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Weight loss and sex hormones

There are a number of hormones that may have an impact on weight gain in humans, but the decline in sex hormones as we age can play a particular part in weight gain in middle age in both men and women. Here we summarise the impact of the main sex hormones on weight gain and provide some tips on actions you can take to minimise the impact of these hormonal changes.



Gender Differences in Weight Gain and Obesity

 

The main sex hormones are oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone, all of which are found in both men and women, but with key differences:

  

  • Women have high levels of oestrogen and progesterone and low levels of testosterone

 

  • Men have high levels of testosterone and low levels of oestrogen and progesterone

 

Some of the main gender differences in weight gain are:



 

Gender differences and food cravings

 

A complex interplay of biological, sociological, and environmental factors account for gender differences in craving and obesity – however hormones are also thought to play an important role.

 

Whilst men and women can both suffer from food cravings, the types of food craved, and the intensity and frequency of cravings appear to differ between the sexes as shown below:



It might not be surprising to hear that one study found that 92 % of those craving chocolate were women!

 

There are two types of cravings which affect both men and women

 

  • Tonic craving: e.g., craving a food that is not available or which is being abstained from

  • Cue-based craving: e.g., craving a food that is in front of you or you’ve seen in an advert

 



The effect of sex-hormones on weight gain in men

 

Testosterone is produced in the testes. Levels of testosterone increase significantly at puberty and start to decline after the age of thirty. Testosterone is important for sex drive and sperm production. It is also needed to build muscle, improve bone mass and it helps maintain red blood cell count.

 

Testosterone is also important for determining how fat is stored on the body. It enables lipolysis (fat burning) which prevents fat accumulation around the abdomen.

 

The effects of ageing on testosterone production in men

 

Decreasing testosterone levels with ageing leads to:


  • Loss of muscle mass

  • A reduction in bone density

  • An increase in visceral fat

  • A reduction in sex drive

 

A bi-directional relationship exists between testosterone and obesity in men:


  • A low testosterone level can lead to obesity

  • Obesity can lead to lower testosterone levels

 



Ways  to boost testosterone

 

Eating a nutrient dense diet is likely to be helpful in supporting testosterone levels. Some studies have found that diets high in ultra-processed foods and low in nutrient-dense foods contribute to low testosterone.  A real-food, nutrient dense diet is optimal for testosterone production.


It is also thought that low-fat diets may be detrimental to testosterone production.

Many nutrients, including vitamin D, magnesium, and zinc, are considered important for maintaining optimal testosterone levels.

 

There is some evidence that a low carb diet can increase levels of testosterone, so maintaining this way of eating may be beneficial.


Weight loss in itself may well contribute to an increase in testosterone levels. Excessive weight loss in the very obese man has been found to increase testosterone levels, however moderate weight loss in overweight men appears to have little effect.

 

Some specific foods which may be helpful for testosterone production include the following:

 

Fatty fish – such as salmon, mackerel and sardines are a good source of vitamin D, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids, all of which are beneficial for hormone production.


Dark green leafy vegetables - Dark, leafy greens are an excellent source of micronutrients, including magnesium,  a mineral that is critical for maintaining optimal testosterone levels, especially in older men.

 

Cocoa and chocolate - Cocoa products such as cocoa powder and cacao nibs are high in magnesium and flavonoid antioxidants, both of which are important for testosterone.

 

Avocados - Avocados provide healthy fat, which is important for hormonal health. Plus, avocados contain magnesium and the mineral boron, which studies indicate may benefit testosterone levels

 

Eggs - egg yolks are rich in healthy fat, protein, and selenium a mineral that acts as an antioxidant in your body.

 

Shellfish - such as oysters and clams are excellent sources of zinc, selenium, and omega-3 fatty acids, all of which may support optimal testosterone levels.

 



Female hormones and weight gain

 

The main sex hormones for women are oestrogen and progesterone.

These are produced in the ovaries (with some also produced in fat tissues and in the brain). These hormones are important for sexual development and reproduction. They also help control serum cholesterol and promote fat storage on breasts, hips and thighs. These hormones also protect bone health, control the  menstrual cycle and prepare the uterus for pregnancy.They also optimise brain function and for control mood.

 

Oestrogen and progesterone levels fall during and after menopause.

 

The menstrual cycle’s effect on  food cravings


Food cravings are likely to increase in women during their menstrual cycle, with higher levels of cravings generally found towards the end of the cycle during the luteal phase as shown below.



 

Menopause and its effects on weight gain

 

Post-menopause there is a decline in the production of oestrogen. Lower levels of oestrogen have the following effects on women:


  • Greater fat storage around the abdomen, with adverse impact on metabolic health

  • A reduction in muscle mass

  • A reduction in bone mass with a greater risk of osteoporosis

  • Greater risk of heart disease

During menopause, some women may also experience a significant increase in the secretion of the stress hormone cortisol, especially during the night. There is some evidence suggesting that this may contribute to increased hunger and weight gain, especially around the middle

 



Some tips for reducing the risk of weight gain following menopause

 

Eat a low-carb or ketogenic diet - this can help keep insulin low, which may help reduce abdominal fat gain.


Eat plenty of protein - this helps maintain lean muscle mass and decrease hunger.


Lift weights or do resistance training - this also helps maintain and build more muscle.


Introduce time-restricted eating - this helps keep insulin low for longer stretches and may be an easy way to decrease caloric intake.


Avoid snacks, such as nuts, and minimise alcohol


Prioritise sleep - this can decrease cortisol and reduce insulin resistance.


Manage stress with relaxation techniques e.g yoga, exercise, and meditation can all help.

 

 

References

 

Hallam, J., Boswell, R. G., DeVito, E. E., & Kober, H. (2016). Gender-related Differences in Food Craving and Obesity. The Yale journal of biology and medicine89(2), 161–173.

 

da Silva Schmitt, C., da Costa, C.M., Souto, J.C.S. et al. The effects of a low carbohydrate diet on erectile function and serum testosterone levels in hypogonadal men with metabolic syndrome: a randomized clinical trial. BMC Endocr Disord 23, 30 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12902-023-01278-6

 

Whittaker J, Wu K. Low-fat diets and testosterone in men: Systematic review and meta-analysis of intervention studies. J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. 2021 Jun;210:105878. doi: 10.1016/j.jsbmb.2021.105878. Epub 2021 Mar 16. PMID: 33741447.

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