They are more likely to be overweight than women, less likely to admit it, less likely to diet, and less likely to talk to friends about it, says Helen O’Callaghan.
MEN get fat. But they are less vocal about it. They don’t sit around with colleagues at coffee-break, discussing the latest celeb-endorsed diet. Nor ring their friends, in tears, because they’ve fallen off the wagon after a week’s starvation, eaten two cream buns and now won’t fit into their skinny jeans.
Men get fat — even more than women. According to the 2010 National Adult Nutrition Survey, only 18% of men in the 36 to 50-year age group are a healthy weight, compared to 44% of women that age. Of men aged 18 to 35, 39% are overweight, compared to 25% of women.
“Even at a very young age, men are more likely to be overweight than women, despite having the natural physiological advantage of a bigger muscle mass,” says Safefood nutritionist Dr Aileen McGloin. The difference is that men don’t necessarily notice their excess weight, or they ignore it — and society colludes with them.
“Men are much more likely to be overweight than women, but less likely to perceive that they are. They’re less likely to be on a diet or to see they need to make changes to their diet,” says McGloin, citing the 2005-2006 National Teens Survey, which found that 69% of overweight dads thought it was fine to be so.
Young women go to their doctors more often than young men do. They pop in for a smear test, for contraceptive advice, or because they’re pregnant — and they get weighed. “Women’s health is a focus earlier in their life,” says Cliodhna Foley Nolan, Safefood’s director of human health and nutrition.
For men, the wake-up call about excess weight is often a diagnosis, says Foley Nolan. “They get into trouble — they get chest pain or high blood pressure. Or they go to get an insurance medical done. Or, in middle age, they get concerned about prostate cancer.” Yet, according to a 2005 study, even when men attend their GP, they’re less likely than women to be referred to a dietician.
The odds are stacked against men squaring up to obesity — even regarding clothing. “A man will say ‘I still wear the same size trousers’. But there’s a tendency to go for the American model today — more generosity in sizes, because we’ve got bigger. And what do you call your waist? Men with abdominal fat often wear their trousers lower down — they’re still wearing the same size, but they’re a lot heavier,” says Foley Nolan.
Women are also less likely to perceive their men as overweight, says McGloin. “Women who were asked if their son was overweight were much more likely to get it wrong than if they were asked about a girl. In general, society is less judgemental about men’s weight.”
Foley Nolan agrees: “For men, slimness isn’t culturally seen as important in the same way as it is for women.”
McGloin says men’s lack of weight-awareness is a facet of masculine identity. “Masculine identity involves risk-taking, independent decision-making. Being compliant with healthy eating guidelines wouldn’t be considered masculine. A lack of concern about weight and health issues is considered masculine. Dieting is portrayed as the female domain.”
Safefood’s just completed review — ‘Men, Food and Health’ — examines men’s relationship with food and health. “Men were significantly less likely than women to regard healthy eating as an important influence on food choice. Convenience and ease of preparation [were] shown to be significant motivators in [male] food choice,” says McGloin.
Men shop for convenience and they do it haphazardly; they rarely conduct a weekly shop. Men who work shift hours and commute long distances have an increased reliance on convenience foods, snacking and eating out. The Men, Food and Health review found that women consume a greater variety of foods than men, that men have a higher daily salt intake than women (8.5g v 6.2g) and that, on average, men consume 31g of processed meat a day (women consume 20g).
Boys are under-represented in food education — one in five students of home economics at Junior Certificate are boys, and this drops to one in nine at Leaving Certificate. “Even informally, when it comes to weight-loss classes — networks by which women talk and support each other — these aren’t there for men. Men prefer men-only classes, but they’re not so available to them,” says McGloin.
Men are also more likely to live alone. Latest CSO figures show that 213,601 men live alone in Ireland — without the access to female healthy-eating knowledge.
When men do tackle their weight, they favour competitiveness, says Foley Nolan. “Women are more collegiate and encouraging of each other. Men like to be the winner. They go at dieting in a very hammer-and-tongs way. They go all-out. They’re more ambitious and less realistic in their goals.”
They often focus on exercise, whereas combining exercise with reduced food intake is what works, says McGloin. “The big barrier for men is lack of knowledge about how to do it. Research shows that when men learn how to lose weight, they approach it in quite a systematic way. They prefer information to counselling. And [positively] when they get involved in cooking, they approach it as a hobby — they chase everyone out of the kitchen, put on music, do it very creatively. Women often tend to see cooking as an everyday task, as drudgery.”
But acknowledging they have a weight problem seems to be the biggest problem for men.
IT’S NO JOKE
Paul Axford, 48, manager of Planet Health’s Cork and Limerick clubs, is married to Lucie. Eight months ago, he was four stone overweight.
“I’d been over 17 stone since my 20s. I was an international water polo player — a big guy. It wasn’t a problem, because I was fit. I stopped when I was 28. My weight went up, but my muscular content went down — I wasn’t training. Because I carried on eating in the same way, the fat piled on.
“I didn’t obsess about it. I knew I should do something, but it wasn’t high on my list of priorities. Lucie and I would talk about how we could do with losing weight, then drop the conversation and open another bottle of wine.
“With male friends in the same boat, we joked about it — ‘God, I’m getting fat’. We’d have a giggle — and another pint. It was male bravado — one of those conversations about getting older — ‘we’re not the men we were’. We used to be the guys who’d walk into any establishment and people would say ‘Wow!’ Now we were walking into places as fat old men. I’d look in the mirror and see an overweight old man, rather than what I perceived myself to be — a 25-year-old bloke.
“The trigger for change came last April. On a flight from the US, I felt grim, just kind of yuck. I was uncomfortable, too big for the seat. I was sweaty, lethargic and conscious of how I looked. I thought ‘enough is enough’ — I’m never going to feel like this again.
“I started a food diary. I didn’t change what I ate, just made it smaller. I used to have three cups of coffee a day, with a cake each time.
“Now, I have one cup of coffee. I put together a structured training plan — four mornings a week before work. On Sundays, I do an 11km trail run.
“I’m a determined sort of fellow. I threw myself into it. I saw results very quickly, so it got easier. I’m pretty bang-on where I need to be now.”
A LONELY CONDITION
In May, 2013, 25-year-old CIT student, Trevor Conway, weighed 25 stone.
“As a young fellow, I was plump. I played rugby ‘til I was 18. I stopped and all the muscle turned into fat— I didn’t change my diet. Working in a bank, I was living alone and eating completely the wrong foods every evening — a big pot of pasta with cheese and pasta sauce. I’d already have had a big dinner for lunch. At weekends, I’d go drinking.
“Between January and May, 2013, I put on three stone. I’d started a job as a sales rep — I was dashboard eating, grazing through the day. I did try dieting. I’d do it for four weeks. Nothing worked.
“I didn’t talk about my weight with friends. I’d fob them off, tell them to mind their own business. Once, a friend texted to say ‘Supersize vs Superskinny’ was on TV, that I should watch it. I didn’t. I made up an excuse — somebody else had the remote.
“I was terribly lonely. I didn’t love myself. I was upsetting my family, because I was always in bad form.
“Then, my mum and I had an argument. I walked 5km in a huff. I got into a temper and had to blow it off. But I got something positive out of that walk. I thought ‘I can do this [exercise] if I want to, I can lose this weight’.
“Ten days later, I joined Motivation Weight Management — my nutritionist, Liz Murphy, helped me turn things around. Instead of processed food, I now make something at home from scratch — like Bolognese with tomato and all the spices.
“I walk 40 minutes to college once a week. I go to the gym three days a week and I’m active at weekends. I’m down to 15 stone, four pounds.”
MEN SLAG EACH OTHER
Marc Gibbs, 45, of RTE’s Operation Transformation fame and now a Unislim leader, blames an obsession with the latest fad diets for his having once weighed 18-and-a-half stone.
Now, at 13 stone, he says he’s a good, healthy weight.
“The big enlightening moment was when Dr Eddie Murphy told me I needed to put my fork down. He said for a man that loved his food, I didn’t even taste it — all I did was shovel it in.
“Men don’t face up to reality around weight. They say ‘ah, I’m grand. Ah sure, I’ll lose the belly’. I tried to run a men-only class in Dublin City centre for the business community — just one man turned up.
“Men don’t talk about weight — that’s a woman’s thing. Maybe there’s a shift with younger men. I had a very close male friend. I talked with him in a half-joking, half-hearted, manly kind of way — ‘I need to cut things out’. I wouldn’t sit down and say ‘this is a problem I need to address’.
“Men in Ireland will, in jest, slag each other about their weight — ‘you’re a baby elephant’, ‘God, the size of you’. They wouldn’t slag a woman about her weight. I’d be depressed trying on clothes. I’d go into the changing room, try on a shirt and look at my belly. I’d be depressed that I’d have to get a double XL.
“I did comfort-eat. Anyone who says they’re happy about their [over] weight, and that it’s more important how they feel on the inside, isn’t telling the truth — they’re not happy.”
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