4 Pillars of Women's Nutrition

When you offer nutrition coaching, it's fair to say the vast majority of clients want to lose body fat.  Even when they want to also gain muscle, staying lean or getting leaner is pretty much on everyone's mind.

I am always impressed when a client is willing to forgo aesthetics for a pure fitness or performance goal.  Not because I think you should let your body fat get too high or not pay attention to health markers - it's the psychology.  It's so rare that a person is totally fine with how they look as long as they can compete or perform how they want.  Many times it's the obsessive and extremely driven personality that can focus on a goal and totally put everything else to the wayside.  Again, I don't endorse it, but it is sort of "refreshing" that someone can mentally do that.

On the other hand, plenty of clients actually funnel all of their goals through not just how they look, but how others perceive them.  Societal standards, social media, family dynamics and self expectations all contribute to wanting to achieve a goal for the wrong reasons.

I post the picture below because of how ridiculous it is: like being thin just "makes" you so joyful.  The picture was even titled something like "thin woman laughing and happy". WTF?!  Seriously?

It all starts with honesty i.e looking good naked is OK!

As an example, on my client intake sheet, I have potential clients rank their goals from most to least important.  Women generally rate Health first and Fat Loss second or third.  Men will rate Fat Loss or Muscle Gain first and Health second or third.  Not always, but a lot of the time.

I started to notice this pattern and realized that I don't believe it's because men care more about those aesthetic goals than women, it's that women might not feel they are able to say "I want to look good in a bikini/I don't like how my clothes fit/or just because I friggin' want to and it's none of your business".  All jokes aside, it's almost like there's a divide in what we feel is acceptable for men and women to aspire to.

It's actually a pain in the butt because often I know when someone wants to be leaner (generally women) but they don't feel they can come right out and say it. I know this is coming from a man (so please don't take this the wrong way) but in interests of feminism, I think that a woman should be able to say "I want to look like "x"" and for it to be a healthy and normal decision. Of course if someone is coming from a history of eating disorder, feels pressure from a spouse, their friends or something else solely external I will approach it a different way. Feeling guilty for wanting to be leaner is like feeling guilty for wanting to have more money; it's only a problem if it's ALL you care about.

The disparity in what we are "allowed/expected" to want

But men are allowed to aspire to look like Arnold and Frank Zane and the cast of The 300 simply because we think "it's badass" and it would make us feel good.  We have heroes and aspiring to be like them in some capacity is healthy; it's not just physicality but confidence, success and strength.  I've written before HERE about why I think my female clients benefit from having goals that focus on "more" not "less".  As in, don't minimize yourself, your size or even your goals because you think you have to - once you pick your goal there are certain action steps to take to get there. Don't pick a goal based on the STEPS; you only take certain steps based on the GOAL.

As an example don't pick "being smaller" as the goal if that's not really what you want. Being smaller might be a step if you run 40 miles a week; that actually matches that goal.  But if your goal is to be leaner, "being smaller" is not the goal.  Being leaner is and the steps to get there include losing body fat, gaining muscle and focusing on strength.  NOT being smaller.

Don't have just one goal or focus

I say this over and over again, but you need other objective goals while focusing on body fat loss.  Improving strength is right up there.  I also look at digestion, sleep and stress management too, which are included in the 4 Pillars below.  Why? Because fat loss (and other goals) don't happen in a steady rate day by day and you need to have other things to focus on and feel good about so your recognize progress from multiple angles. Then, health does become a top priority but in the case of working in tandem with your aesthetic goals.  


So far we've discussed that you need to:

1.  Pick a goal that YOU want - not what you think you're expected to want

2. Don't choose a goal that hinges happiness, self-care and self-love on whether you achieve that goal 100% or not (that is, you have to be OK with not being perfect, imagine that!)

3.  Choose other goals that support your main goal so your success comes from multiple areas

All of this was to lead up to 4 important areas I see time and again that women benefit from focusing on.  We can't ignore that socially men and women are influenced, raised and experience life differently. Because of this we all bring our past experiences into our nutrition goals and it absolutely shapes the process.

Pillar 1 - Carbohydrate Intake

This is right at the top because it impacts so many different areas.  You can check out my previous post HERE on how women metabolize carbohydrates and fat differently from men.  In short, women:

1.  Have less lean mass by percent of body weight and less mass overall, leading to a decrease in not only total calories needed to be consumed, but total carbohydrates (in many cases)

2. Have a high work capacity.  This leads to a greater reliance of fuel used (e.g fat) due to a greater ability to do more reps, use shorter rest periods and greater overall volume

3. Preferentially burn more fat during exercise, post-exercise and at rest

Because of this, it's not that women can't eat a lot of carbohydrates (and life sucks!) it's that women GET to eat more fat, which lends itself to all of their goals (and life is awesome!).

Fat is your fuel!

Even when I have lean women exercising a lot and staying active, their carbohydrate intake is generally low to moderate, especially if they want to be lean.  One of the benefits of this is that many women I find fall short on fiber intake (more on that later) so when we use healthy fats like avocado, coconut, flax seed and nuts (which also contain lots of fiber) we kill two birds with one stone.

On average, I have a lot of women start around .5 grams of carbohydrates per pound of bodyweight on non-training days and .75 to 1 grams per pound on training days.  It's a rough estimate but the majority fall into that window.  In many cases, if my client needs to lose a significant amount of body fat, almost all of their carbohydrates come from vegetables and some fruit.  From there, we raise dietary fat to balance it out.  And voila, women feel better and start leaning out!

Pillar 2 - Digestion

Leading off from the fiber discussion, I often find women have a greater issue with digestion.  Obviously if you don't eat as many calories as a larger person or man, you can't be expected to eat the same amount of vegetables and fiber.  

Also because things like pregnancy, stress, menstrual cycles, sleep and over exercising affect digestion, tolerance for fiber and often protein is reduced.  So as we tackle stress management, digestion usually improves.

But it's pretty common that I will get reports of bloating, gas and discomfort from even 2-3 cups of fibrous or cruciferous vegetables per day. This tells me that over relying on any ONE vegetable or source of fiber usually leads to a gastric issue and also overall tolerance for digestion-intensive foods is low.

Honestly, eating 2 cups of spinach and 2 cups of broccoli should not be giving you painful gas.  If it is, we usually switch off of cabbage-family vegetables and include more greens and root veggies.  From there we raise high-fiber fats like chia, flax and avocado, maybe berries or other fruit here and there and things even out.   Then we can work on including more green beans, cauliflower, eggplant and other salad veggies as test tolerance.  If might just take time for the client's digestion to adjust (with changing gut bacteria and enzymes).

Flax seed is your friend.  Believe me everything "moves" easier if you know what I mean

I'll also address carbohydrate sources.  It should be no surprise that beans, lentils and chickpeas can make us gassy; everyone has a different tolerance.  I am a huge fan of carbohydrates coming from fruit, oats and sweet potatoes.  If someone wants some rice, quinoa or beans we include it as long as digestion is not affected and overall calories stay in check.

Lastly an over-reliance on dairy, protein supplements and snack bars are common.  I think part of it is advertising them towards women/busy mom's and selling them as healthy and great for fat loss.  But a lot of commercial dairy has added sugar, protein supplements lack a real fullness factor not to mention a host of additives and fillers and snack bars are usually just sugar coated in sugar.  None of these items feed healthy gut flora or fill you up, often leading to gas and bloating, combined with cravings, energy crashes and general frustration. Switching to 90% whole foods works wonders and I push that as much as I can.

Pillar 3 - Water and Salt Intake

Continuing on from digestion, I find a common reason for women not enough water is that if they already feel bloated, more water might make things worse.  In fact, adequate hydration will certainly help digestion and increase the ease of bowel movements.  Not only that but a 1-2% drop in bodyweight from water loss already puts more strain on the heart and circulatory system and decreases aerobic and strength performance.  Thirst is often mistaken for hunger which can lead to over eating.

Since many women also experience large changes in weight based on their menstrual cycle, many of my clients live and die by their "weight".  Needless to say, if drinking more water (and God help us, eating salt!) increases their weight then it can be hard to not equate that with body fat loss.

It's very common, especially with female clients, to have decreases in measurements before any big weight changes.  But if all you care about is the scale, then you might subconsciously lower water and sodium intake to feed your false results.

Processed foods high in sodium are not recommended.  Part of that is excess sodium can lead to an increased desire to eat more, but usually that is due in part to the processed food being highly palatable like chips, crackers etc.

Sea salt is great for you!

In fact, most of us have no issues with sodium and our bodies to an excellent job of maintaining sodium balance.  Recent studies generally conclude that consuming sodium by and large has no negative impact on your health and most people feel and perform better with some added sodium.  I prefer simply eating mostly whole food you prepare yourself and seasoning with kosher or sea salt to taste.

Many people automatically feel better not limiting salt and consuming around 1/2 ounce per pound of body weight in fluids per day. It's all about taking your eyes off the scale and assessing how you feel.

Pillar 4 - Stress Management

Harking back to societal pressures, family dynamics and self-expectations, many female clients I work with feel a lot of pressure and stress.  I know the family dynamic is changing and not all women are the caretakers while men are working.  Most households have two working parents, but I still experience many women as the caretaker of the children and house on top of that, during the day.  

So if you've got to make your kids breakfast, send them off on the bus or to day care, take care of household chores or go to work during the day and then make dinner or just tackle the family dynamic at night - life can be stressful.

Sleep is often put on the back burner, stress is high during the day and this leads to:

1.  Poor food choices

2. Over-reliance on caffeine

3. Skipping meals

4. Lack of sleep

We know poor food choices won't help your nutrition goals.  Too much caffeine means you can't function without it and the constant stimulation of cortisol and adrenaline can impact blood sugar and burn your out.  Skipping meals can lead to energy crashes and once again, poor food choices and over-eating later in the day.

Lack of sleep is possibly the number one killer of nutrition goals.  Not only do you recover, repair damaged muscle and nerve tissue, you burn body fat, increase immunity and improve insulin sensitivity with better sleep.  You also store memories and movement patterns.  So if your memory is fizzling out and you feel like sh**, sleep needs to be addressed.

Sleeping 7-9 hours is ideal.  The best thing you can do is go to bed at the same/similar time each night.  I also recommend:

1.      Keeping the bedroom very dark and cool

2.      No electronics, lights or visible electronic light while sleeping.  Alarm clock faces turned towards the wall, cell phones away from the bed, face down, computer kept in separate room.

3.      Minimize or completely eliminate all computer/phone/TV interaction 30-60 minutes before bed and do not watch TV in bed

4.      30-60 minutes before bed; read, journal, meditate, crossword puzzles etc to wind down.  Make some caffeine free tea, set a ritual

I also truly recommend that you make sure you are not the sole person whom everything depends on in your family for success.  Seriously, if your husband or partner "can't" cook and it is all on you to make dinner every night, maybe they need to step up and help.  Obviously there needs to be a balance in all relationships and if the scales are weighing too much on you to keep everyone afloat, then other parties need to step up.

C'mon, we can do better than this and it's pretty sexist from both sides

I hate those commercials, TV shows and comedy bits that always show the man (though it could be any partner) as the oaf who can't cook, clean, understand laundry or be bothered to do anything except go to work.  It's one of those socially accepted norms we laugh at but in fact it sort of makes it"OK" if that's the case because we recognize it as "the way things are".

Stress management comes down to sleeping well and eating well, that goes without saying. But relationships are a big part of it and again, it's common for me to see women taking on more stress than they should.  Sometimes it's even self-imposed.  So it all comes back to being empowered, not only in your goals but how you manage them.

All of these Pillars need to be addressed.  I could come up with 10 more, but these four are some of the most common and in my opinion, crucial. They affect women of all ages, body types and goals.  I like to think I'm helping but it still comes down to you, the client.  Belief and personality will hold back or accelerate your results.  My hope is that these 4 Pillars help shed some light on your nutrition success.