Why More Women Than Men Are Obese

Obesity in women can be attributed to childbirth, vulnerability to certain diseases, and household roles, experts say.

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 1 – Experts attribute various biological and sociological factors for the higher prevalence of obesity in women than men.

Dr Tham Kwang Wei, president of the Singapore Association for the Study of Obesity (SASO) and secretary of the Asia-Oceania Study of Obesity (AOASO), said a common factor that contributes to obesity rates in women is childbirth.

“One of the biggest trigger events for obesity is actually childbirth. With each baby, a woman may put on a certain amount of weight, and we have this misconception, which is to eat for two while you’re pregnant, and eat again for two when you’re breastfeeding – and that could last,” Dr Tham said at a regional obesity management guideline media roundtable last October 10. 

“I think a lot of women have to go through this cycle and by then (when their children have grown up and they have time to take care of themselves) menopause would have hit.”

Data by the World Health Organization (WHO) showed that about 13 per cent of the world’s adult population in 2016 were obese (11 per cent of men and 15 per cent of women).

In Malaysia, one in two adults or 50.1 per cent of the total adult population are overweight or obese, according to the National Health Morbidity Survey (NHMS) 2019. Women made up 54.7 per cent of adults who are overweight or obese in the country.

In a 2020 study, an estimated 54.2 per cent of the Malaysian adult population is overweight or obese, an increase of four percentage points from the findings of the NHMS 2019.

Dr Mia Fojas, associate professor at the University of the Philippines College of Medicine, further attributed obesity in women to women being more vulnerable than men to certain diseases.

“The development of obesity is more common among women especially, say for example, thyroid disease – it’s more common among women. So more women have hypothyroidism and a lot more other diseases [which lead to obesity],” Dr Fojas said.

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, women are more likely than men to have thyroid diseases, especially after pregnancy and after menopause.

Thyroid produces thyroid hormone, which controls many activities in the body, including how fast a person can burn calories and how fast the heart beats. Thyroid diseases cause the organ to make either too much or too little of the hormone. 

Depending on how much or how little hormone the thyroid makes, a person may feel restless or tired, or may lose or gain weight. Symptoms often develop slowly, over several years.

Dr Fojas said menopause could also expose women to the onset of obesity earlier than men, who would have andropause later on in life. She added that women also have more fat in the abdominal area than men to protect their reproductive organs.

From a sociocultural perspective, Dr Fojas said a lot more men, especially in Southeast Asia, tend to work outside while women stay at home, which contributes to disparities in physical activity levels.

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