In fitness, female weight loss can be frustrating and confusing. It’s really not as simple as social media – and cookie cutter personal trainers – advise.
You may be following calories and macros to the ’T’ or find making small dietary changes simple. The measurements are going down while your training is going great. Energy is high and you’re enjoying every day that comes.
Then, you wake up one day and head to the gym. The weights feel double the amount. You get frustrated. The guy across from you in the office irritates you with every word that comes out of his mouth. You head home and feel the lure to the kitchen for… anything.
The next morning you wake up and weigh yourself – 3kg gained! WTF!
“What the hell is wrong with me? I’m following everything. Maybe I need to do more cardio and cut carbs.”
Following that, cardio is increased. Carbs are reduced. But cravings get worse and you cave into them. More frustration and guilt follows.
And so down the rabbit hole you go for the next two weeks until it mysteriously falls into place once again.
What on earth is going on?
The thing is, there was nothing wrong with what you were doing. Your issue wasn’t lack of self-control. It wasn’t lack of preparation. It wasn’t lack of effort. It wasn’t even that you didn’t know you were having a period.
It was simply not knowing how to out-manoeuvre your menstrual cycle. Knowing the different changes that occur throughout each phase so you can progress your training and diet goals smoothly.
But I’m going to help.
What we’re going to look at in this article are the three things that might cause your frustration. Then, help you solve them. They are:
- The three phases of the menstrual cycle;
- Why it can be difficult to make near-consistent progress in your weight loss goals;
- Understanding how to make adjustments throughout to make progression easier.
Why might women find it harder to lose weight?
Too often there are templates that claim, to lose a decent amount of weight and fat, you should be dieting at around 1000 – 1200 calories per day. This isn’t entirely wrong, but it’s far from right. You see, for women to diet at around those levels it would require a number of variables:
- Be below 60kg
- Have low activity levels
- Be short in height
On top of that, there’s the idea that women can just diet the same way as men and the same progress and result will occur. Unfortunately not. And what follows are self-sabotaging thoughts and comments that won’t do anything for your progress.
What is sadly too often handed out by the internet and poor trainers are plans that involve some – or all – of the following:
These can often result in missed periods, high lethargy, lack of focus, poor sleep, high stress. But…you’re getting lean, so that matters, right?
I’m no expert in this area – there can be an immense amount of variables with each person and each cycle. But I have had to learn on my feet whilst testing out different methods to assess feedback for my female clients. It’s not perfect, but our bodies never are.
First, let us look at the mindset aspect of it all.
Confusing easy weight loss claims
We’ve all heard of low-carb dieting, right? Well, this is even more common when it comes to female dieting with the usual claims that carbs are bad, sugar is the devil and protein makes you bulky. None of these are true – but, when Instagram and Facebook constantly churn this information out, it can be hard to help change this way of thinking.
Social Pressure To Look A Certain Way
There is also immense social pressure online and in daily life. Even if there is no expectation, there is always the psychological pressure to look a certain way, eat certain foods, train certain exercises. And what happens when all of these don’t work? Yup, you guessed it.
Binge > Guilt > Starve > Reset. We’ve all been there.
The weight either gains or never shifts.
Motivation is a funny thing.
We expect it to be our driver and to never fail us, but we find ourselves constantly hunting for it. The thing is, it’s not something that can be found and owned. It’s something that fluctuates from repeated feedback, from repeated actions.
When those actions become less consistent, the feedback is the same – and it chops away at motivation in the process. This is more common in women because calories must be much lower to offer some form of consistency in weight loss goals. When it becomes too difficult then, again, there’s negative self-talk that it’s your fault and that becomes ‘the fault’.
That’s quite a lot right there, but I’m not finished yet. Let’s look at the physical side of the fence.
Dieting on lower calories for weight loss
The thing is, females DO actually diet on lower calories than guys. In some cases, a LOT lower. This is for a number of reasons:
- Weighing less
- Lower RMR (resting metabolic rate)
- Lower energy expenditure
- Body composition (fat and muscle mass)
- Lower NEAT
- Lower VO2 max
As I mentioned, women need to eat less food than guys. It’s not a rule, but more down to how our bodies are made up. You see, unless a guy is a man trapped in a child’s body, they tend to be taller, carry more muscle, and generally weigh more. This means there is far more natural energy being burned on a daily basis. 10,000 steps and a 60-minute workout may result in burning 300 – 400 calories LESS for women than it would a guy. Sorry, I guess.
Female weight loss and the menstrual cycle
I mean this one is kind of obvious seeing as it’s in the title, right? That aside, with the cycle comes a number of frustrating factors in just day-to-day living, such as high stress (mental and physical), hunger cravings, and high fatigue. Oh and that’s without the dieting and training aspect.
Let’s not try and blanket every method or calorie set to every female out there. No two people are the same, regardless of gender, which means dietary setup, methods and adjustments will be completely different per person. Not only per person but also per cycle, as it can be common for these to completely change from month to month.
With that, let’s look at what actually happens throughout the menstrual cycle and what changes can be made to accommodate it as much as possible.
The follicular phase (days 1-14)
Throughout this phase, oestrogen levels start off low while increasing over the course of the 14 days. It’s also the phase where the follicle which is holding your egg is being developed. Because of this, you’ll find you’re far more tolerant to pain along with improved power and endurance. With this, it very much gives you the green light to train harder and aim for progress.
Not only that but your body will utilise glycogen far better due to your insulin sensitivity being at its highest. What does this mean? Well, if you’re trying to progress on a low-carb diet, you’re only tripping yourself up – this is the exact point at which you’ll benefit from carbs the most. However, you should still be mindful of your fat and protein intake too, with fats being slightly lower and your protein intake being at a moderate amount.
Ovulation (around day 14)
Once we hit this phase the follicle bursts and the egg is let go. It’s also the time at which your oestrogen levels begin to peak, which is awesome news for you as you will physically be at your strongest. Pow.
However, it also makes you more prone to injury, so it’s best to be very careful with your training and apply high amounts of common sense when it comes to technique and how much you’re pushing yourself.
Despite the increase in strength, there is a downside to this on the nutrition front, I’m afraid. You see, this is where the cravings for sugar and carbs kick in. This is because your metabolic rate is increased. Because of this, it’s key to work in satiety in your food choices to limit the cravings as much as possible. This can be done by increasing your protein and veg intake while keeping carb and fat levels to moderate.
What I tend to do with clients if the cravings become too much is to simply drop the protein levels and replace them with carbs. At least this way it can help keep calorie intake in check while reducing the chances of overeating.
Luteal phase (days 15-28)
Out of the three phases, this one is the toughest on a woman. Sugar and carb cravings can be even more extreme, all the while tiredness and the overall feeling ‘a bit sh*t’ physically and mentally set in.
This is the phase where the follicle becomes the hormone-producing element – the corpus letup – which in turn produces progesterone. During this phase, your body temperature can rise to make you feel very uncomfortable, especially in the evenings in bed.
Around this time I tend to recommend sleeping with the windows open or to use a thinner cover on your bed. This might not affect you if you live and train in a hot climate already, but be far more aware of it in cooler climates.
On the plus, it can help with burning some extra calories if your goal is fat loss, anywhere between 90 – 280 calories daily. At the end of the phase, if the egg hasn’t been fertilised, the corpus letup dissolves which results in a drop in oestrogen and progesterone levels. Cue the start of a new cycle.
Because all of this is going on physically, it’s important to avoid higher intensity style training as it can be more detrimental than beneficial. It’s best to focus your training around lighter weights and higher rep work.
It’s also a great idea to work on active recovery work such as walking, stretching, foam rolling or anything similar that’ll also be psychologically beneficial too.
On the flip side of the follicular phase, this is where you’re more primed for fat loss. So, by working on active recovery and controlling your diet as much as possible, you could make great progress in your fat loss goals here.
How to deal with cravings
Remember in the ovulation stage I touched on cravings? Well, they only get worse in this phase I’m afraid, all the while your insulin sensitivity is at it’s lowest, hence the training recommendations above.
Because of this, I prefer to do two things, if needed. First, make a slight reduction in carbs to prevent any fat gain. However, this can sometimes be more detrimental than anything if it just makes cravings even stronger.
If this is the case, then I will follow the action from the previous phase and increase carbs slightly. This may place you in more maintenance calories but it’s better to maintain and blunt the cravings as opposed to creating a restriction that could result in blowing apart your diet.
Cravings can be far more intense if you suffer from depression, anxiety or PMS, so it’s always worth aiming to have a snack or small meal on hand to prevent any binging which could really blow up your calorie intake.
It’s worth noting that it’s around this time that water retention is at its peak. This can be tough physiologically, but it’s always worth remembering as opposed to making any drastic decisions.
Supplement Recommendations To Support The Menstrual Cycle
Due to the sugar and carb cravings, it’s might be helpful to supplement with magnesium before bed. This can help decrease these cravings during the day which can be a huge relief.
You see, magnesium levels alone are the second most deficient globally, so throw in the menstrual cycle and you’ve got an uphill battle going on here.
Although supplementing with this is recommended, it’s not always needed as you can get these sources through foods like spinach, tofu, nuts, seeds, avocado, some fatty fish, bananas, dark chocolate and whole grains.
Along with magnesium, it’s worth supplementing with Vitamin D too, especially if you work indoors and don’t get much sun (poor you!). If you’re like me and living in Scotland and you missed that one day of summer then it’s likely you’re going to need some of this. It can be really useful for anyone who suffers from mood swings and dips in motivation.
How to adjust training and diet for fat loss
This is going to sound a bit odd but I still tend to use weight loss to measure progress, though I don’t rely heavily on it.
You see, far too many women are chained to the scales and it can dictate their actions and emotions far too easily. Now weight measurements can and do indicate fat loss, but not in a linear sense as is expected. This is where it’s super important to look at other measurements too, such as around the hips, waist, and thighs. Oh and don’t forget photos, even if you’re too anxious about it I can assure you it’s definitely worth it in the long run.
Following that, there are various factors as to why weight fluctuation can – and does – happen. I’ve seen this happen as high as 5kg overnight due to a mixture of the following:
Your daily food choices
This gets ignored very commonly. What we tend to forget is that we rarely eat the same foods or the same amounts on a daily basis. There will always be some form of variability. Because of this, you might get bloated if you eat more veg and protein on certain days, but less so on others because travelling or a busy day at work forces you to eat on the go.
What is often forgotten, or not known, is that for every gram of glycogen there can be a shortage of up to 3 grams of water. This means that if you aren’t training that day and happen to consume more carbs then you are likely to store extra water. The opposite can be said if you do train as you are using the glycogen.
Not drinking enough water can be an issue for anyone doing anything, well, fitness related. So, when you start to work on increasing your water intake, this could also lead to some form of solid bloating. Especially if you throw in a cocktail of glycogen and sodium if you’re eating lots of salty foods (to which you’re gently placing the bag of nachos you’re eating down).
Obviously, the menstrual cycle
Of course, your weight will fluctuate during your cycle. So how do you measure your progress? I mentioned previously that the scales can become a ball and chain and, if this is the case, then I quickly remove weight tracking as a measurement. It can become too much of a stress that makes everything else seem irrelevant. No Bueno.
Alternatively, if possible, I like to look at progression in various “anchors” over the course of the month. As I’ve mentioned, there can be big changes throughout a cycle, so aiming for some form of linear progress on a week to week basis is like pissing into the wind and hoping it doesn’t come back on you.
Oh, right, I forgot. That doesn’t exactly apply here, so we’ll go with ‘spitting in the wind,’ unless you have some really mad pelvic skills.
Anyway, by creating anchors throughout the phases (or creating a main anchor), it allows for you to measure your progress from cycle to cycle instead. Here’s an example:
- Week 1 average – 143lbs (65kg)
- Week 2 average – 142lbs (64.2kg)*
- Week 3 average – 145lbs (65.7kg)
- Week 4 average – 143lbs (65kg)
- Week 1 average – 142lbs (64.2kg)
- Week 2 average – 141lbs (63.9kg)*
- Week 3 average – 143lbs (65kg)
- Week 4 average – 142lbs (64.2kg)
- Week 1 average – 140lbs (63.5kg)
- Week 2 average – 139lbs (63kg)*
- Week 3 average – 141lbs (63.9kg)
- Week 4 average – 140lbs (63.5kg)
* Main Anchor
What you see here is that, although there are clear fluctuations – which can cause someone to really freak the hell out, there is actually progression when you line it up across the main anchor per month as opposed to comparing progress on a linear week-to-week basis.
When weight fluctuates at around the 14 – 15 day mark there really is no need to make any drastic dietary changes. Just be aware that it’s the phase which is causing this fluctuation and that you should make the needed adjustments to get by the best way you can.
At the end of the day, you should do what works best for you.
If you like to see feedback from the data and are perfectly ok with changes in bodyweight throughout the month, then weigh yourself every day or every few days to get an average weight. It’s a great form of feedback and can teach you a hell of a lot about how lifestyle, training and dietary choices can manipulate the scale.
However, if the thought of the scale freaks you out and triggers negative reactive actions, then just drop it, put it out of sight, smash the sh*t out of it. Remove it from being a stress in your day. Stick with feedback from measurements, photos, sleep, energy and stress instead.
Setting your diet and training up around the menstrual cycle
As you will have noticed throughout, there are quite a number of changes that go on over the course of the cycle so you might need to make adjustments along the way when it comes to calories and macros, and of course, your training.
First off, let’s look at two simple ways to set up your diet.
Perform a diet audit
This is straightforward and one that I like to use for new clients or when a client is moving from a more intuitive eating diet method to tracking calories and/or macros.
All you need to do here is use a tracking tool – like MyFitnessPal – and track everything you eat over the course of 3 – 4 days. Ideally, you want these days to include a working day, a day off from work and 1 – 2 days over the weekend. This is because our diets tend to differ on each of these days and it allows us to see a real average of our calorie intake.
Once you have that number, skip to the macro calculating part. If you hate it and are thinking nothing but awful thoughts about me even suggesting you use four days of your life to do this, then check out the next method.
Manually calculate your calories and macros
Okay, so this is going to take some work too, but just a little calculation.
Neither of these are going to give you a solid number, so please don’t expect anything to be 100% correct. There are a number of calculators online that can do this too but think of this as being within 5 – 10% of a calorie range.
Calculator time. To create a calorie number that might place you in a calorific deficit, take your weight in pounds and multiply it by 10 – 12.
An example of this would be 140lbs x 11 = 1540 calories.
Now to set your macronutrients.
Take your weight in pounds and calculate it between 0.7 – 1 to get this.
An example of this is 140lbs x 1 = 140g
You can get the calorie amount by multiplying this number by 4 if you’re interested – 140g x 4 = 560 calories.
Need some high protein meal ideas? See here: high protein recipes.
Fat & Carbs
Now, I just want to preface this by saying that I’m not a huge fan of setting calories and ALL the macronutrients for most people. This is mainly because it can add to stress by aiming to hit four different sets of numbers. Unless you’re competing in a bodybuilding show or it’s needed because you’re under-eating on a certain food or macro, then I prefer using a calorie range, which I’ll cover further on.
For setting the numbers here, I prefer to be more flexible with these two macros, so long as you don’t go too low on either of them. For fat, you want to avoid going lower than 15%, or 30 grams daily as it’s important to keep this number at a moderate amount for hormone function and regulation. For carbs, avoid going lower than between 130 – 150 grams daily so that your energy and performance levels don’t take a nosedive. Not only that but, depending on your cravings, you’re going to need them.
Simple adjustment on cravings
Regardless of whether you think you don’t get bad cravings, you can never really know. I’ve had clients who go months with moderate to low cravings and all of a sudden wake up with the need to rip the cupboard doors off the hinges so that they can sniff the jar of Nutella.
With this, I like to do two things:
1. Create a buffer of around 100 calories – mainly from carbs – for the days when it just becomes too much. This might not seem a lot but it’s better than just “sucking it up”. If the buffer leads to eating too much, then look at the next option.
2. Change macronutrients ratios. With this, you would keep the calorie intake the same, but drop the protein intake and increase carbs.
An example of this would look like:
130g Protein / 150g Carbs / 50g Fat > 90g Protein /190g Carbs / 50g Fat
This way it might feel like you’re getting a mini-break from dieting as you’re still getting a sufficient amount of protein for satiety and recovery while satisfying the cravings with an extra helping or two of carbs.
Remember, dieting isn’t about hunger prevention.
What about the training?
I know, I know, I’m getting there.
So where was I…
Once again, rolling back to the top, there are strength and energy changes that occur. This means you may need to adjust your training to cover this to progress, and prevent injury and burnout. Here’s a recap:
When you’re in the follicular phase (1 – 14 days) you have a higher tolerance for pain. But this doesn’t quite mean you can take up MMA with the idea of being indestructible. It’s just higher, that’s all.
Not only that, but your power output and endurance are also improved, so you’re likely to be able to train far better throughout this phase with the aim to really improve weight numbers, running times, etc.
This carries over to ovulation (around 14 – 15 days) where you’re actually at your strongest, which is great. However, you’re prone to injury too so it’s best to go with how you feel on the day or while you’re working out.
And of course, the luteal phase (days 15 – 28). Sugar and carbs cravings, fatigue, higher body temperature, and just kind of feeling a bit “off”.
Again, approach this by “feeling it out” within your warm ups. You’re likely going to be weaker which means you should drop the weights by around 10 – 20% and increase your reps. Not only that, but you’ll highly benefit from active recovery work too, so this would mean more walking, stretching, foam rolling, and anything similar that will encourage less strenuous activity. It’s like I said before, go with how you feel. Don’t try and be a hero when you could end up doing more bad than good.
Adapt to progress.
The psychology of dieting, training and body weight
Over the course of my time in coaching women, I’ve seen a wide variety of negative reactive behaviours relating to changes in body weight.
I recall one conversation with a friend – who is also a coach – regarding how male clients rarely contact them, and can often take days to reply to an email. On the flip side, it’s the complete opposite with a female client. The check-ins can be either extremely detailed or not at all.
Practical lessons I’ve learned from coaching women
If you’re not keeping a journal, or even notes, of your overall progress (training, nutrition, sleep, stress, hunger, energy, etc) then I highly recommend doing so. These are some typical things that I would initially look at from a client check-in.
Other than basic numbers you could also take written notes on that particular day or week. This way you can look back, even the day after, and highlight keywords and phrases. This could also be in other communications with friends or family on text and email. This might sound irrelevant but it can be a game changer.
You see, you might be able to look at certain patterns that could help reflect on where you are in the menstrual cycle. With that, you can then make the required adjustments (if needed) to help make things easier on you to progress.
Process to progress
I’m a huge fan of a simple three step process when it comes to understanding where you currently are:
I’ve already touched on the importance of reflection so the next step would be to inspect. This is where you need to be truly honest with yourself, self-questioning what is highlighted by the reflection. Dive a little deeper. Answer the potential tough questions, and then you can move on to the next step.
Progress – this bit explains itself. You know, because you’ve done the difficult part already to actually progress. I’m dragging this out now. Move on.
Being aware of your mental health
It’s always worth noting there are a seriously high number of women who either have or are prone to eating disorders. This can often start off with something simple as deciding to diet, which could lead to extreme dieting, starvation, binging, and generally being all-consumed by the thought of food. Two of the most common are anorexia and bulimia.
Over time, I have not known of any clients who have suffered either of those. However, I have helped a few clients improve their relationship with food and themselves after years of extreme dieting and training.
Throughout all this, the signals you should be aware of could be based around:
- Orthorexia, an obsession with ‘healthy eating’
- Extreme stress and anxiety over calories and macro tracking
- Panicking and stressing when a social event is near
- Obsessing over tracking tools – such as My Fitness Pal – along with food shows and social media pages
- Rejecting the idea of any form of intuitive eating
- Viewing dieting as either full-on or not at all
- Food is either “good,” or “bad.”
Some of these may sound ridiculous, or insane, but they are very real and very hard hitting. You can’t simply “stop” acting or thinking this way. It takes a hell of a lot of support and time. This must be taken very seriously if this is the case.
Always remember, there doesn’t need to be a specific “fix,” regardless of whether it’s a plateau or something more. It’s important to refrain from reactive decisions and actions. Take the time to understand your patterns and make adjustments accordingly.
I hope this has helped you understand how to adjust and progress the best way possible for your diet and training goals. However, if you do have any questions then feel free to reach out to me on any of my social media pages or email.
The take-home: Your menstrual cycle, diet and training adjustments
- The menstrual cycle is split into three phases. The follicular, ovulation, and the luteal.
- Each phase has its pros and cons. More strength – injury prone. Less strength – high cravings.
- Supplementing with magnesium and Vitamin D can help with cravings.
- Bloating will occur and this is natural. Certain foods and activities can cause this, such as sodium, higher carbs, and training.
- Measure progress by the same phases or weeks per month, and not by week to week.
- Setting up your diet and adjusting it to the cycle by adjusting protein and carb ratios so that cravings can be lessened, or prevented.
- Training should be adjusted throughout the phases. Heavier training in the follicular and ovulation phases, lighter weights and active recovery in the luteal.
- Women are more prone to eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. Be aware of the signals when dieting, such as obsessing over tracking and foods, while dreading situations where there is a lack of control.
So well done, you reached the end of this mammoth article! Hopefully it was a useful read along the way. Now go and smash those goals!