Male Cardinal

Sex, Gender, and Obesity

A pair of new studies are nudging us to stop and think how sex, gender, and obesity interact to influence health. Both the expression of gender and differences in neurological function between the sexes may have important implications for the risks and management of obesity.

In Obesity, Bryn Austin and colleagues report finding a significant relationship between gender expression in adolescents and their risk of obesity. They found that young men who conform to gender norms have significantly higher BMIs than those who do not. This relationship is precisely the opposite in young women. Non-conforming females have higher BMIs. Dana Rofey wrote a companion editorial and commented:

Clearly, there are powerful societal influences at play that tie into youth’s weight-related behaviors and ultimately their health. This valuable understanding of gender norms can help researchers, clinicians and policymakers design obesity interventions that target gender expression, which may pose barriers to a healthy weight. For providers especially, it may be helpful to talk with young people about the kinds of gender-related pressures they are experiencing that could have a negative impact on weight and health.

On top of this, neuroscience research published in Molecular Metabolism finds significant differences between the sexes in the function of neurons thought to play a key role in the regulation of weight and the development of obesity. Researchers from the University of Aberdeen studied POMC neurons in mice. These neurons in the hypothalamus responded differently in males and females to hormones that regulate how calories are burned and weight is regulated. Senior author Lora Heisler commented:

Currently there is no difference in how obesity is treated in men and women. Given the links established between obesity and serious medical illnesses including cancer, heart disease and diabetes, it is essential that we strive to find new methods to tackle this epidemic to improve our health. This could have broad implications for medications used to combat obesity, which at present largely ignore the sex of the individual.

If anyone doubted, it should now be plain that obesity is very different for men and women — lesbian, gay, straight, and other expressions of gender. We have one more reason to know that this disease of obesity is actually a collection of many very different conditions. Much work to provide better tailored obesity care lies ahead.

“I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn.” — Maya Angelou

Click here to read the study in Obesity, here for the companion editorial, and here for the study in Molecular Metabolism. Click here for more from the Telegraph and here for more from Medical Daily.

Male Cardinal, photograph © Beau Considine / flickr

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February 3, 2016

3 Responses to “Sex, Gender, and Obesity”

  1. February 03, 2016 at 1:40 pm, Allen Browne said:

    Yup – “different strokes for different folks” and no “silver bullet” and “one size does not fit all”. The energy management system is complex and there are many ways for it to malfunction. But we are learning and learning.

  2. February 11, 2016 at 10:11 pm, Sean C. Lucan, MD, MPH, MS said:

    Is it possible gender conforming males & gender non-conforming females are over-muscled? (i.e., overweight but not over-fat?) This speaks to the limitations of BMI for assessment of adiposity and health.

    • February 12, 2016 at 8:22 am, Ted said:

      Good point, Sean. Thanks!