A lot of the women I work with come to me because their ‘tried and true’ method of losing weight has suddenly stopped working all together. They say to me “Before I had kids (or when I was younger), all I had to do was eat a little bit less and run and I could lose weight easily.” They say to me, “Now, no matter how much I cut back or run, I can’t seem to lose these extra pounds!” This is a really common thing that happens to our bodies as women, particularly as we start to go through different stages of life like getting pregnant, postpartum, breastfeeding, experience high levels of stress, or even having PCOS.
Somewhere along the line, we as women began to focus all of our attention on trying to eat less (create a caloric deficit- eat less calories) and exercise more, hoping that we will lose the weight weighing us down. And although this is true in that a caloric deficit is needed for fat loss, it isn’t the whole picture when it comes to fat loss for women. In fact, reducing calories may actually be making the situation worse.
So what the heck? Tell me more!
The problem with a calorie conscious approach is that it leaves out a very important aspect of our biological makeup as women- our Hormones. I know you are probably thinking- huh? But stick with me, I know this might be the first time you are hearing the word ‘hormones’ used in the same sentence as fat loss.
But this right here ladies, is the secret sauce.
As women, our entire body is made up of hormones (tiny messengers that send feedback signals to the brain). When these hormones fluctuate (say around your period or postpartum) they impact our hunger, energy, mood, cravings and sleep patterns, which in turn impacts things like our motivation to exercise, stay on a diet, or have enough willpower to resist that chocolate cake in the break room.
Today, I want to focus on the role Estrogen plays in fat loss.
As women, our levels of estrogen fluctuates depending on what time of the month it is or what phase of life we are in. This rise and fall has an impact on our fat storage and fat burning abilities.
Here is how it works:
Estrogen has an anti-cortisol (stress reducing) effect, which helps control the storage of fat in the belly and creates a fat burning effect. Estrogen also emits dopamine and serotonin. Because estrogen is producing calming chemicals into our brain our cravings and mood are easier to control when estrogen is present in large amounts. Real life interpretation?–>
Estrogen is high in the first portion of our menstrual cycle- roughly days 1-14 or before you ovulate (follicular phase). Which is why you may feel more ‘stable’ during this time of the month. You probably feel like you can manage your cravings and keep up with exercising.
Then Estrogen begins to drop during the time of ovulation, and progesterone rises to build the uterine lining in case you are trying to make a baby (Luteal phase). Some women report feelings of bloat or moodiness during this time.
Estrogen again drops sharply the day before and the day of your period before beginning to build back up again.
Understanding this drop in Estrogen is key
When estrogen drops, so does dopamine (reward and motivation) and serotonin (mood). This sudden drop is probably why you find yourself feeling moody with ravenous cravings for foods like chocolate (which is a dopamine producing food) and carbs. Not only that, but we start to crave a more high calorie diet because our body is producing more stress chemicals when estrogen is absent. Because our body is in a state of stress, it is searching for food- aka eat a ton of food- store it all in our fat cells and lock it there so we don’t run out- because our mind thinks we may need it to outrun the saber tooth tiger. Afterall, our bodies are built to keep us alive-they don’t care if we want to fit in jeans or a bathing suit.
But there is a way to control this vicious cycle….I will go back to this in a minute.
Okay- So Why Isn’t my Eat Less Exercise More Approach working anymore?
If you are trying to consume less calories and run on the treadmill or spin your buns off for an hour, then your body is under a state of stress. Which in turn creates a hormonal imbalance. Why? Because if your body doesn’t have enough food to function and is trying to exercise really hard without enough food to use as energy, it is stressing the hell out. It is thinking “how the heck am I going to keep going?!” And so it locks down the fat cells and holds on tight.
So not only are you producing more stress hormones naturally because your estrogen is low for a period of time, but you are adding surplus stress to your body by trying to force it to change shape without fueling it.
When your body is stressed, it stores the food you eat as fat because it is worried about you.
So even though creating the caloric deficit at first might work, it ultimately is the same reason it causes you to regain the weight you originally lost and sometimes add even more on. Your body is saying “nu-uh don’t do that to me again- I’m not going hungry- I’m going to hold on like a stubborn brat the next time you try to do that to me.” And so- you hold on to weight in your stomach area.
SO TELL ME WHAT TO DO:
If you are someone who is not on birth control and has a typical menstrual cycle there is a way to cycle your food and exercise to promote fat loss, while managing hunger energy and cravings. I go into this protocol in more details (specific macros, carb timing) with the moms I work with my the My Kind of Healthy Coaching Club, so if you have any questions after reading this you can of course email me at email@example.com for further discussion.
- The first phase of your menstrual cycle (Day 1-14:Follicular phase) when your estrogen is at a normal state is a relatively better time for fat burning in your body. During this phase of your cycle, you can maximize fat loss by hitting the ‘big rocks’ of fat loss. This includes eating lean protein at every meal with fibrous veggies (squash, cauliflower, spinach/kale), a good source of healthy fats (avocados, nut butter) and then adding in a side of starchy carbs. Think a ‘handfull” or about 10 bites of starch (potatoes, quinoa, pasta). This is the time in your cycle where your body can tolerate carbs as energy for muscles rather than as fat storage fuel. So yay!
As far as Exercise, you want to shoot for 3 days of strength training. I provide the girls in my club workouts for this time of month. You also want to include HIIT cardio a few days a week (sprints rather than steady rate long distance cardio)
- The second phase of your menstrual cycle (Day 14-or when you ovulate through day of period) is the time when your estrogen shifts and lowers. This is a time when your body ‘burns’ sugar stores vs body fat stores for energy. Your body is trying to lock in the fat in case it becomes pregnant. But if you are not pregnant, you can change your training routine to encourage it to keep burning fat. You would do that by lowering carbs (NOT ELIMINATING) them to about 5 bites as a starting point. The reason you want to monitor carbs and adjust them is because too many carbs= spike in insulin=fat storage, but too little carbs=increase in cortisol= stress= fat storage). It is sort of like a goldilocks effect here. In order to promote a feeling of fullness when your starches are lower, you would add in a bit more healthy fats then you usually at pre period, then fill your plate with a lean protein source and fibrous veggies. The starch is a little side or a few bites, sort of like a compliment to the meal.
Exercise here is 4-5 days a week of weight training/resistance with leisure walking daily and no HIIT cardio training this week .
If you are someone who looks for a more structured ‘macronutrient’ approach, I do go into that in more detail each month with the mamas I coach 1:1. If you feel like this 1:1 approach may be what will help you get unstuck, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a complimentary 20 minute call to hear more about how we can work together.
You can also download my FREE Guide to Fat Loss and Your Cycle, where I break down how to pick out foods that are most beneficial to your hormones at different stages of your cycle.
Extra Help if Cravings and Mood aren’t ‘stable’
When cravings are really tough, you can reach for 100% pure cocoa powder and stir that into almond milk or coconut milk. The cocoa powder helps to restore the dopamine and serotonin that is depleted from lower estrogen states (your period)
If you’re feeling depressed or moody, Yogi brand bedtime tea is good herbal tea that raises neurotransmitters in the brain and helps calm you down to sleep.