If you're a woman who has tried to lose weight, you may have noticed something: it's hard. Much harder than simply cutting your calories and watching the weight fall off.
Disclaimer: This article is geared towards women, but as you might have been able to tell by the name Dick, I am not a woman. I'm basing the following on the hundreds of women that I've coached and the patterns that I've seen. I empathise with many of these issues and have thought deeply about them as a coach, but I'm never going to claim that I have lived through them. I am, however, hoping that I can use my experiences to help you.
There are complexities beyond simple maths; emotional, physical and social barriers that simply aren't addressed by a male-dominated fitness industry. This became apparent to me when working with my client, Jane (not her real name):
I have been dieting for 15 years. I would always do really well for a month, two months, even six months, on various detoxes, juice cleanses and a bunch of cardio. Then I would have an off day, and spiral out of control. I would gain back all of the weight I lost, plus more. Fast forward to last year, I ended up at 311 pounds after torturing myself with the yo-yo dieting. I felt permanently guilty and disgusted with myself.
I've always felt that I relate better to my female clients than male ones. Having spent most of my life obese, I've struggled with issues around binge eating, yo-yo dieting (rapidly losing and gaining weight), and lacking self-compassion.
Even then, my experiences pale compared to the particular set of difficulties that women face when it comes to weight loss. If you are a woman, highlighting these challenges isn't meant to discourage you, but to empower you. Knowing the magnitude of this battle will allow you to be kinder to yourself when you stumble.
Weight Loss Is Biologically Harder For You
Before talking about why weight loss is harder for women, we'll first need to understand how your calories are burned in a given day.
Total calories burned in a day = Resting metabolism + Thermic effect of intentional activity + Thermic effect of food + Thermic effect from non-exercise activity
Resting metabolic rate (RMR): The amount of calories that are required in order to maintain normal bodily functions, hormones, etc.
Thermic effect of intentional activity: Activities burned from moving around all day.
Thermic effect of food (TEF): Calories burned from the process of eating your food and turning it into usable substrates.
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT): Calories burned from spontaneous activity that your body undertakes. Unfortunately, there's not much you can do to directly impact NEAT, so we're going to save this for another day.
In your average person, resting metabolism accounts for about 70% of total calories burned in the day. Yep, that means most of your calories are spent just "staying alive", even if you just lie in bed all day. Of the calories required by the RMR, a large majority (85%) can be explained by fat free mass as muscle requires more energy to maintain than fat. Accordingly, people with more muscle have higher resting metabolic rates, and this accounts for most of the explained variation in RMR between individuals.
So what happens when people over-consume calories with no additional exercise? Most people know that your body stores most of these calories as fat. What you might not know, however, is that your body partitions some extra calories as muscle -- even without additional exercise. Yes, some people gain muscle by just overeating, as seen in one study where participants were overfed 1000 calories per day for 10 days.
Hurray! Pizza buffet for everyone, right? Not so fast. Those are the lucky few, and if you're female, chances are this doesn't apply to you. This is because the amount of muscle you gain from overfeeding seems to depend on the amount of testosterone that you have, and women have about 10% of the testosterone of men.
This is why women physiologically get the short end of the stick.
You're Less Self-Compassionate And More Self-Critical
I've written often about the importance of self-compassion and how it's a common trait in my successful clients. Research has corroborated this observation; self-compassionate people are less likely to make the same mistake again.
Unfortunately, according to Dr Kristin Neff, one of the pioneers in self-compassion research, women tend to be less self-compassionate and more self-critical:
Women tend to be a little less self-compassionate and more self-critical than men. From an evolutionary perspective, this is because women are more threat-focused -- focused on dangers in order to keep their babies alive and pass on their genes. Women are also a lot more compassionate toward others than men are. The discrepancy between how women treat themselves and how they treat others is bigger than it is with men.
This isn't at all alleviated by our societal values, which unfairly (and somewhat arbitrarily) place greater weight on women's appearances than men.
This is detrimental to progress. Self-criticism, in place of self-compassion, acts to foil positive progress. It leads to over-aggressive dieting and exercise, then self-punishment and guilt upon the realisation that it isn't sustainable -- classic yo-yo dieting mentality.
You Have To Deal With Monthly Hormones
Menstruation and dieting isn't talked about very much, but it's a conversation that needs to be had, because it can affect your progress in multiple ways.
The first issue is water retention. Unlike men, female body weight typically oscillates by a few pounds up and down on an intra-monthly basis due to the ongoing endocrinological shitstorm that's occurring.
Aside from (what I've been told is) unwelcome discomfort, the phenomenon also creates an immense amount of frustration and confusion. Imagine if you were dieting hard and exercising religiously only to find that you not only gained weight but "look and feel fatter". (I use the quote marks because this is something that clients often say.) It makes it harder to develop a positive feedback loop, and the sense of backtracking takes a huge psychological toll.
Adding to this, appetite control tends to worsen as a symptom of PMS. A theorised cause behind this is serotonin, the "happiness hormone". Research has shown that serotonin levels are lower prior to menstruation. This gives rise to depressive symptoms and emotional eating, compounded by intense cravings and weaker self-control.
You Have More Decisions To Make Throughout The Day
As a guy, the hardest decision that I make in the morning is whether or not I hit snooze when my alarm goes off. Women, on the other hand, don't have it so easy. I interviewed my good friend Julie, who explained to me:
Even before I leave the door in the morning, I've made dozens of decisions. What to wear, what makeup to use, whether or not I'm going to need to re-apply makeup during the day, how to do my hair, etc. And you wonder why it sometimes takes us hours to get ready. Men don't have to deal with these issues.
Sure, these are societal issues, but they're there. How does this relate to weight loss? It's because decisions impact your available willpower. From The Serious Pony's Blog:
In 1999, Professor Baba Shiv (currently at Stanford) and his co-author Alex Fedorikhin did a simple experiment on 165 grad students.They asked half to memorize a seven-digit number and the other half to memorize a two-digit number. After completing the memorization task, participants were told the experiment was over, and then offered a snack choice of either chocolate cake or a fruit bowl.
The participants who memorized the seven-digit number were nearly 50% more likely than the other group to choose cake over fruit. Researchers were astonished by a pile of experiments that led to one bizarre conclusion: Willpower and cognitive processing draw from the same pool of resources.
As a coach, it pains me when people slip up on their diet, then think "This is a moral failing and I'm just lazy". But you're not lazy. You kick arse, work hard, and bring home the goods. The truth is that willpower is a finite resource. Forgiving yourself for past mistakes, then learning how to manage it can make all the difference.
*There's relatively recent research to suggest that the concept of willpower may just be in your head. This is just one data point out of loads of research on the subject. Regardless, it still makes sense to believe that willpower is finite.
Your Environment Works Against You
Part of society's (unfortunate) patriarchal design bleeds into health and fitness: almost everything related to health and fitness is optimised for men.
Let's take portion size for example. Most people already know that portion sizes have increased over the years. But you probably haven't thought about how much more pronounced this is for women. That 3000-calorie pasta dish at Cheesecake Factory might be a day's worth of calories for a man, but it's nearly two days worth of calories for many women, because women require less calorie per day. Think you'll know when to stop? Unfortunately, the amount of food on your plate dictates how much you'll eat, and for women, that means a higher percentage of their daily calories.
When it comes to exercising for weight loss, there's a difference between cardio and strength training. Cardio tends to burn more calories in the short run, but strength training increases lean mass, which we know increases your metabolism. Cardio is like paying off a credit card, whereas strength training is like paying a mortgage. With the latter, you're building an asset.
Everyone benefits from strength training, and while cardio is great for health, it doesn't do much for weight loss. Yet, look at how fitness is marketed towards men versus women: men should be lifting weights, whereas women are constrained to stereotypically feminine activities, like running, spinning, and pink three-pound dumbbells. Granted, fitness marketers are shitty all around, but at least they get men to do something a bit closer to the right thing.
It's not just marketers that keep women away from strength training. The typical gym environment does so as well. My friend Alexa, former competitive bodybuilder and now nationally competitive powerlifter explains:
I wouldn't call the weight room the most inviting place in the world, hence why most females gravitate toward Soul Cycle and TRX bands and shit because they feel comfortable and with "like" individuals. Also, men in the gym can be intimidating by hitting on you in less than favourable ways, potentially interrupting a workout and making things more uncomfortable than they already are.
Detoxes, cleanses and other scams tend to be marketed towards women as well.
Where To Go From Here
What happened to Jane, my client from the example at the beginning? Well, she started being kinder to herself:
I started being, gasp, NICE to myself. I forgave myself. I made the eating plan fit into my life, rather than fitting my life into the diet. When I fell off the horse, I would revisit my accomplishments and remind myself that I have come this far, and all I can do it try again. I have since lost almost 40 pounds. I have had times when I gained a few pounds back, but I haven't felt the shame that I used to feel. Being nice to myself has allowed me to forgive myself and stay on a positive path. Also, while I am eating well, I feel positive rather than punished. I can truly see myself continuing on this journey.
Operating under simplified assumptions like eat less, move more can easily lead to a feelings of weight loss failure when encountering difficulty. But saying the solution to weight loss is "eat less, move more" is like saying the solution to depression is "stop being so sad."
As a woman, you're facing a unique set of difficulties. Accepting and understanding this will allow you to appreciate progress, be realistic about expectations, and most importantly be kind to yourself.
To do this, the following advice may help:
- Be OK with only losing 0.5-1 lbs per week. Women need fewer calories than men, so any reduction in intake comes as a larger portion of your daily needs. Therefore, weight loss has to happen more slowly. Don't rush things through aggressive cardio or diet. Remember, even at this pace you're still losing 30-50 lbs in one year.
- Measure your weight month-over-month. This will account for your the hormonal impact on water retention. At the very least, don't step on the scale when you know that you're retaining water for hormonal reasons.
- Obsess over ROI. You're already making tons of decisions every day. Cut out all decisions that don't have a tangible impact on your results.
- Strength train. Be wary of "advice" dictating that women should have completely different fitness protocols. For the most part, women would get better results better lifting relatively heavy weights than anything that resembles a Tracy Anderson routine.
- Follow other women who have had fitness success. They will understand some of your difficulties. I highly recommend FitNGeeky's YouTube videos, such as this one on women and strength training or the reasons she got into fitness. Communities like Reddit's xxfitness or Girls Gone Strong are great to follow as well.
Lastly, If you have weight to lose, realise that you are not your weight. Wipe the sentence "I am fat" from your vocabulary. You are not fat. You have fat. Having biologically necessary fat cells, even if it's in abundance, should in no way be tied to your identity.
Viewing weight loss as a challenge, in the most objective and non-judgmental way possible, allows you to keep progressing. If you're a woman, weight loss will be more challenging and take more time, but overcoming challenges isn't anything foreign to you. Besides, the time will pass anyway.