Women's Fat Loss: Strategies, Tactics and Truths
Part 1 of Women's Fat Loss was all about Vision Driving Decision. This is such an important first step and I encourage you to start there if you have not read it yet. In that post, we discussed how having not only a goal and plan but a real vision of what you are trying to acccomplish is important. Many clients I work with can't even say what they want to do, besides "weigh less" when that really has no end or tangible accomplishment.
If you don't have a goal, write one down. A performance goal is great, and any outcome based goal is also awesome like "strength train 4 days a week" or "eat 4oz protein at every meal", because those are measurable. Honestly, do NOT start a fat loss phase without at least some tangible goal because you will not have a clear measure of success.
In the past, I wrote about Diet Tweaks for Hard Training Women and how nutrition can be manipulated for women who are strength training. I dug through a decent amount of research and you can read the article right here.
From the research, I noticed a few things.
The first is obvious to any strength coach or nutrition coach, and this is that overweight or obese clients (especially women in this case) do not have healthy insulin sensitivity. This means the mechanisms to getting dietary carbohydrates into the muscles rather than fat cells is not functioning properly and more of those calories are shifted to fat cells, as well as causing rapid rises and falls in blood sugar. Both of these are bad for fat loss and the latter is especially bad for hunger, mood and energy. What I did not know going into that article is that overweight women preferentially burn body fat during exercise, even during more carbohydrate fueld exercise, in the body's efforts to burn off the excess body fat. So this further emphasizes the fact that a low carb diet for a portion of an overweight individual's nutrition plan has many benefits, even during exercise.
Second was that post-exercise the body has an increased need and better utilizes dietary carbohydrates for energy and recovery (again, common knowledge). But what I found was that women's increased insulin sensitivity post-workout decreases much faster than a man's. This is partially hormonal and when you factor in less carbohydrates burned during exercise with overall less muscle mass than a man, the difference in carbohydrate needs after a workout between men and women increases even more. In this case, it seems to decrease for women.
Carbohydrate Intake - While most women can't eat 200g carbs a day and maintain leanness, there is a fine line between eating the right amount to lean out and feeling like dog crap. Again, when your total amount of calories and carbohydrates is less, then 20g of carbs can make a big difference. A large man eating 300g carbs per day won't even notice that. It sucks but it's the truth. Don't worry though, it's not like every guy can eat like that and plenty do even though they shouldn't but maybe because they are men and don't give a sh** they'll continue justifying it.
For context, I have had ONE, I repeat ONE female client who ate close to 200g of carbs per day and maintained her leanness but she is young and was a long-time athlete and carries a lot of muscle mass. Clearly an outlier. My wife actually got close to 175g carbs per day for a while but that was after over 6 months of leaning out and then slowly ratcheting her carb intake back up.
Most women I work with (even the lean ones) operate somewhere between 100 and 140g carbs per day. A few go slightly under and a few go slightly over. That's a small window for working with dozens and dozens of clients but it remains relatively true time and again. Honestly, for those needing to lose 20+ pounds, carbohydrate intake will be mostly vegetables.
Fat Intake: Since carbohydrates tend to be lower, and carbs and fats have a relatively inverse relationship, then fat can be a little more flexible. Again, most women will still operate in a smaller window then men, but you'll find thw window opens up a little more from maybe 40g fat a day to 60g+ fat a day, which is a greater calorie difference than the carb window.
Protein Intake: Thank God for protein. Seriously, it's a saving grace (aside from low-carb veggies). Protein usually comes out around 1g per pound of bodyweight. For heavier women, I might target it as 1g per pound of their goal weight or maybe .75g per lb. The good news is that many women can eat over their protein goal and still make progress.
Why is that? Well, aside from increased protein being very satiating making it easier to restrict carbs and fats, it also helps keep blood sugar steady so you have less self control-override from constant blood sugar ups and downs. Protein also burns about 20% of its calorie during digestion, because it is so metabolically inefficient and on top of that, it is not macronutrient the body likes storing as fat and will preferentially burn it off as heat when overeaten.
So I often might assign clients 130g protein for instance, and if they eat 140g or 150g I might not say anything if it keeps them on track, full, satisfied and functioning properly. Especially knowing all the metabolic upsides.
True, total calories do matter but protein is more forgiving.
Vegetables: Eat at least a cup per meal and whatever it takes to fill you up. Eat a variety, cooked and raw. It's as complicated as I make it. A potato IS a vegetable but it's classified as a starch in my book so lets be honest about what we mean by vegetables!!!
Knowing Your Amounts
Some people just get it. You tell them to eat a palm of protein per meal, veggies, limited added fats and a cupped palm of carbs, maybe more carbs after they work out and that's it. That's all they need. Generally these people are very intuitive and /or they have a pretty good metabolism anyway, so getting really specific isn't necessary.
I think for almost everyone, keeping a journal or logging food on My Fitness Pal for at least a couple of weeks is huge. Almost no one guesses portions correctly and once you have weighed and measured for a couple weeks, you'll be like "oh my God, I thought I was eating enough protein". I honestly get made sometimes when I see a women list breakfast as one egg.
ONE EGG? WTF?
These are the same clients who usually make their meals like two slices of Ezekiel bread and almond butter or a small yogurt with lots of granola or maybe 2oz of chicken on a salad that has nuts, cheese, olive oil and fried tortilla strips. Do we see the problem here?
Part of this is misinformation and I believe part can be willful ignorance. You really want that 1,000 calorie salad and you say "it's a salad and it has chicken so it's healthy" but c'mon. The rest is B.S misinformation where fad nutritionists or trainers tell you Ezekiel bread and almond butter are "high protein" so you inadvertently eat a crap ton of carbs and fat at every meal and very little protein.
Example: My wife was watching a video from this "healthy" pastry chef who was making ice cream with avocado instead of dairy. Now, I get that this is dairy free and less calorie dense than adding cream, so I'm with you there. But the problem with this is that it leads people to believe that subbing out one ingredient takes it from unhealthy garbage to fat loss heaven when it really didn't change much. It still reinforces that you should be eating dessert every day (which you should not be) and then you'll hear this pastry chef say now the ice cream is healthy. Unless this ice cream is made with ground chicken, it aint healthy. You're still ingesting sugar and fat with no protein and fiber, now its just dairy free sugar and fat.
So staying away from dessert alternatives for at LEAST a month and focusing on real human adult amounts of protein and veggies is super important.
The reason it drives me insane is because this type of thing will never stop. It'll change but it won't stop.
Take-away: Log your food in My Fitness Pal or a journal for at least two weeks, weighing and measuring it and see if you get anywhere CLOSE to 1g protein per pound of bodyweight and minimum 1 cup veggies per meal.
Next, see where your fat and carbs come out to. My basic recommendation for fat is one added thumb sized portion per meal max (some meals you may not even add it) and one cupped palm of added carbs, which is about 1/2 cup or so.
This is a good starting point.
What Does A Typical Meal Look Like?
I'll give some amounts and equivalents below for a typical meal:
Protein: 30-40g or 1 to 1.5 palms or 4-5oz
Carbohydrates: 25-35g or 1/2 cup or 1 cupped palm
Fat: 10-15g or 1-2 teaspoons or 1 thumb sized portion
Veggies: One fist sized portion or 1 cup minimum
Calories: 400 or slightly less to start
This is based off of 3-4 meals a day plus 1-2 protein based snacks. Snacks in my opinion should have some fiber and protein and stay away from anything only carb or only fat based. Really calorie dense snacks like nuts and granola aren't great either because they provide little protein and too many calories.
Honestly, sometimes its better to have 3-4 larger meals and no snacks so that you are actually genuinely full after each meal and won't be tempted to snack on sweet or salty stuff.
Depending on the person, their starting point for fat loss will be different than yours. In general, somewhere in the ballpark of 10-13 calories per pound of bodyweight is sufficient for fat loss.
What most larger women have a hard time trusting me with is eating what seems like more, every day. So a 250lbs woman, even though she has a lot of bodyfat to lose, does not need to eat as little as a 130lb woman and starting that low will only lead to quick stagnation in progress and feeling lousy. So when I have a larger client start at 2000 calories a day, this is usually just to get them settled, allow for freedom if they make mistakes and really focus on getting enough calories I ALSO know many larger clients (and this is a generalization so not true of everyone) eat light during the day or week (or both) and eat like a completely different person at night or on the weekend.
So in their mind, they think they don't eat much because from 7am until 4pm they eat 1000 calories but from 4pm to 8pm they eat another 1000 calories. Or Monday through Friday they eat 1500 calories a day and the weekend they easily double that. So on a day to day or meal to meal view, it SEEMS like more food when I know it really isn't.
This is a reason why people sabatoge themselves, because they really don't know or aren't honest with themselves about their intake. And you just have to trust me that a larger breakfast than ONE EGG will help you make better food choices and balance your hormones the rest of the day, making fat loss easier.
Ok, so that's out of the way.
Calories/Total Food: So most people start within that 10-13 calories per pound window. I always prefer someone start higher so we have room to move down.
From there, your breakdown of calories is just a starting place. Typical fat loss percentages for women are 40% protein, 30% carbs and 30% fat. This works really well and ensures you are getting a lot of protein and keeping carbs and fat in check.
From there, you can simply make small drops down in carbs or fat every two weeks to keep progress moving. Usually 5g fat and 5-10g carbs are the drops I would make, choosing one or the other, not both.
Measuring - I always make it a point to say you don't HAVE to track macros. Scooping food with a cup, 1/2 cup or teaspoon etc accomplishes the same thing and measuring hand portions may be even better. DO NOT use a method that drives you crazy or frustrates you.
Exercise - 5-7 hours a week of exercise is optimal. A mix of strength training, aerobic work, walking and interval work is ideal. I prefer people start out with 3-4 strength training sessions and daily walking, adding in more aerobic work or interval stuff as needed.
Maximizing Training - "Cardio" or aerobic work is not bad. In fact, done correctly it can really help fat loss efforts as well as increase your recovery abilities and control stress. But I prioritize strength training first because it is new to so many women and anything you aren;t good at will yield some quick and effective gains. On top of that, maximizing muscle mass is a great way to get healthier and increase your overall calorie expenditure.
Specifically, training for muscle mass is super effective. Lots of volume (done correctly) has a huge calorie burning effect and the amount of carbohydrates you burn and thus can eat increases. Since women also are more proficient usually at doing a lot of volume, you can maximize your fat loss by training a lot with the barbell and dumbbells.
I've used Dan John's 2/3/5/10 rep scheme with a handful of people and it is crazy effective for fat loss. 5 x 8 will do it as well as a decent amount of assistance work like dumbbell benching, row variations, single leg work, sled work and so on. 3 sets of 5 or 6 just doesn't have the same effect and if you are looking for fat loss, training 10 reps and above is helpful as long as you don't completely neglect strength work.
And just because you did 15 reps doesn't mean it counts. This is another caveat for women. If you did 15 reps but chose a weight you could do 30 reps with, then it wasn't a real challenge and your body will make very little adaptive changes. Don't mistake being winded for working hard and training correctly.
Food Choices - Eat as much whole food as possible. Shakes are ok but real food you have to choose expends more calories and the act of cooking and prepping is therapeutic. I HATE cleanses, detoxes, juices, shake programs and all that because they are ultimately gimmicks and drinking your calories is not an effective means to an end, nor is only ingesting processed foods, even if it is protein.
Don't Fall for Fads - There are no magical supplements. Fish oil, creatine, a multivitamin or mineral and if you have digestive issues or adrenal issues, those things can be effective. Consistency is everything. Eating coconut oil is not a fat loss miracle. If you lose bodyfat from eating 2 tablespoons of oil every morning, its for a different reason, I promise.
Off Days vs Training Days - Since the monotony of eating fewer carbs can be difficult, I like to sometimes allow clients to eat a little more on training days and then a little less on off days. So if they are eating 120g carbs per day, I might have them bump carbs to 140g on training days (2-3 days a week) and drop carbs down to 110g on off days, maybe dropping fat 5g too. This can be motivating and a mental relief.
Low Days vs High Days - Similar to above, if someone has already made a ton of progress and is consistent all the time, I might have them do 3-4 days a week more at maintenance calories and only introduce a calorie deficit on 2-3 days a week. Progress is slightly slower this way but its more sustainable and you can always add in another hour or two of walking a week to help move things along.
Hormones/Sleep/Stress - You will weigh more on your period. We all know that and acknowledge that so stop beating yourself up over a function you have no control over. What you do have control over is stress and sleep, to an extent. If you are burned out, exercising less and eating a little less is actually better. If you only sleep 4 hours a night, no program or diet will help, you simply won't see results if you are underrecovered and hormonally imbalanced. Don't even TRY anything complicated until you are eating enough protein, sleeping enough, eating 30g or more fiber a day and having daily bowel movements. Seriously - it's not worth how crappy you will feel. Maybe you need sleep supplements, thyroid support or just a frickin' vacation!
Just remember, there is no perfect system or program and it will constantly change as you make progress.
One of the biggest impetus' for continued progress is for you not do the same thing all the time. Have you been running 4 days a week? Try lifting 4 days a week instead. Do you only do strength training? Add in one to two interval classes a week or go for a bike ride.
If you've been consistent with your nutrition and you've stalled, maybe throw in a couple low carb days a week.
Lastly, remember that this is not a 2 week fix. The best results come at 8 weeks, 12 weeks, 6 months. It's hard to accept that and that is why so many people fail at this. Don't be one of them! Choose a method that is doable for you and only focus on the big picture unti you get a handle on it. Eat the right amount of protein for a month and worry about nothing else. Then start counting carbs or measuring fat. Don't add things until you feel solid with the basics.