorie diets, medications to assist with weight loss, or gastro-intestinal devices, Professor Dixon said.
This post originally appeared on ABC News.
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