Men on Diets

July 29, 2008

Move over, ladies — the men are dieting too.

Among Bill Clinton’s post-White House ventures, one of the more striking is his campaign to reverse trends in childhood obesity. It’s been remarkable for its ambition, and for the scope of its potential benefits. But perhaps most of all, it’s been remarkable to see someone of Clinton’s typically diet-oblivious gender speak publicly about laying off the cheeseburgers.

Diets aren’t just for women – Men diet too

Since his quadruple heart bypass surgery in 2004, the former McDonald’s-lover-in-chief has been strikingly candid about his relationship to food — candid not just for a former world leader, but candid for any man. “I was a fat band boy,” he writes in My Life (a hefty volume, ironically, weighing nearly three-and-a-half pounds).

In the book, he discusses his weight fluctuations and admits to experimenting with a kind of homespun precursor to the Atkins diet. This past October, he told the New York Times that he weighs himself daily. Famously America’s “first black president,” Clinton might well become America’s first female ex-president.

Indeed, the vast universe of dieting has been a kind of private (and grim) clubhouse for women. A realm of Jenny Craig and egg whites, Weight Watchers and fat-free yogurt, it’s historically been glimpsed by men only from across the dinner table. But increasingly, the unfairer sex is beginning to find a corner in that realm all its own.

“Men are becoming more conscious of health, and with that, weight,” says Betsy Klein, a registered dietician in Miami. “Being overweight is becoming such a marker for diabetes and heart disease.”

Diet and masculinity

Of course the health risks of a bad diet are just part of men’s motivation for changing how they eat — we also care about how we look.

“Males of all ages are being affected by our highly body-conscious culture now,” says registered dietician and exercise physiologist Samantha Heller. “Body dysmorphia — an unhealthy view of the body — is also increasing in men as well as women.” She said that for men, these issues manifest differently than with women. “They tend to work out a lot, and many turn to anabolic steroids. And more and more, they’re dieting while they do this.”

Or at least they’re doing something while they do this. Venturing into territory traditionally reserved for women isn’t always easy for men, and they tend to couch their involvement in it differently — starting with the language they use.

“They don’t always call it ‘dieting,’” Heller says. “‘Dieting’ and ‘slim’ don’t resonate well with men. Their goals are more to feel strong and masculine. Not only does the term dieting sound feminine, but dieting also causes them to worry they’ll lose muscle mass in the process.”

“Fine with me that they don’t like that word,” Klein says, “I don’t either. To me, dieting implies a beginning and an end, as opposed to the full lifestyle change that they need.”

So what ideas do put men in front of healthier plates? Visions of brawniness, it would seem. As Klein, Heller, and a multibillion-dollar dietary supplement industry attest, it’s an interest in bodybuilding, stamina, and other hallmarks of masculinity that really get guys to be food-conscious. If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, the way to his stomach is apparently through his biceps.

The male comfort zone — How men choose diets

“Men are drawn to diets that promise to make them better at sports or to increase their energy,” Heller says. “The supplement market is geared toward men who want more mass and less fat. Problem is those protein shakes don’t do anything. We get plenty of protein. Exercise is all that will build muscle. There’s no way around that.”

Indeed, men don’t always know what they’re doing in the diet department. And to be fair, there are simpler departments to navigate. Men will order a piece of grilled fish and think they’re being healthy, Klein offers as an example. “The fish may be a wise choice,” she says. “But the sauce or marinade will get you.”

Thwarted by such complexities, many men seek refuge in more well-marked terrain. The Atkins diet, Heller said, is particularly popular with men.

“They’re more comfortable with [Atkins'] all-or-nothing thing for some reason. And a steak is more masculine than a chicken salad. But it’s not a healthy diet in the end,” she says.

Of course that last point is endlessly disputed. A recent Stanford study threw a little ammunition to the Atkins advocates. In a year long study comparing four popular diets, overweight women lost the most weight on Atkins and had slightly better cholesterol and blood pressure levels.

Though the women-only study also has implications for male Atkins dieters, the lead author, Stanford researcher Christopher Gardner, says neither sex should take the results as a total vindication of the popular diet.

“This is just a 12-month study,” he says. “As a health professional, I’d be concerned about what a high-saturated fat, high-protein diet would mean over the course of a lifetime.”

Gardner argues that refined carbohydrates are the most important foods for both women and men to avoid. White bread, white rice, soda, starchy junk food — it’s these, he suspects, that are responsible for the increase in the country’s caloric intake over the last couple decades. Good carbs such as fruit, vegetables, oatmeal, brown rice, and whole wheat breads and pastas, on the other hand, shouldn’t be neglected.

Tips for men on diets — How to avoid diet pitfalls

Just knowing the score on different foods isn’t always enough. In tailoring nutrition lessons for me, Klein zeroes in on some common vulnerabilities even among those who know cookies from kale.

“Travel is an issue for a lot of men because many are often away from home because of work,” she says. “Learning how to eat healthy on the road is important. On planes, I say to bring four or five packages of instant oatmeal — they’ll give you the hot water. Also, boxes of dry cereal. Cheerios, but not Honey Nut Cheerios.”

Klein also advises travelers to book their hotel rooms on the sixth floor and walk up. Another tip: Get the taxi to drop you off a mile from where you’re staying and hoof it the rest of the way.

Back at home, men are also world-class breakfast-skippers — terrible habit, Klein says. “We go into a kind of starvation mode when we sleep, so if you wait until lunch to eat again, the body thinks, ‘Hey, I’d better save this as reserves. Who knows when this guy’s going to eat next?’ So it gets stored as fat. Take five minutes to have a high-fiber cereal or even peanut butter on whole wheat toast. Small changes make big differences.”

One last directive from Klein, who says Americans eat way more than we need: Cut those portions in half. It’s the quickest change a man can make in his eating habits — even if it is hard to swallow.

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