Women Training and Fat Loss – Book Teaser
In roughly February of this year I started a new book project that, very seriously, was motivated by spite. It was during the early research for that project that I revisited an older project which led to The Stubborn Fat Solution Patch 1.1. The main project has sort of taken on a life of its own and I say without any hyperbole that I intend it to be the most comprehensive tome (and I mean tome) on the topic of fat loss. To give you an idea, here’s the current table of contents.
Believe it or not, it’s actually about 85%-90% done. Unless it’s noted as unwritten, everything listed is actually written and I hope to finish primary writing in a little bit. But it’s gonna be a bear to edit and it will be released later this year.
But you might see Section 14 down there: Women and Fat Loss. Originally meant to be a chapter, I realized that wasn’t nearly enough to cover the topic. And as I started writing, it became very clear that women’s issues were complicated as hell. So I planned it as at least a full section. And then it went off the rails.
And as I put up some excerpts on Facebook many women started pressing me to make it into a standalone book. And the more that I thought about it, the better an idea it was. And, as usual, it also took on a life of its own and will be released separately.
I intend it to be a complete guide to not only women’s physiology and underlying issues (including but not limited to the menstrual cycle, how it affects performance, how it can be affected by dieting and training, birth control, PCOS, menopause, HRT, etc. With the exception of pregnancy, which I am just not touching, it’s in there. Supplements, dietary needs, how they change throughout the cycle. It’s all in there.
But to give you an idea of what it’s about, here’s an excerpt from the first Chapter 1.
Chapter 1: Women Aren’t Just Little Men
A quick note: In recent years, the distinction between sex (a biological characteristic defined by genetics) and gender (how someone self-identifies) has been made and I am well aware of this. However, for consistency with the rest of this book, I will be using the phrase “gender differences” throughout the next chapters. Simply understand that this is a choice of convenience and should not be taken as a dismissal of the differences between the two. Essentially I will consider sex and gender to be synonymous even if there is a real-world distinction between the two and I’m stating this up front so I don’t get crucified for it.
In this chapter, I want to take a very broad look at some of the rough gender differences in terms of a lot of different issues, primarily focusing on training and fat loss. This is a topic where entire books can, have, and should be written and my goal is not to be comprehensive here. Because there are profound physiological differences between the sexes that need to be considered when talking about fat loss, diet, exercise, etc.
There are at least two primary reasons to specifically talk about women as it pertains to training and fat loss. One is actually reversed; for reasons related to social pressures and psychology, the reality is that a great many weight loss approaches, studies, etc. have been tested on women and there has been some question whether that same information can be applied without modification to men. For example, two recent studies have based male-focused weight loss programs around male-type humor, which I take to be fart and poop jokes, along with linking them to sports team affiliation and that sentence is not a joke. That’s really not the major issue in this chapter but is discussed in the mega-project from which this originally derives.
Perhaps of more relevance is the fact that, especially when you are dealing with athletes (and more so the physique community), the reality is that most coaches are male. And often the specific approaches that work for a male, with different fat patterns, levels of energy expenditure and underlying physiology, fail to succeed for some women. Not all of them of course and this is yet another problem: the success of some women makes all women think they can do the same thing and often they can’t. This becomes especially noticeable when it comes to the lower body fat issue. As I wrote in my Stubborn Fat Solution, the approaches that often work just fine for men (who only have to deal with abdominal fat) often utterly for women. Many male coaches simply fail to understand the differences since they don’t have to deal with them.
There are a tremendous number of factors to consider when it comes to women, training and fat loss. A single example is that the shifting hormones during even the menstrual cycle drastically impacts on whether or not a woman burns predominantly carbohydrates or fat. And there are way more factors than just this.
Then add to that the fact that women may have one of about five predominant hormonal profiles that modify the overall hormonal profile. Birth control, PCOS/hyperandrogenism, peri- and post-menopause (with or without hormone replacement therapy) and then there is the loss or lengthening of the menstrual cycle (amenorrhea and oligomenorrhea respectively). And they are all subtly, or not so subtly different.
Of course the same generalities apply to women in terms of what is required for fat loss or in the weight room but there are clear differences. You can’t always just treat woman like “little men” even if that has been the traditional approach. Yes, some coaches have made at least lip service to this but they often reach different conclusions; some say to treat women just like men and others are smart enough to realize some of the differences. None have gone in the detail I will of the specific and variable issues that are involved. In this book I’ll look at the major physiological differences and, of course, provide specific recommendations and solutions to them. All of them.
Women and Fat Loss: An Overview
As a general observation, while men and women show about the same levels of overweight and obesity, women are more likely to be in the extreme obesity category. Far more women are likely to be dieting at any time than men and 80% of the subjects in the National Weight Control Registry (the NWCR, are group keeping tabs on successful weight losers) are women. Men, to a lesser degree, often don’t diet and don’t enter what they perceive as women’s groups as I mentioned above.
While I won’t spend much time talking in detail about eating disorders (which require professional counseling, not diet books), women are about three times as likely to suffer from various eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia. And there are a number of reasons for this, both biological and environmental. For years it was thought that only women suffered from eating disorders but in recent years there are increasing number of men showing up with eating disorders and this is thought to be related to changes in the portrayal of the male physical ideal in popular media.
But women still show roughly the same three times greater incidence and any time there is a difference this big, it’s usually safe to assume that there is some biological underpinning or difference in the genders. Eating disorders often develop at puberty, and this is when boy’s and girl’s hormones start being pumped out and the big differences start to show up. And it’s the increase in estrogen at puberty, when it is combined with the right environment (usually a controlling environment) that tends to trigger them. In an uncontrolled environment, food and exercise can become a control point for her. But it’s the interaction between the biology and the environment that is at work here (1).
In a biological sense, at the risk of depressing female readers at the very start of this, for a variety of reasons that I’ll discuss in some detail, women have a much more difficult time then men losing both weight and fat. I the past I’ve stated that “Women are screwed” and while blunt, this is not far off. To be honest, in terms of both fat loss and fat gain, women tend to have it worse than men on average and this shows up in nearly every study that either compares men and women or happens to include both.
For example, there is a study years ago that looked at the differences in fat gain with people who were overfed by 1000 calories per day. And it varied enormously from about 2 pounds to about 15. The difference was due to something called Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) which are calories burned through unconscious movements. Some people increase NEAT a lot in response to overfeeding (it keeps them lean and we all knew that kid in high school always bouncing his leg; that’s NEAT) and others do not. And in that study, the four worst responders were women. One even moved around LESS when overfed, gaining the most fat. And this is common in most studies: women show the worst response.
Another example, after a meal a man will burn some amount of fat from the meal off while women’s bodies prefer to use carbohydrate and store the fat in fat cells. Worse yet, that fat tends to preferentially be stored in the lower body, blood flow to the area, which is normally low increases after a meal. Your mom wasn’t wrong when she said “A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips.”
Men also tend to store more fat calories in something called visceral fat (fat around the gut) and this is more easily burned off for fuel. It also predisposes men towards heart attacks. Women, who store more fat subcutaneously (under the skin) are protected from heart disease until after menopause . But subcutaneous fat is harder to get rid of and that’s the drawback.
When reduced to the same calorie diet, women always lose less total weight and less fat than men and there are a few reasons for this. One is that women are typically smaller and that means that they usually can’t create as large of a deficit on a diet. Even on the same number of calories (say 1500/day), a woman with a 2000 per day caloric expenditure is only on a 500 calorie/day deficit while a man with 3000 calorie per day expenditure is on a 1500 calorie per day deficit. The man loses faster and more.
But there is another issue and this gets a little bit dense. Women tend to lose more fat and less LBM (lean body mass, everything that isn’t fat such as organs, skeletal muscle, bone, etc) than men. And to lose one pound of fat takes a larger caloric deficit (the classic 3500 calories which isn’t quite right but no matter) compared to losing one pound of LBM (about 800 calories). So with even the same caloric deficit (say 2000 calories per week) the woman will lose about 0.6 pounds and the man (losing say 25% LBM) will lose 0.8. Add to that men’s visceral fat and higher energy expenditure and it’s triple whammy for women. So yes, women are losing more fat but that requires a larger total caloric deficit and women’s are usually smaller to begin with (2).
When exposed to exercise alone, while men will generally lose some amount of weight and fat, women rarely do when their diet is uncontrolled. In addition to burning less calories than men during exercise (for reasons I’ll discuss), women either increase their food intake (men get a far smaller effect) or adjust other aspects of their daily activity (decreasing NEAT for example). And while men will increase their daily energy expenditure when they add exercise, women frequently don’t. Even if they don’t eat more, other parts of their energy expenditure go down. Presumably they reduce NEAT and other activities at other times of the day. In response to exercise, a woman’s body will compensate in numerous ways.
And that last word basically sums up a woman’s physiological response to diet, exercise, and fat loss: compensation. Yes, men’s bodies clearly fight back but women’s fight back far more on basically every level. Their appetite increases to a greater degree, their metabolisms adjust downwards either more, more quickly or frequently both. That’s on top of the often massive water retention that can mask fat loss for weeks on end due to both psychological and physiological reasons. That will get a very full discussion when I talk about stress and the menstrual cycle along with plateaus.
Then there is the menstrual cycle, the variation in hormones which occurs every month which complicates the entire system. Many aspects of female physiology from appetite, whether they burn primarily carbohydrates or fats for energy, energy expenditure, even coordination can change at different parts of the cycle and ignoring this when describing diet or exercise programs is a mistake (3). Yet that’s exactly what most programs do.
Even there there is enormous variability in a woman’s response to their menstrual cycle with some women seeing profound shifts in everything from appetite to mood to exercise performance along with the tendency to have problems with their cycle and others seeing almost none. I’ve long said that “You are not different” but far more so than men, women are unique and delicate flowers.
The menstrual cycle can be disrupted as well with dieting and/or exercise (and especially with the combination); men’s hormonal system often shuts down at low levels of body fat as well. When they are exposed to various stresses both physiological and psychological, the normal menstrual cycle will can shut down partially or completely. This causes an enormous number of problems not the least of which are health related. Bone density can be lost and in extreme cases may never come back.
Logically this make sense, if a female is starving to death (and dieting is essentially just controlled starvation), becoming pregnant is one of the worst things she can do. It takes an enormous number of calories to bring a child to term and breastfeed and, by definition, they aren’t available. Even there there is huge variability with some women having problems with the most minor of stresses and others having none at all. Even under the extreme situation of concentration camps (during the war) some small percentage of men and women will remain fertile. The survival of the human race is too important and if everyone got messed up, famines would have wiped us out.
While I said I wouldn’t discuss it much, about the only time that women have an easier time losing fat is when they are pregnant and/or nursing. During that one time period of their lives, every adaptation to storing and/or mobilizing fat actually reverses itself. Lower body fat becomes easier to mobilize and this is clearly to provide energy for breastfeeding. Calories are mobilized from the hips and thighs although, oddly, the triceps often gain fat. Nobody is quite sure why; the best explanation I’ve heard is that it provides cushion for the baby. Maybe. But I’m still not touching this in any detail.
But this raises the question of why things are set up this way. Not on a physiological level, that we know. But in an explanatory “Why did the female system end up this way?” It’s been theorized that women, far more so than men, were tasked with the survival of the human race (4).
Between carrying children and often being responsible for ensuring their survival (males technically can and often do leave after pregnancy occurs; they have done their job), it was that much more crucial for women to be able to handle changes in food supply, increased activity, starvation, stress, etc. If they had problems, so did the baby and the human race dies out. In support of this, women are far more likely to survive a famine than men in the first place and more easily store fat for the future when food becomes available and there is more data.
Ultimately the entire system is clearly set up to ensure that females would have survived the normal trials and tribulations during our evolution both to carry children to term and to life long enough for them to survive (6). It was basically all part of ensuring the survival of the human race so make sure to tell your mom you love her. And while this was all good and well in the past, now it’s just an irritating leftover that makes women’s lives more difficult.
And with that out of the way, I want to take a look at some of the gender related or female specific issues that are important when discussing women and training and fat loss. This isn’t a completely comprehensive look at this but I will hit on some major factors that play into this issue.
And that’s just half of the first chapter. While I originally intended to re-integrate this with the big book I was working on, it’s now pushing 180 pages and that’s impossible. This went from a chapter to a full section to it’s own book. Done, as always in my own inimitable (read: obsessive to the point of insanity) way. As you can see I’ve identified five primary hormonal situations that can occur including the loss of cycle that is so endemic to lean physique or performance athletes when they try to get extremely lean. All of them get their own distinct training and dieting schedules. Eric Helms contributed the peak week information since he’s up to date on it in a way that I am not.
So sooner (hopefully) rather than later, this book will be done discussing the topics of women, training and fat loss in excruciating detail.
I’m about 75% through the editing process and hope to have it ready in both print and digital format in two weeks. Two real weeks, not my usual “Two more weeks.” We’ll see if I make it but it won’t take much longer than that.