Women and Weight Loss
It’s clear that many women struggle more with weight loss than their brothers, husbands, and male friends. Why? It can be extremely frustrating for women who are trying to make active steps towards weight loss and a healthy life when the results don’t come in a timely manner. There is hope, but an understanding of why women are different and may have more trouble than their male counterparts can help relieve some stress when it comes to weight loss.
Here are a few components that may present a challenge for some women.
- Body Mass-women have less mass in general and creating a calorie deficit for weight loss is much more difficult than it is for men. More body mass means more calories burned, so women have to work a lot harder to burn the same amount of calories as men. Make sure you’re eating the right amount of calories for your body type, not someone else’s. Weight training and adequate protein intake will help you keep muscle mass, without dropping your caloric intake too low.
- Estrogen can cause problems during weight loss because it’s hard to balance it. Too much estrogen and too little can cause issues. Normal estrogen levels are thought to be beneficial during weight loss because some studies have linked it to decreasing circulating levels of insulin, which may be a benefit for those with insulin resistance or metabolic disorders.
- In premenopausal women, estrogen also seems to encourage a metabolically safer pattern of fat distribution (fat located just under the skin rather than packed around the organs). It might not feel like much consolation when you look at the scale, but it’s better to have the extra weight without the metabolic consequences than to have them both.
- Because of estrogen’s relationship with adipose tissue (fat), the more fat you have, the more estrogen you’ll have, and it also seems to work the other way around. For example, estrogen overload can exacerbate hypothyroid issues, slowing metabolism and causing weight gain. If that “estrogen overload” comes from obesity in the first place, this can very quickly become a vicious cycle (you’re overweight because you have thyroid problems, and you have thyroid problems because you’re overweight)
I should also mention that if you’re struggling with a chronic hormonal issue like PCOS, infertility, or amenorrhea your best bet is to go find a good endocrinologist who can run blood tests and give you specific advice. This information is intended to educate, not diagnose.
The available evidence shows that moderate carb restriction is effective in treating any female hormonal problems that might be driving weight gain. In this study of women with PCOS, for example, 30% of calories from carbs worked better than 55% of calories. On the other hand, an extremely low-carb diet is not necessarily the answer either: especially for women, extreme carb restriction can cause problems of its own, including hormonal dysfunction.
Getting enough protein has been shown to help heal hormonal imbalances, but this must be accompanied with lower glycemic index foods. Fat is also important in hormonal health, mainly because saturated fat is essential to maintaining adequate sex hormones. Keep in mind that saturated, and monounsaturated fat is generally good for you; polyunsaturated fat is better limited, and try to get more Omega-3 and less Omega-6 in your diet.
The Menstrual Cycle
There are two phases of the menstrual cycle: the follicular phase & the luteal phase. These two phases are separated by ovulation and menses. The follicular phase starts at the first day of menses and ends at ovulation while the luteal phase starts with ovulation and ends with the first day of menses.
The follicular phase is a period of higher estrogen and low progesterone, while the luteal phase is a period of high estrogen AND progesterone, but progesterone is more dominant. The period of time leading up to the start of the period involves a steep decline of both estrogen and progesterone. Here’s what’s pertinent about all this:
- Estrogen makes women more insulin sensitive while progesterone, because it opposes the action of insulin, makes them more insulin resistant.
- Estrogen and progesterone are both anti-cortisol hormones.
- Estrogen is also a muscle building hormone while progesterone may interfere with muscle development.
Because there is more estrogen during the follicular phase, there is less fat storage, some fat burning and a good time to gain muscle. At the beginning of the luteal phase, there is both estrogen AND progesterone. Later in the luteal phase (premenstrual), there is less of each but more progesterone.
- Beginning luteal phase= less muscle building, but good fat burning. Later luteal phase= more catabolic time (i.e. burning fat and muscle).
- Because both estrogen and progesterone have receptors in the brain, it has been shown that when they fall premenstrually, brain chemistry is impacted including lower serotonin, GABA, and dopamine. This means increased cravings especially for sweet and starchy foods (i.e PMS cravings)
What does all of that mean? It means that a woman’s menstrual cycle most certainly affects weight loss/fat burning and muscle building. Using estrogen and progesterone to guide body composition requires controlling insulin and cortisol first. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is linked to fat retention and storage.
Long-duration moderate intensity cardio may be the most stressful type of activity regarding cortisol. This type of exercise also can have an effect on reducing muscle. Because of this, traditional long-duration cardio may be best suited to the follicular phase or the beginning luteal phase (when estrogen is still high). This works during these times because estrogen will help the body maintain its muscle during this time and both estrogen and progesterone work to minimize the negative effects of cortisol.
Because the body is not very adapt at building muscle and burning fat at the same time (unless you’re a beginner), splitting the menstrual cycle into a building phase and a burning phase is useful. The follicular phase can be used to build muscle and the luteal phase to focus on fat burning.
There are six core systemic imbalances that contribute to weight loss resistance in women. We may see a combination of them, but one usually becomes prominent as we investigate what is keeping a woman from losing weight. They are:
- Hormonal imbalance (including thyroid dysfunction)
- Adrenal imbalance (chronic stress)
- Neurotransmitter imbalance
- Digestive imbalance
- Systemic inflammation
- Impaired detoxification
Once you’ve narrowed down some possible causes of why weight loss is difficult, here are some tips to jumpstart weight loss and keep it off.
- Know your unique physiology. Work with your health care practitioner to identify any metabolic imbalances, and create a nutrition and exercise plan unique to your system.
- Use herbs and supplements. When weight loss resistance is caused by hormonal imbalance, stress imbalance, and neurotransmitter imbalance, supportive herbs and supplements may help rebalance your metabolism and assist with weight loss.
- Practice healthy eating. Eating three well-balanced meals and two snacks each day at regular intervals will help regulate your metabolism. Supplementing with a high-quality nutritionally dense shake is beneficial. My superfoods shake helps support metabolism and satisfy cravings, plus packs an ample supply of herbs and supplements like those mentioned above.
- Chromium, zinc, vitamin C, D3, and the B vitamins are essential for a healthy metabolism.
- Exercise. Even if you have tried to exercise and not had too much success, finding the right type of exercise is key. Regular exercise is an integral part to good health and it will re-set your metabolism and help you overcome weight loss resistance.
- Sleep is vital to not only restore metabolism, but help all of the systems in our body function properly. Sleep allows our body to repair itself, regenerate, and helps regulate our hunger mechanism – a very important part of weight loss!
- Get a support system by finding other people who are on a similar journey can go a long way in helping you feel good, stay encouraged, and achieve success.
Thank you for reading my blog about women and weight loss! If you’ve found this information valuable, please share!
Mauvais-Jarvis, Franck, et al. “The Role of Estrogens in Control of Energy Balance and Glucose Homeostasis.” Endocrine Reviews, Endocrine Society, June 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3660717/.
“Weight Loss for Women, Part 2: Estrogen | Paleo Leap.” Paleo Leap | Paleo Diet Recipes & Tips, Paleo Leap, 9 Mar. 2017, paleoleap.com/weight-loss-women-part-2-estrogen/.
“15 Facts About Weight Loss And The Menstrual Cyle.” Metabolic Effect, www.metaboliceffect.com/15-facts-about-weight-loss-and-the-menstrual-cyle/.