Female fat loss can be a 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 want to remove all the confusion, help you understand why fat loss differs slightly for women, and explain how to make the 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 so to list everything just wouldn’t be possible but here are some of the main factors that make fat loss harder for women than men.
Generally speaking, men carry more muscle, weigh more and tend to be taller than their female counterparts. As a result, their bigger bodies require more energy in the form of calories. So, when it comes to dieting, women will have to eat 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 them.
The Menstrual Cycle
The menstrual cycle is probably the biggest impediment to female fat loss. We’ll be getting into this in more detail later in the article but with the menstrual cycle comes increased hunger, lethargy, and mental and physical stress. None of which are helpful when calories are already low and training is already taxing.
Women burn fewer calories
On average, women 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 than men.
Women often feel under pressure to look a certain way. This can make them more likely to fall for fad diets with the hope of losing weight fast. And if not careful, this can become a vicious cycle of crash diet – gain weight – crash diet – gain weight.
Marketing and Confusion
The majority of the diet industry’s marketing is aimed at the female consumer. It is, therefore, easy to become overwhelmed by information about 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 fewer calories. This can become tough mentally and make sticking to the diet harder.
Before going any further, we should clarify that when we discuss the menstrual cycle, we are referring to pre-menopausal, healthy women, who aren’t taking birth control pills. We are not doctors and if you have any 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 three phases will vary drastically. Before we go any further, let’s look briefly at the two hormones that are at the root cause of many of the problems that women face when trying to lose fat during their menstrual cycle
OESTROGEN AND PROGESTERONE ARE TWO HORMONES THAT PLAY A KEY ROLE DURING THE MENSTRUAL CYCLE
Oestrogen tends to have a bad reputation in the fitness world but this isn’t necessarily justified. Contrary to common belief, in females the oestrogen hormones do positive things, such as reduce appetite, increase fat burning, and help with performance. (We referred to hormones, plural, because oestrogen is the title given to a group of female sex hormones. The one we’re actually referring to is oestradiol but to keep things simple we’ll just be referring to the hormones collectively as oestrogen in this article).
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.
So, let’s look at how you can manage your training during the menstrual cycle.
MENSTRUAL CYCLE OVERVIEW
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 oestrogen 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 oestrogen 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 your 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 and reduce the chance of overeating.
THE LUTEAL PHASE
The luteal phase (day 15-28) 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 low 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.
On the brightside, during the luteal phase 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 PP 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 on a day to day basis. This can be frustrating because it makes it that much harder to notice if you’re making progress, but more importantly this can take a toll on women mentally. Seeing the scale fluctuate can push women to resort to crash diets, or increase exercise to try and lose the weight.
This only results in hindering fat loss and causing more harm physically and mentally.
We recommend 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 on 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 your diet.
Below is 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.
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 she wouldn’t need to make any changes to her diet.
As we mentioned at the start of the article, the main 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 differently to their male counterparts.
With that said, here’s a quick rundown of how a diet should be set up.
Calorie intake: There is 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 prevent procrastination 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 preferences and likes. If you prefer carbs then focus on 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 your 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.
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 fearmongering in the mainstream media these days but 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.
EAT FOR GROWTH, NOT STARVATION
There’s a propensity for women to think they need to lose weight and sometimes they end up over-exercising and eating way too little. They successfully lose weight but they also burn a lot of muscle. This is not a sustainable approach and as a result they end up quitting the diet.
This then leads to yo-yo dieting, and a cycle of weight gain and crash dieting. You should be focusing on gaining muscle, strength and improving performance all while fueling these things with good, healthy, adequate nutrition.
WHAT ABOUT TRAINING?
We detailed how you should approach your training during your cycle earlier in the article but 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.
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 low 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 from 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 feel and appear bloated and confuse this for weight gain or a weight loss stall. Hunger will increase and strength will be affected.
The menstrual cycle usually 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 oestrogen 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 its 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 bright side to the luteal phase is that your body is primed to burn the most fat, so adding in lower intensity workouts can help with your body re-composition 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, and hopefully reduce the confusion and stress that comes with it.
Please 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.