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Issue 22: Who's Healthier--Men or Women?

Who’s Healthier--Men or Women? (Part One)
By Nicki Rubin

Several months ago, my husband, Jordan, and I hosted a women-only Weekend of Wellness conference in Atlanta. One of the topics that got batted around was the question of who’s healthier—men or women?

It’s not my intention to pit one gender against another, but it’s an intriguing question that influences medical insurance premiums and public policy debate. From my vantage point, I tend to believe that it’s too difficult to say whether men are healthier than women—or vice versa—because you’re comparing apples to oranges.

Maybe when boys are younger, they are more athletically-minded than girls and participate in more calorie-burning activities, which makes them appear healthier. But when girls get older, they become very concerned about their appearance, which prompts them to pay attention to their weight, what they eat, and how much they exercise.

In my own experience as a new mother, I’ve discovered that something has to give when the demands of motherhood take precedence. A mom will overlook her own health before neglecting her children’s care. Moms are responsible not only for raising demanding children, who are dependent on her for both emotional nurturing and nutritional sustenance, but in many households have to look after husbands, aging parents, and in-laws. I’m sure that what I am describing is not new to you. The bulk of both child rearing and caring for the immediate and extended family have fallen squarely on the shoulders of women since the beginning of time, although there are certainly exceptions.

When I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, some sociologists argued that there were no essential differences between the sexes, and the patriarchal and matriarchal roles observed in society were due to conditioning. I remember neighbor kids whose parents were careful not to let their boys go wild with “Cowboy and Indians,” or their girls to play house with their Barbie dolls. But as social scientists unearthed evidence dispelling the idea that men and women were essentially the same underneath the obvious physical differences, the social pendulum began swinging the other way. These days, the prevailing conventional wisdom is that, well, women are different from men. And just as males and females have significant biological and physiological differences, there are also noteworthy distinctions in the area of health.

Women possess only two-thirds of the overall physical strength of men, but a woman’s abdominal muscles contain just as much strength as a male’s, no doubt due to a woman’s biological need for strong abdominal muscles for childbirth.

Additionally, according to the Mayo Clinic:

  • Women, on average, have 11 percent more body fat and 8 percent less muscle mass than men
  • Men tend to be faster than women during aerobic events due to their greater muscle strength and the mechanical advantage of longer arms and legs
  • Women, on the other hand, tend to have greater endurance, partly due to reliance on fat metabolism, during long events
  • Though women may say “Ouch!” before men do, they tolerate pain better than men.

Women also have larger stomachs, kidneys, livers, and appendixes. Their thyroid glands are also generally larger and more active, usually enlarging during both menstruation and pregnancy. This makes them more prone to developing goiters and more vulnerable in cold weather. It is also associated with smooth skin.

A woman’s blood contains 20 percent fewer red blood cells than a male’s, which means her blood contains more water. Since blood carries oxygen to the body’s cells, fewer red blood cells means less oxygen is made available: women tire more easily. Finally, a woman’s heart beats more rapidly (eighty beats per minute versus seventy-two for men), but she has much less tendency to develop high blood pressure.

Some say women are healthier than men because they live longer—5.3 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The so-called “gender gap” between male and female life expectancy has been narrowing since the peak gap of 7.8 years last recorded in 1979. The reason for the gap remains a mystery, but I wonder if the gap is narrowing because of the millions of career-minded women who entered the workforce in the 1970s and ’80s. Since men have a shorter lifespan presumably because they work at high-pressure jobs and stress themselves out of a few years, I would think that being a mom and holding down a full-time job outside the home could also cut off some years.

And speaking of cutting off some years…next week we will take a look at what conditions are most likely to cut a woman’s life short.


This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.

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