The complexities of female fat loss can be very confusing and frustrating for those looking to get leaner. In comparison to men, women have less muscle mass, a smaller frame and require less energy in the form of calories. This means we have to eat fewer calories to lose fat and work just as hard in the gym, I know, it’s tragic. One of the biggest physiological barriers to female fat loss is, of course, the menstrual cycle. The large shifts in female hormones means that our weight, energy, and mood constantly fluctuate. On top of that, there’s an increased risk of injury at specific points, increased hunger levels, strong cravings for carbohydrates and an apparent resistance to fat loss.
I can see I have elevated your mood. However, it’s not all bad news, we’re going to get into exactly what you need to do to optimize fat loss via training and diet to make your menstrual cycle work with you instead of against you.
*Side note I would like to point out that when discussing the menstrual cycle, I am referring to premenopausal women who are healthy and not taking birth control. For those taking birth control, here is a great article by Precision Nutrition to help. Additionally, if you’re not menstruating regularly or are taking static doses of hormones during the month, I still recommended using a cycling strategy with diet and training.
Now, let’s start with defining the three phases; I’ll try to make this more interesting than your biology class (no promises).
Defining the menstrual cycle
1st Phase: Follicular (day 1 – 14) starts at the first day of bleeding and ends at ovulation.
Estrogen levels start low and steeply increase. Progesterone levels are low and stable.
2nd Phase: Ovulation (day 14) Estrogen will be at it’s highest and progesterone will begin to steadily increase.
3rd Phase: Luteal Phase (day 15-28) starts post-ovulation ends at the first day of bleeding.
Estrogen levels begin to decline, progesterone increases and internal body temperature rises.
In short, estrogen (our best friend) is dominant in the follicular phase whilst progesterone (evil) dominates over estrogen in the luteal phase. This relationship is important when we are considering a fat loss strategy as these hormones influence what type of fuel is burned (fat or carbs).
IMAGE OF HORMONAL LANDSCAPE DURING PERIOD
During these phases your nutrition and training will be drastically different due to the hormonal profile experienced in each phase.
Follicular Phase (Day 1-13): Train Harder, Eat Carbs
Estrogen is at its highest in this phase, as is insulin sensitivity. This is the time when your body uses glycogen (carbohydrates) for energy. This is where you are able to handle more carbs and burn more fat with exercise. Estrogen causes better, faster and more efficient metabolism of carbs than at any other time during the cycle.
So eat more carbs (within the first 15 days of your cycle) and plan your refeeds here, if you are dieting. Opt for high carb days that are 40-50% of your diet. You want to reduce your fat intake (no lower than 15-20% of your diet) and ensure your protein is consistent.
Not sure how to work out your caloric/macronutrient intake click here.
What the hell are macronutrients? Click me
Estrogen is a muscle building hormone and contributes to less fat storage. Due to elevated estrogen you’ll find your pain tolerance increases allowing you to go heavier and for longer with your weight training (1). Focus on increasing training intensity and progression, during this phase. After all, we should put those carbs to good use.
Summing up: Eat a higher carbohydrate diet, reducing fat intake and keeping protein consistent. Time to train hard. Train for muscle building and intensity due to a higher pain tolerance with a focus on progressing. Throw in some long-distance medium intensity cardio, as it’s better suited to this phase than to the luteal phase (2)
Ovulation Phase (Day 14) Hit Your Personal Best
You may feel hungrier in this phase due to an increase in resting metabolism. The body is gearing up for intense cravings. Consider adding in a few extra calories, 150-300 calories should do the trick but get them from a mix of protein, carbs and fats. Eating carb-only snacks should be limited because our ability to use carbs effectively is declining. This is only a 36 to 48 hour process. However, the downhill ride is picking up speed, so fasten up for the luteal phase.
This phase is when you’ll be at your strongest and reach optimal performance. It’s time to set some personal bests (PBs). Research indicates ovulating women showed an 11% increase in leg strength (3). However, estrogen levels skyrocket in this phase, which can make you more prone to injury. A recent study found female basketball players were 4 to 8 times more likely to tear their ACL (knee ligament) than at any other point of the cycle (4). Be diligent, listen to your body and don't push too hard.
Summing up: Kill it in the gym with some PBs. But be aware of injuries during this phase. Take extra time to warm up and keep form 100% perfect, when lifting heavy loads.
Luteal Phase (Day 15-28) Scale back intensity, rev up fat loss
This is perhaps the most brutal part of the menstrual cycle. Brutal, is a warranted term because here is when you feel the most tired, irritable, mentally and physically awful and have extreme sugar and carb cravings. In this phase, you will constantly be thinking about chocolate and daydreaming about donuts. It’s hell.
(picture of a girl shoving her mouth with cookies - aka maite with fox's]
Well, keep daydreaming because now the body transition to fat as the preferred fuel source to preserve glycogen (carbs). That’s because the evil progesterone is suffocating our best friend, estrogen. Progesterone doesn’t like carbohydrates (I told you it was a monster) so we can’t eat them. Well we can, just not in the amount that we enjoy. Oh and it gets better, WATER WEIGHT. Yes, there’s bloating and water retention, sometimes in the form of 1-5lbs fluctuations on the scale. Back away; do not weigh yourself at this time. You’re already feeling like crap, lets not make matters worse, shall we; after all, we don’t have the comfort of carbs.
Progesterone is at its highest in this phase which decreases insulin sensitivity (your body is more reactive to carbs) therefore we are more likely to store the carbs as body fat because we cannot utilize them (come back to me follicular phase, we were so good together). Here, it’s important to reduce total carbs (10-15% of your diet) and increase fat (45-60%) whilst keeping protein consistent (30-40%). This can prove to be a challenge as we’re hormonal and craving delicious treats. Stay strong; keep the carbs low and power through.
In better news, body temperature increases. Studies have suggested that you burn an extra 5-10% of calories during this phase (5). Don’t jump for the carbs yet, this doesn’t mean you should be increasing food intake. Remember the evil progesterone is running the show (damn it). The reduced carbs will help increase fat loss.
To reduce carb cravings you can try increasing serotonin (feel good hormone, that has been zapped by our hormonal changes) through oral tryptophan or eat foods containing good amounts of it (turkey, eggs, cheese, pumpkin seeds and nuts) (thanksgiving every month for you Americans)
Progesterone has been shown to increase breath rate (independent of intensity), heart rate and resting pulse (6). This makes exercise feel much more difficult than it is. Focus on lighter training and active recovery (long walks, yoga, swimming). Stay clear of high intensity training, it’s going to create more damage than good.
Summing up: It’s a rough time for mental wellbeing, PMS symptoms and gym performance. On the bright side, the body is primed to burn more fat (I’m forever the optimist). Keep the carbs low; eat lots of turkey, eggs and nuts. Train lighter than usual and listen to your body. You may want to reduce your weights by 10-20% and shoot for higher reps (>15 reps)
Cycle complete: You made it!
That was a rollercoaster, if I kept your attention for the full article without you checking out what phase you were in and grabbing some carbohydrates to comfort you through, I’ll call that a success.
Take note this article is only a general recommendation and like everything it should be assessed on an individual basis. You don’t need to change your diet or training drastically, just be aware of the changes that occur during your cycle and make adjustments where you see necessary.
*Side note: Though I called progesterone evil (in these specific circumstances) bare in mind that there are no “good guys” and “bad guys”. Not cortisol, not estrogen, not cholesterol and not progesterone. It’s important we recognize the grey areas and do not paint everything black and white. Progesterone has many positive influences including better functioning thyroid, natural anti-inflammatory and a calming effect on the brain (7). Remember, everything works best in balance.
What the hell do I do next?
Take the seatbelt off; we made it safely to the other side. Here we are back at day 1 and things are pleasantly better (for now). Who knew menstruating would be the more pleasant part?
Overwhelmed? Don’t be, below are 4 easy ways to help you stay aware during your next cycle. I would suggest 4 things for your next cycle
1. Track your period (I use Flo app) alongside your symptoms, nutrition and your workout plan for the next month or two, implement some of the nutrition and training strategies above and see how you feel.
2. Don’t obsessively weigh yourself, stay away from the scale. If you must, track scale weight over the week and use averages for each week (I use the Happy Scale app) Keep an eye on your nutrition, particular cravings, during the luteal phase and be prepared with a plan to stop overeating and binging.
3. Keep an eye on your nutrition, particular cravings, during the luteal phase and be prepared with a plan to stop overeating and binging.
4. Pay close attention to your training, be aware of when you feel physically strong so you can press the accelerator pedal and when you feel physically weak/fatigued so you can ease off and put the breaks on.