Female fat loss can be a very confusing and muddy topic. While fat loss is, fundamentally, about creating an energy imbalance (eating fewer calories than you need) this is easier said than done.
In this guide we wanted to remove all the confusion, and help you understand why fat loss differs slightly for women and how to make most of these differences to achieve your goals.
Why is it harder for Women to lose fat?
We should probably get the bad news out of the way first. Fat loss for Women, compared with Men, is harder. This is down to a few factors, most of which are physiological, but some are also psychological.
The physiology of humans, let alone women, is complex as it is, so to list everything just wouldn’t be possible, but here are some of the main factors that make fat loss harder for women.
- Body composition
Generally speaking, men carry more muscle, weigh more and tend to be taller than their female counterparts. Resultantly, their bigger bodies require more energy in the form of calories. So when it comes time to diet, women will have require eating far fewer calories to lose fat.
- Weight Loss Resistance
Due to women playing a key role in the survival of the human race, namely childbearing and birth, evolution has made fat loss that much harder for females.
- The Menstrual Cycle
The menstrual cycle is probably the biggest impediment to female fat loss, we’ll be getting into this in (a lot of) detail later in the article, but with the menstrual cycle comes: increased hunger, lethargy, and mental and physical stress. None of which are conducive when calories are already low, and training is already taxing.
- Women burn fewer calories
Women, on average, tend to be smaller and will burn fewer calories during exercise and general movement. Naturally, this means women have to eat fewer calories when dieting.
- Societal Pressure
Women are under a lot more pressure to look a certain way, due to this they’re also more susceptible to fall for fad diets in the hopes to lose weight fast. And if not careful, this can become a vicious cycle of crash diet – gain weight – crash diet – gain weight.
- Marketing and Confusion
This ties in with the point above, but the majority of the diet industry’s marketing is aimed at the female consumer. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by what you should eat, or not eat, how to exercise or not exercise.
- Low Calorie Dieting
As mentioned previously, due to women burning fewer calories than men, they also have to diet on lower calories. This can become tough mentally and make sticking to the diet harder.
Understanding The Menstrual Cycle and Your Fat Loss Goals
Before going any further, we should clarify that when we discuss the menstrual cycle, we are referring to premenopausal, healthy women, who aren’t taking birth control pills. We aren’t doctors and if you have, or suspect you have, health concerns, you should seek professional medical advice.
The menstrual cycle has three distinct phases: the Follicular phase, Ovulation, and the Luteal phase.
Your training and nutrition during these two phases will vary drastically. Before we go any further, we need to scale back just a bit to quickly understand two hormones that are at the root cause of many of the problems women face when trying to lose fat during their menstrual cycle.
Estrogen and Progesterone
Estrogen and progesterone are two hormones that play a key role during the menstrual cycle.
Estrogen – Estrogen tends to get a bad rap in the fitness world, but this isn’t the case; on the contrary, in females the estrogen hormones (hormones, plural, because estrogen is the title given to a group of female sex hormones, the one we’re referring to is estradiol, but to keep things simple for this article, we’ll just be referring to them collectively as estrogen) do positive things, such as: reduce appetite, increase fat burning, and helps with performance.
Progesterone – Progesterone is another hormone that is secreted during the menstrual cycle and is what causes increased hunger and cravings – especially for carbs and sugars – lethargy, strength loss, and generally making women feel terrible during menstruation.
This now sets us up nicely to look at how you can manage your training during the menstrual cycle.
Menstrual Cycle Overview
Day 1 – 14: The Follicular Phase
The first ‘phase’ of your menstrual cycle is called the follicular phase – estrogen is highest during this phase, while progesterone remains steady.
Day 14: Start of Ovulation
Around the midpoint of the cycle, your estrogen levels will be at their highest and progesterone will begin to slowly increase.
Day 15 – 28: The Luteal Phase
This is where things begin to get tough; estrogen levels decline and progesterone increases – you’ll also notice that your body temperature begins to rise during this time in the cycle (this is an important point, and we’ll get into why later).
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Nutrition, Training, and Your Cycle
The Follicular Phase
The follicular phase (day 1-14) is the time in your cycle when you should be focussing on progress and training hard.
Due to the elevated estrogen levels you’ll find you’re a lot more tolerant to pain and have better endurance and power output.
This phase is also when your insulin sensitivity is at its highest which means your body will utilise glycogen (carbs) a lot better. It’s a good idea to keep carbs higher during this phase, reducing fat intake a bit and keeping protein consistent.
During ovulation (around day 14) you’ll be at your strongest, physically. While this is great news, be aware that you’re also more prone to injury due to the elevated estrogen levels.
It’s important to listen to your body and be extra vigilant with your form.
Hunger, especially cravings for sugar and carbs, will also be higher during ovulation, this is due to the slight increase in metabolic rate. Make sure to consume enough protein during this period for satiety and balance your carb and fat intake.
If you find that you’re sugar and carb cravings are higher than normal, this can be a good time to reduce protein intake slightly while increasing carb intake to compensate for the cravings; while reducing chances of overeating.
The Luteal Phase
The Luteal phase is the hardest on women out of the whole cycle. This is when you feel tired, irritable, have extreme sugar and carb cravings and generally feel bad mentally and physically.
During this phase it’s best to focus on lighter training and active recovery (walking, yoga, etc). Due to the physical goings on, trying to attempt high intensity training will only do more harm than good.
The brightside to the luteal phase is that your body is primed to burn the most fat, so adding in workouts like yoga, walking, stretching etc. can help with your body recomposition goals.
This part of the cycle is also where women tend to experience the most water retention.
The luteal phase will also see your hunger and carb cravings at their highest point, while your insulin sensitivity will be at its lowest. It can be helpful to reduce carb intake during this period slightly to help increase fat loss.
After menstruation is over, you’ll start to feel like yourself again and can return to training hard.
NB – Please talk to your TPP coach before making any dietary adjustments.
Tracking Fat Loss
Tracking is an important part of the fat loss process. This is another area where there are slight differences between men and women.
Due to the menstrual cycle women can see pretty crazy weight fluctuations from a day to day basis; this is frustrating because it makes it that much harder to notice if you’re making progress, but secondly, and more importantly, this can take a toll on women mentally: seeing the scale fluctuate can have women resort to crash diets, or increasing exercise to try and lose the weight.
This only results in hindering fat loss and causing your more harm physically and mentally.
What we recommend is that you track progress every week, but compare changes once a month. Pick an ‘anchor’ week, this would be the week of your menstrual cycle. You’ll compare the two ‘anchor’ weigh ins and depending whether your weight has gone up or down, you will use that in conjunction with progress photos and body measurements to see if you should make a change to the diet.
Below you can see an example of what we mean. Please note the weigh-in numbers we’ve used are simply for illustrative purposes – your weight loss (or gain) could be more or less.
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Week 1 average weigh in: 133.4 lbs
Week 2 average weigh in: 133 lbs
Week 3 average weigh in (anchor week): 136 lbs
Week 4 average weigh in: 133.5 lbs
Week 1 average weigh in: 132.5 lbs
Week 2 average weigh in: 132 lbs
Week 3 average weigh in (anchor week): 134 lbs
Week 4 average weigh in: 131.2 lbs
In the example above, the hypothetical trainee was 136lbs on the anchor week in the first month, and she was 134lbs on the anchor week in the second month. She’s losing weight just fine, so we wouldn’t need to make any changes to her diet.
As we mentioned at the start of the article, the real difference between men and women is really seen during the menstrual cycle. Apart from that, there isn’t any reason for women to approach their nutrition or diet any different than their male counterparts.
With that said, here’s a quick rundown of how a diet should be set up.
Calorie intake: There are a plethora of calorie counters on the internet, and between the more complex and simpler calorie equations, there’s only around a 5% margin. For this reason we suggest going with the simplest approach possible to stop you pontificating and not starting.
To set the deficit, take your body weight in pounds and multiply it by 10-12 to get the number of calories you should be consuming in a day.
Protein Intake: Set protein anywhere between 0.7g – 1g per pound of bodyweight.
Carb and fat intake?: Once protein and calories are set, the remainder of your calories will come from either fats or carbs and should be set based on your taste preference and likes.
If you prefer carbs then you can put more attention to increasing your carb intake while keeping fats lower and vice versa if you prefer more fats in your diet.
Just bear these things in mind:
- If you are engaging in a form of high intensity training (like strength training) you should have a decent number of carbs in the diet to fuel performance and muscle growth and retention. Even if you wish to go with a lower carb intake, we will still recommend 150g of carbs as a minimum in the diet.
- Even on a high carb diet, we don’t recommend letting your fat intake get lower than 15% of total calories, this is simply to ensure that you don’t mess with your hormonal health and to provide palatability in the diet.
- There is a lot of carb and sugar fear-mongering in the mainstream media these days, don’t be afraid of carbs, they’re needed as part of a healthy and balanced diet and are extremely useful to those training hard.
Before moving on we just want to highlight something: Eat for growth, not starvation.
There’s a propensity for women to think they need to lose weight, and they end up over-exercising and eating way too little; and they lose weight, sure, but they also burn a lot of muscle. It’s also not a sustainable approach and resultantly they end up quitting the diet.
This then leads to yo-yo dieting, and a cycle of weight gain, crash dieting, weight gain, crash dieting.
You should be focussing on gaining muscle, strength and improving performance all while fuelling these things with good, healthful, adequate nutrition.
Eat for growth, not starvation.
What About Training?
We detailed how you should be approaching your training during your cycle earlier in the article. We just want to give another quick overview.
The Follicular Phase: you’re a lot more tolerant to pain and have better endurance and power output. Use this time to train hard and focus on progression.
Ovulation: you’re at your strongest, physically but also more susceptible to injury. So,it’s important to listen to your body and be extra vigilant with your form during this period.
The Luteal Phase: This is when you’re going to feel most tired, irritable, have extreme sugar and carb cravings and generally feel bad mentally and physically.
During this phase it’s best to focus on lighter training and active recovery (walking, yoga, etc). There simply isn’t a need to try and push through; listen and work with your body, not against it. This will mean faster and better progress, and not putting yourself at risk for injury.
- Fat loss is harder for females for a few reasons, the main being the menstrual cycle
- During the menstrual cycle women’s weight will fluctuate, they can appear bloated and confuse this for weight gain or a weight loss stall, hunger will increase and strength will be affected.
- The menstrual cycle lasts 28 days and is split into three ‘phases.
- The first phase: The follicular phase (day 1-14) is the time in your cycle when you should be focussing on progress and training hard. Due to the elevated estrogen levels you’ll find you’re a lot more tolerant to pain and have better endurance and power output.
- The second phase: Ovulation will be when your strength and performance is at it’s highest, this is a good time to go for new personal records but be careful because you’re also more prone to injury during this phase.Hunger, especially cravings for sugar and carbs, will also be higher during ovulation, this is due to the slight increase in metabolic rate. Make sure to consume enough protein during this period for satiety
- The third phase: The Luteal Phase is the hardest on women out of the whole cycle and is when you’re going to feel most tired, irritable, and have extreme sugar and carb cravings.During this phase it’s best to focus on lighter training and active recovery (walking, yoga, etc).The brightside to the luteal phase is that your body is primed to burn the most fat, so adding in lower intensity workouts like yoga, walking, stretching etc. can help with your body recomposition goals while aiding recovery.The luteal phase is also part of the cycle where women tend to experience the most water retention.
While the menstrual cycle does make fat loss a bit harder for women, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible or that you can’t lose fat. Using this guide will help you make the most out of your training and nutrition during your cycle while reducing the confusion and stress that comes with it.
Also note that there will be always be inter-personal variability; some women won’t notice the impact of their cycle as much as others may. You should use this guide as a reference while listening to and learning how your body responds and adapt accordingly.
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- Female Fat Loss Guide Understanding The Menstrual Cycle and Your Fat Loss Goals - November 10, 2016