Men and women experience different challenges when it comes to fitness, nutrition, health and body composition. This one is for the ladies although there’s some helpful information for the lads as well which might help correct some myths and give you a better understanding of the unique struggles women experience when it comes to healthy weight loss and changing their body composition. Some of these are biological impacts, others are psychological. Either way they can take their toll.
1. The Truth about Weight Loss
This is one message that is often lost when it comes to health, fitness and nutrition so I want to make it extremely clear.
Not all weight loss is good, and not all weight gain is bad!
What do I mean? Think of it this way, you could be 5 ft 6 inches, and weigh 140 lbs, yet in 1 year you could still weigh 140 lbs and still be 5 foot 6 inches yet your body could look dramatically different. What’s the difference? – BODY COMPOSITION
Body composition is basically what your body is made up of. You could be 140 lbs and have 40% body fat, yet in 1 year you could potentially be 140 lbs and have 18% body fat.
Even though zero “weight loss” occurred on the scales, body fat has still been reduced and it will dramatically change the shape of your body. How come?
Two factors are at play – muscle gain and fat loss, otherwise known as “toning.” This doesn’t mean you’ll look like the incredible hulk or a bodybuilder. It simply means the layer of fat on the outside has been reduced and your muscle tissue underneath has increased and overall you’ve become firmer. This gives you the appearance of weight loss yet your friends might not believe you if you told them you’ve lost absolutely no weight on the scales.
What To Do
- Don’t worry too much about what the scales are telling you. They’ll lie to you and I’ll show you how and why in the next few points.
- If you want to track your progress and see if you’re getting closer to your goal I recommend that you get a tape measurement of your hips and waist and take this every 2 weeks.
- Use this along with the scales and progress pictures to get a much more accurate and honest update on your progress.
2. Your Cycle
Another factor which is often ignored when it comes to the weighing scales, is your cycle. Your body weight can fluctuate by several pounds over the course of your cycle which normally peaks just before menstruation. If you’re working out and watching your nutrition you can be lining yourself up for disappointment if you’re only looking at the scales as a reflection of your progress.
If you want to get slimmer then it’s wise to track your cycle as well as your calories and workouts. If you want to get your true weight it’s best to weigh yourself EVERY day for a week, add it all up then divide by seven. There are lots of phone apps you can use to track your cycle. Don’t forget to take that into consideration if you’re tracking your weight.
Water retention can massively impact your scale weight which can be caused by hormonal changes. Before your period starts, estrogen and progesterone levels decrease dramatically which signals the start of menstruation. Estrogen and progesterone also control how your body regulates fluid. The tissues in your body accumulate more water as these hormones fluctuate which causes water retention.
Water retention can result in your breasts, stomach, or extremities becoming swollen which increases your scale weight but does NOT increase your body fat. This is an important difference to understand when you weigh yourself at this stage in your cycle. Water retention affects about 92% of women who menstruate so it’s a very common side effect.
When your period starts your magnesium levels start to decrease. This can instigate sugar cravings and the extra calories consumed can obviously contribute to weight gain.
Magnesium helps to regulate your body’s hydration so when this drops it can cause dehydration.
One of the smartest yet simplest tips I give to my Personal Training clients is to be sure to drink some whatever when they feel hungry. This is because your hunger pangs can often be caused by dehydration. This can also make you crave something sweet, which leads to extra unnecessary calorie consumption.
During your cycle issues such as constipation, diarrhoea, and abdominal pain can be caused by hormonal changes. This bloating and easiness in your tummy can often make you feel like you’ve gained weight even though you haven’t actually increased in body fat.
About 1 week before your period, progesterone increases which impairs your intestinal muscle’s ability to contract. This can result in slower digestion and ultimately constipation.
As your period begins, your uterus releases prostaglandins.
“Prostaglandins are a group of lipids made at sites of tissue damage or infection that are involved in dealing with injury and illness. They control processes such as inflammation, blood flow, the formation of blood clots and the induction of labour.” (www.yourhormones.info)
Prostaglandins cause muscle contractions in your gut and uterus which can cause pelvic and abdominal pain. They can also cause diarrhoea due to disruptions in electrolyte and fluid balance within the small intestine. All of this can alter your scale weight and your own perception of your weight due to the mixture of feelings it will produce.
As mentioned previously, hormonal changes during your period can cause cravings and encourage you to overeat. About a week before your period your progesterone levels will increase stimulating your appetite, causing you to desire more food than usual, regardless of your size, shape or weight.
Estrogen regulates serotonin which is a neurotransmitter that controls mood and reduces your appetite. When your estrogen levels drops just before your period, so does your levels of serotonin. This again causes an increase in your appetite.
If you’re low in serotonin it can cause can increase in sugar cravings. This is due to the fact that high-carb foods help your body produce serotonin. When serotonin is low your brain will crave more sugar. As already stated, consuming high-sugar foods causes extra calorie consumption which will inevitably lead to weight gain.
Another factor at play is your metabolic rate. This will fluctuate throughout your menstrual cycle. When it increases, your body is expending more energy, but you also might have an increased appetite and crave foods which are higher in calories and sugar for no obvious reason.
When you bloat during your period it can feel like you’ve gained a few pounds, even though true weight gain (fat gain) hasn’t actually occurred. Your clothes can feel tight and even uncomfortable due to some of the reasons mentioned already, ie water retention.
However, hormonal changes can also lead to a build up of gas in your gastrointestinal tract and cause bloating. This bloating can cause a tight, swollen feeling in your abdomen or other areas.
Stomach cramps can also give you the impression that you’ve gained weight which are caused by prostaglandins (as mentioned above). These chemicals make your uterus contract and shed its lining which causes abdominal pain often associated with your period.
Bloating can start about 5 days before your period and continue into menstruation for a few days. Stomach cramps can also last for a few days, which begin 1-2 days before your period.
What You Can Do
- Drink more water. If you’re dehydrated your body will hold onto more fluid so it’s important to drink extra water.
- Buy healthy, low calorie foods. When cravings come, it’s best to have highly nutritious foods readily available to snack on such as fruit, nuts or high protein yogurts.
- Magnesium supplements. Chat to your GP before starting supplements but magnesium supplements can help decrease: water retention, bloating, sugar cravings and even emotional issues.
- Move more. Walk and move around more to help prevent a build up of fluid. Sweat produced from intense exercise can also help to reduce fluid retention.
- Exercise more. Regular exercise can reduce the severity of your symptoms during your period. Even 20-30 minutes each day can make a massive difference to how you feel.
- Reduce sodium intake. Consuming excessive sodium is a massive cause of water retention. Avoid adding salt to your food and avoid processed or fast foods.
- Avoid sugar and caffeine. Foods and drinks containing caffeine and sugar can increase your bloating. Try to avoid these before your period.
- Identify and avoid foods which produce extra gas. Everyone’s different so you might need to figure out which foods affect you worst. Try to avoid these throughout the month and not just around the time of your period. The usual suspects are beans, cauliflower and brussel sprouts.
3. The Pill
In 2009, Steven Riechman, an exercise physiologist at Texas A&M University conducted a study on how a person’s genetic makeup can affect their ability to grow their muscles through exercise. He discovered that the women in the study who were on the pill gained 40% less muscle than women who weren’t on the pill.
The womanly ‘hourglass figure’ emerges as different kinds of fat tissue respond differently to these reproductive hormones. For example, subcutaneous fat – the kind of chub that women carry around their thighs, hips and breasts – contains lots of oestrogen receptors.
It’s not difficult to see how changing a woman’s hormone balance could alter where her fat is stored. Research has demonstrated this including a study in 1988 which found that women who were on pills which contained higher levels of oestrogen were more likely to have pear-shaped bodies and increased subcutaneous fat. However, they didn’t necessarily have a higher overall body fat percentage.
As mentioned above, the swollen feeling which happens due to oestrogen, influences the way your body metabolises water. This is due to the production of certain proteins in the kidneys. The causes your body to retain more fluid than usual. The fluid seeps into fat cells causing them to expand. Women naturally tend to store more fat in their hips, breasts and thighs, and it’s in these areas this swelling increases the most.
What You Can Do
- Research other types of contraceptive methods.
- Chat to your GP or pharmacist who may be able to recommend other types of pills or forms of contraceptive.
4. Perimenopause, Menopause & Post Menopause
If you’re currently going through Menopause check out this article which has more detailed information.
Menopause comes in 3 different stages.
- Perimenopause – the body begins to produce less oestrogen. This continues until the final 1-2 years of perimenopause before hormone levels drop rapidly. This can begin up to 10 years before you enter menopause. It often begins in your 40s, but some women will enter perimenopause in their 30s.
- Menopause – defined as occurring 12 months from your last menstrual period. This marks the end of menstrual cycles. This can happen in your 40s or 50s, the average age being 51 in the western world.
- Postmenopause – some symptoms such as hot flushes will usually decrease, but other health concerns can arise such as heart disease and osteoporosis. This is due to the decrease in oestrogen production.
There are usually 2 main culprits which cause weight gain.
Insulin sensitivity – Decreased insulin sensitivity (also referred to as insulin resistance) means that your body is less sensitive to the effects of insulin. This means that your cells will not take up blood glucose as effectively, leaving higher amounts of glucose in circulation eventually to be stored as fat. While this occurs naturally with aging (in men also), it seems to become especially noticeable during and after menopause.
Carbohydrate resistance – Carbohydrate tolerance describes your body’s ability to use carbohydrates. Carbohydrate tolerance describes the amount of carbohydrates your body needs each day, at any one time, and at which times during the day.
Carbohydrate tolerance and insulin sensitivity will vary with the hormonal situation in your body. During and post menopause, your body becomes much more prone to storing fat and you may experience lower energy from external stresses such as alcohol, inadequate sleep, and stress.
What You Can Do
- You will probably lose bone density during menopause. Ensure adequate intake of Calcium, Vitamin D and incorporate strength training.
- Include hypertrophy resistance training to increase muscle mass. This will help shape your body more than fat loss alone.
- Your experience of menopause will be completely unique. Comparison is pointless and unhelpful.
- Reduce stress as much as possible as stress hormones will amplify the effects of menopause – walking is great for this.
- The severity and impact doesn’t last forever. It will pass. Use it as a reminder to take good care of yourself.
5. The Curse of Comparison
We all do it. It’s not just an issue that women combat. You look, you assess, you compare and then you beat yourself up. There are no winners when you compare yourself to others. You were designed with unique, specific talents, gifts, abilities, strengths, weaknesses and looks.
Sometimes you compare yourself to someone who has better hair than you and you feel bad. Sometimes you compare yourself to someone who’s more out of shape than you are to make yourself feel better. Other times you’ll compare your skin, your cellulite, where you store your body fat, your height, your weight, your tan, your face. Sometimes it makes you feel good about yourself and sometimes it makes you feel awful. 100% of the time it’s a waste of time and it damages you and others psychologically.
I get that there are some occasions where comparison can lead to a healthy change. It can become inspirational or elevate our level of competitiveness so that we try to excel in sport, in the gym or our lifestyle. But it’s a very fine line and one which needs to be kept on a tight leash otherwise it can control your thoughts, damage your relationships, harm your self esteem and sense of unique purpose.
What You Can Do
- Practice gratitude regularly – Reflect each day on the fact that your body is unique and you have different physical potential than others. You’re going to have strengths and weaknesses. You’re going to have genetic differences to others and learning to accept that appreciate your own body is a great starting point.
- Focus on your own performance – Instead of looking at what others look like or how fit someone else is, or what their body can do, focus on yourself. Concentrate on your own level of performance and your own workouts and try to get the very most out of every workout. Be consistent and you’ll be rewarded.
- Applaud others’ achievements – When you witness other people excelling and doing well, take the time to congratulate them and let them know how well they’re doing. Be an encourager. You’ll be amazed at how this can free you to concentrate on your own fitness and use it as a healthy motivation rather than letting it rot away in your mind or discourage you.
6. Unrealistic Expectations
Ladies, perhaps more than men (but not exclusively) seem to be coming under more and more pressure to external influences which tell them what their body should be like. Whether this comes from social media platforms like Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook and the internet in general, or from the trashy magazines, there seems to be an unrelenting bombardment of images and captions which tell women (and men) that THIS is the ideal.
Aside from the blindingly obvious fact that every woman and every man is an individual and trying to be someone else is utterly ridiculous when we ponder it for a moment, there’s another massive issue – Photoshop!
Not only are comparisons to real life people a curse (as discussed in the last point), comparisons to photo shopped images are even more disturbing. We’re taken in so quickly by our sight and automatically make assumptions based upon what we see, even if it’s the most absurd and subtle optical illusion in the form of a selfie.
Of course you can’t look like that fitness influencer on Instagram. She doesn’t even look like herself. Her team have carefully chosen the right level of contrast, structure, brightness, warmth, saturation, and sharpness to represent a likeness of her, but it’s not actually her. Yet in your mind, you glance at it, see the most impressive aspects and then your heart sinks as you instinctively compare your reality with her fallacy.
What You Can Do
- Do your research – In order to avoid setting yourself up for disappointment it’s helpful to know what’s realistic and what isn’t. Don’t just go by what fitness models or Instagrammers are telling you. Check out real sources.
- Get professional help – Chat to a reliable Personal Trainer who has experience and who doesn’t focus on quick fixes. They’ll be able to help you set yourself realistic goals which you can aim for and then smash. You can apply for my Online Coaching below.
- Delete Instagram – Only joking! Cross Functional Fitness is on Instagram so you defintely don’t want to miss out on more helpful content there. But seriously, if seeing Instagram fitness influencers every day are making you unhappy or dissatisfied with your own progress or level of fitness then it might be wise to delete them from your feed, at least for a while.