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Exercise without dieting -- it's a losing battle

Medicine | HEALTHY MAN

Guys tend to hit the gym to shed excess pounds, even though cutting calories may be the more efficient way.

April 12, 2004|Timothy Gower | Special to The Times

When your pants begin to feel a little snug around the waistline, do you vow to start working out for an hour every day? Ask the kid at McDonald's to hold the bun when you order a Quarter Pounder? Switch to low-carb beer? If so, welcome to the club: You're a typical guy.

Women will try just about any approach to shedding pounds, weight-loss experts say, but men who set out to get slim tend to follow predictable patterns.

Consider a survey published in January by Packaged Facts, a market research firm, which found that 15.4% of women in the United States said they "mostly try to lose weight by dieting." Just 6.3% of men agreed with that statement. That's probably because males often assume -- incorrectly -- that they can burn fat in the gym, without changing their diets.

"Many men feel that exercise is an efficient way to lose weight. It is not," says Dr. Frank Greenway, medical director of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University. This belief seems to be particularly strong among middle-aged males who were athletes in high school or college, he says.

They seem to think that if they can just get back to playing basketball three nights a week, the flab will melt away.

But Greenway, who is also medical advisor for the Jenny Craig weight-loss program, cites studies comparing dieters who don't exercise with dieters who work out. "They conclude that there is very little extra weight loss by the addition of exercise," says Greenway. "Diet is the most efficient way to lose weight." However, he's quick to add, exercise is essential for keeping weight off, especially as we age.

Once a man realizes he can't sweat away his spare tire, what type of diet is he likely to choose? One that's, in a word, simple. "Men may be more likely to go for diets that don't involve too much detail," says research psychologist Allan Geliebter of the New York Obesity Research Center at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan.

For instance, some plans require dieters to keep track of the foods they eat, but the Packaged Facts survey found that men are half as likely as women to keep track of calories while dieting.

And perhaps because men tend to be less skilled in the kitchen, they avoid diets that require the preparation of special meals. In his clinic, Geliebter frequently hears men say they prefer liquid-replacement diet products, such as Slim-Fast, for that reason. "They just know that this [beverage] is what they consume and they don't have to think too much about it," he says.

Simplicity may in part explain the popularity of high-protein regimens, he adds. "On the Atkins diet, you just avoid carbohydrates," says Geliebter, referring to the meat-friendly plan promoted in books by the late Dr. Robert Atkins. Geliebter says these diets may hold greater appeal to men not only because they're easy to follow, but because food-intake surveys show that men eat more beef and pork than women do.

Statistics support Geliebter's hunch. Market research shows that men make up about 45% of Atkins dieters and 34% of Slim-Fast users in the United States. But males represent only about 10% of the people who join Weight Watchers, which offers a diet program and weekly meetings where members weigh in and receive nutrition counseling.

The difference is easy to explain: The typical male hates asking for help, so he's far less likely than a woman to join a diet group or to seek weight-loss counsel from a doctor or nutritionist, says psychologist Michael R. Lowe of Drexel University in Philadelphia.

"Plenty of men go on diets," says Lowe, who studies obesity treatments. "They're just much more likely to do it as a solitary endeavor."

Organizations such as Weight Watchers may have a tougher time recruiting weight-worried males for another reason. During weekly meetings, members are encouraged to discuss their struggles with food cravings. But most men "don't want to talk about why they eat or what they eat or how it makes them feel," Lowe says.

Despite differing weight-reduction styles, men and women lose about the same amount of body fat when they diet. But both sexes are just as likely to pack pounds back on over time, says Lowe. The problem with diets, he adds, is that today's world is abundant with tempting foods that overwhelm our ability to "self-regulate" what we eat.

"If you want to control your weight, you have to gain mastery over the food you're exposed to," says Lowe. In other words, if you want to lose that beer belly, don't stock your fridge with beer. Even if it's low-carb.

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Timothy Gower can be reached by e-mail at tgower@comcast. net. The Healthy Man runs the second Monday of the month.

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