Female Fat Loss - 5 Reasons Why It's Harder for Women to Lose Weight and What to Do About It
While fat loss essentially comes down to creating an energy imbalance (eating fewer calories than you burn) it’s not always that simple for women.
Unfortunately, it’s more difficult for a woman to lose fat than it is for a man.
This article will explore 5 of the reasons why that is. We'll look at:
• Body Composition
• Evolution & Weight Loss Resistance
• Social Pressure
• The Diet Industry
• The Menstrual Cycle (the biggest obstacle for most women and the main focus of this blog)
Each subject concludes with a ‘solution box’ that offers advice on how to overcome each of the issues so you can get the most out of your diet and training and ultimately improve your chances of long-term fat loss.
Please read until the end to discover 2 very important factors in relation to the menstrual cycle that you need to take into consideration.
I hope you find this information useful. Please share it with any men in your life so they appreciate just how lucky they are. When it comes to dropping a few pounds, we guys really do have it easy compared to the female of the species.
Men are typically taller, heavier, and have more muscle mass. They have a higher basal metabolic rate (BMR) so require and burn more calories on a daily basis. Therefore a high-calorie meal of say pizza and ice cream would be more detrimental to a woman's physique than a man's.
Give a man and woman the exact same 45-minute workout to perform and the man will burn more calories doing so. In fact, it can take women 25-33% longer to burn the same number of calories as men.
If both sexes were in a calorie deficit of 20%, the guy would lose more body fat. So, when it comes to dieting women have to restrict their calorie intake to a much greater degree in order to lose weight.
Solution 1 - Get Lifting
Resistance training, (lifting weights or bodyweight exercises) will help you build lean muscle which in turn will keep your BMR (fat burning processes) as high as possible.
Perform full-body workouts 2-3 times a week. With full-body routines, you train every major muscle in your body, like your chest, back, arms, quads, hamstrings, and abs, during each workout.
If you are worried about getting 'bulky' then you don't need to. It's very hard for women to pack on muscle due to possessing testosterone levels that are around one-seventh of that in men. You will get fitter, stronger, and sexier - not bigger!
And if that wasn't enough to get you reaching for the dumbbells, here are some extra benefits to regular weight training:
While cardio does have its place if you want to see real changes in your physique start using weights or the weight machines.
The next time you are in the gym bypass the treadmills and cross trainers and give your body a workout to remember. You won't regret it.
For more treadmill alternatives check out my '15 Ways to Get Lean Without Boring Cardio' article here.
Evolution & Weight Loss Resistance
The survival of the human race is pretty much reliant on women so evolution has made it so you are more resistant to losing weight.
Your body will fight against energetic stress, i.e starvation or dieting, a lot harder than a man’s in order for you to survive longer and make it through pregnancy. The result is women store fat much easier than men.
Women tend to store a greater % of dietary fat right after consuming a meal. And in between meals women use less fat for fuel than men do, switching more to carbohydrates as their primary energy source. (This changes during the menstrual cycle which we'll go through later in the article).
Hunger and appetite increase more for women than men in response to exercise.
There is also a greater drop in the levels of leptin (the hormone which tells the brain it is full and decreases appetite) in women after a week of dieting than a man. So a diet will literally feel much harder for you.
Solution 2 - Stay NEAT
NEAT stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. Or in simple terms, any calories you burn that is not through planned exercise. Such as:
You may have thought that something as trivial as fidgeting would have little to no impact on calorie expenditure. But it can make a big difference over the course of a day or a week.
The average person while seated burns around 77 calories per hour. However, sitting while fidgeting burns 118 calories per hour.
If you are a desk worker, over the course of a 7-8 hour shift, it could amount to a total of 300 calories or a chocolate bar.
Now I’m not asking you to start moving about like a blue arsed fly for the sake of it during your working day. I just want to get across the importance of moving your body as much as possible, not just when you exercise.
We often focus our attention and efforts on burning calories in a 60-minute session every 2-3 days, but what about the remaining 23 hours? It’s during these hours when NEAT has a huge part to play.
It is also the most adaptable and variable part of our energy expenditure.
The more active you are outside of the gym, the better chance you have of losing weight and keeping it off long term.
The message here is to keep as active as possible. No one wants to work out 7 days a week so use other methods for your calorie burn.
Walk wherever you can. Use the stairs instead of the lift. Take a break from your desk every hour and move around. Go for a stroll during your lunch break. Take the dog for a walk. Get off the bus or train a stop early. Leave the car at home when you go to the shops.
The more calories you expend through NEAT, the more you can eat while still losing weight!
Women are under more pressure to look a certain way than men are. This starts at a very young age and continues right through to womanhood.
Social media, TV, and magazines present images of women with ‘perfect’ bodies. Usually coupled with an offer from a celebrity or fitness professional claiming you can have the same if you follow their 'magic' weight loss methods.
This unrealistic expectation of how you should look is damaging in a number of ways:
Your motivation takes a hit as it emphasises just how far you have to go to reach your goals. It may cause undue stress, anxiety, and low self-esteem. For some, it may trigger a cycle of losing and gaining weight through crash diets or even worse, lead to eating disorders. This can be a life-long battle.
It's important to note that what you see in the media is only a small, filtered version of what people choose to share and it doesn’t reflect real life.
- Images are photoshopped and airbrushed to perfection
- The women presented are typically models, actresses, and celebrities
- Steroid use or extreme (and dangerous) diet and training methods may be at play
There is a widening gap between the size of the average women and the media's representation of the ideal woman.
This is concerning as the thin and toned body portrayals and advertisements are impossible for many women to realistically and healthily achieve.
Solution 3 - Stop Comparing Yourself to Others
Comparison is the fast track to unhappiness. We only ever compare ourselves to those who somehow seem better than us and we end up feeling more inadequate.
Focus on yourself. You are all unique with different journeys and goals so forget what others are doing or what they look like.
Unfollow the social media accounts that are not serving you. Ignore the photoshopped fitpros or the celebrity DVD's promising you a beach-ready body in just 6 weeks.
Instead, draw inspiration from the people with real lives and long working hours. The busy mums and professionals, the single parents, the ones who are on the same path as you.
Focus on progress rather than perfection. The health and fitness industry is often a quick fix culture but the reality is nothing happens overnight. It takes months of consistent work and habit building to reach your goals. So don’t compare your step 1 with someone else’s step 100.
Accept that genetics and childbirth play a massive role in how your body will look. It's just not possible for everyone to get the physique of an Instagram model.
Love your body for what it is. The happier you are with yourself, the less you will care about how others look.
The Diet Industry
The vast majority of fitness marketing targets the female consumer.
There seems to be a new fad diet appearing every 5 minutes so it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the vast amount of information that's out there.
My issue with most diets on the market is they promise you great results quickly but overlook what happens after the diet ends.
The 'before' and 'after' periods only tell part of the story. There is not enough focus on the 'after-after' period.
This 'after-after' period is actually where a diet can be deemed successful or not. Losing weight is only part of the equation. Keeping the weight off, which is much harder, is the real issue that needs to be addressed.
What's worse is that the diet industry knows this, but - THEY DON'T CARE!
You see, they don’t really want you to lose weight. Not long-term anyway.
They want you to yo-yo diet forever so you keep buying their fat loss pills, diet drinks, food replacement shakes, and tasteless, bland, low-calorie meals.
These restrictive methods ensure you put the weight back on so you repeat the process over and over. They want you to become a customer for life.
You DO NOT need a new diet. You just need to work on your existing one so you get the most out of it.
Solution 4 - Flexible Dieting & High Protein
Your diet should be a way of life. Not something that lasts for 6, 8, or 12 weeks.
Ignore the latest fads or restrictive plans you see advertised in glossy magazines, television, or social media.
They may get you some decent short-term results but they rarely last. In order to maintain a body composition you are happy with for the rest of your life you need a diet that doesn't feel like one.
The beauty of 'flexible dieting' is that it allows you to enjoy the food and drink you love while still getting amazing weight loss results every week. And it's super easy to implement.
1. Get 80-90% of your calories from quality, mostly unprocessed, whole foods. Lean proteins, fruit, veggies, leafy greens, legumes, beans, and whole grains.
2. Then use the remaining 10-20% on whatever you like. That could be booze, chocolate, biscuits, pizza, burgers, or curry. No foods are restricted so long as you do not exceed your calorie allowance.
3. Go about your life as happy as larry without ever feeling hungry or craving your favourite foods. What's not to like?
That's all it takes. No magic formulas, skinny teas, special diets, or fat burning pills. Just an approach you can easily adhere to long-term.
How Many Calories?
The number one way to guarantee you get amazing weight loss results is to track your calorie intake. This may sound like a hassle but as soon as you get into a routine it will take you no more than 10 minutes a day. That's not much of a sacrifice to get you in the best shape of your life!
Your first task is to download MyFitness Pal. MFP is a free app that's very user-friendly. It has a barcode scanner that makes it super-easy to log what you eat and drink.
Next, you need to multiply your bodyweight in pounds by the following:
12 - if you are active, train regularly, and are generally on the go most of the time
10 - if you are fairly sedentary, you sit at a desk all day and don't really do any exercise
11 - if you are somewhere in between the above
The total is the number of calories you can eat every day and lose weight. Multiply your daily total by 7 to get your weekly calorie allowance. Do not exceed this number over the week and you are GUARANTEED to lose weight.
Use these figures as a guide. If you are not losing weight after 2 weeks, reduce your daily allowance by 50-100 calories until you start seeing results.
You can use the 'whatever you like' calories (10-20%) in a single day, spread over the weekend, or you could have a little of what you love each day.
That's the beauty of flexible dieting. The choice is yours providing the numbers add up.
You DO NOT have to:
- Cut out carbs or avoid them after 6 pm
- Eat 'clean'
- Buy juice cleanses or detox drinks
- Exclude any of the foods you love
- Remove alcohol entirely
One thing you SHOULD be doing in order to make things easier is to ensure your protein intake is high. You may have heard that high protein diets are good for weight loss, particularly for women.
- It keeps you fuller for longer and helps to keep those annoying hunger pangs at bay
- Protein helps to maintain muscle mass. When you achieve your weight loss from fat rather than muscle you'll be amazed, and delighted, at how different your body looks and feels
- It aids recovery. A high protein diet will reduce muscle soreness so you can train just as hard next time out
- Protein has a higher thermic effect of food (TEF) than carbs or fats. In simple terms, your body uses more energy and burns more calories digesting it
How Much Protein?
Aim for 1.5-2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. So long as you hit your protein target each day you can play around with your carb and fat amounts as you please.
2 grams may seem a lot at first so build up to it over time. Once you do, you'll find you are not hungry throughout the day which makes things much easier and sustainable long-term.
Keep your protein high and you won't ever feel like you are on diet.
An Important Point
Flexible dieting will allow you a night out drinking with the girls, an evening on the sofa with chocolate and popcorn, or Sunday lunch with the family, but you still need to be disciplined when required.
Ensure you are getting the majority of your calories from the list of whole foods mentioned above. These foods are packed full of fibre and micronutrients and while fat loss may be your primary focus you should also have an eye on your long-term health and vitality.
The Menstrual Cycle
If all of the above wasn’t hard enough there is also the menstrual cycle to contend with. This is probably the biggest obstacle for most women when it comes to fat loss and we'll go into more detail about it here.
(Important: The below refers to healthy premenopausal women who are not taking a contraceptive. This is not medical advice. I am not a doctor so if you have any health issues please contact a medical professional)
Estrogen (Estradiol) and Progesterone are the female sex hormones produced during the menstrual cycle.
During the first two weeks of the cycle (the follicular phase) estrogen is the dominant hormone.
Estrogen, despite its bad reputation in the fitness world, can actually reduce appetite and improves insulin sensitivity.
In the second two weeks (the luteal phase) women become progesterone dominant.
The progesterone hormone causes an increase in hunger and cravings for sweet, fatty, sugary foods and carbs. While your metabolic rate does increase by around 100-300 calories a day most women tend to eat around 500 extra calories due to their increased appetite.
In addition, the body becomes slightly more insulin resistant so you cannot process carbohydrates as well. This is also the time you will experience the most water retention.
Women literally have to deal with a slightly different physiology depending on which week of the cycle they are in.
Some women do not notice a difference between the follicular and luteal phase and can get on with their lives pretty much as normal.
But for others, it can be extremely difficult.
As well as feeling irritable you may suffer from less energy and poorer workouts. There may be strength and coordination issues and you are at higher risk of injury during this time.
Pain, cramps, and depression can all affect the quality and duration of exercise. You may feel deflated and stressed.
To reiterate just how easy men have it in comparison, our levels of testosterone remain fairly constant all year round. We feel pretty much the same every time we turn up at the gym. We can work harder and diet more intensely without it significantly affecting our mood, stress, or energy levels.
Solution 5 - Align Your Training & Nutrition with Your Cycle
As mentioned earlier the menstrual cycle will affect women differently so if any of this is familiar to you it’s important not to be too hard on yourself.
Monitor which phase of your cycle you are in and if needed adjust your workouts accordingly:
The Follicular Phase
Perform full body strength workouts in the first phase (days 1-14). Due to the increase in estrogen, you will be more tolerant of pain and be able to push yourself harder.
Your body is able to utilize carbohydrates better in the follicular phase so keep carb intake higher and fats lower.
Around day 14 you will be at your strongest and you may find your performance in the gym improves significantly. However, you are also at the greatest risk of injury so be extra careful to ensure you maintain good form throughout your workouts.
The Luteal Phase
The hardest part of the cycle for most women. You may feel tired, irritable, suffer extreme cravings and generally feel bad mentally and physically.
If this is the case focus on shorter conditioning sessions with some restorative exercises such as walking, cycling, a gentle swim, Pilates or yoga.
If you still want to do resistance training consider swapping free weights for the machines.
Look to decrease carbohydrate intake and consume more protein and fats during the luteal phase while your body is more insulin resistant.
2 Important Factors to Consider with The Menstrual Cycle
It might be a good idea not to start a diet just when your cravings for chocolate and biscuits are about to go through the roof. (The luteal phase of your cycle).
You'll find it much harder to stick to and mentally it can tough. You may not see the results you were hoping for which can lead to feelings of despair and unhappiness.
Your weight may fluctuate a lot during the menstrual cycle, even on a day to day basis. This makes tracking your progress difficult but it’s important to not get too hung up about the number on the scales. Much of this fluctuation will be due to water retention.
To get an accurate weight measurement you will need to track equivalent weeks of your cycle. i.e compare your weight on week 1 of the cycle to week 1 of the next cycle. Week 2 with week 2 of the following cycle, and so on.
Also, keep in mind that your weight is not the most important measure of how you are progressing. How you look and feel is much more important so I advise you to take progress pictures or body measurements every few weeks. The scales only tell part of the story.
Female Fat Loss - A Final Word
There are a number of factors that make fat loss harder for women but that doesn't mean it’s impossible.
Use the information here as a guide for your training and nutrition.
More importantly, listen to your body. You know it better than anyone so monitor how you feel and respond to the different methods discussed.
I hope you enjoyed this article. Please share with anyone you feel may benefit from reading it.
As ever, please get in touch with any questions you may have.
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