This is a no-nonsense guide for women to fully understand how to lose weight in a healthy manner.
91% of women surveyed on college campus have dieted. 22% are dieting “often” or “always”. However, 95% of diets fail and most people will regain their lost weight within 1-5 years. Obviously something is not working.
Currently there is a lot of misinformation about weight loss circling around. Some of it may be genuine human error, but keep in mind that obesity is a $315 billion dollar industry – they want you coming back for more. Contrary to what is marketed, there is no such thing as a quick-fix to weight. You cannot get a flat stomach in 3 weeks. You cannot lose 10 pounds a week. That type of weight loss is not natural, nor sustainable.
This is because weight loss is not a dieting game. It is a lifestyle change. There is no “big secret” to weight loss. Consistent healthy eating and regular exercise the only way to lose weight and keep it off.
Fitness 101: A Guide to Weight Loss for Women
How the female body is different:
The first thing to keep in mind when it comes to weight loss is that women are built very differently from men. This is especially important to keep in mind if your weight loss buddy is your husband, or a male friend.
- Men are naturally larger, have more muscles mass, and less fat due to the testosterone hormone. Testosterone increases one’s ability to gain lean muscle mass.
- Women naturally are smaller, must maintain higher percentages of body fat to stay healthy (covered below), and produce more estrogen. Estrogen, unfortunately, increases the storage of body fat.
Every pound of lean muscle mass burns about 14 extra calories a day. Men, with their naturally larger bodies & higher muscle mass, have higher basal metabolic rates than women. This is why men eat more. This is also why the phrase “men lose weight faster/easier than women” is thrown around a lot in the weight loss conversation. Their bodies respond more quickly to exercise, due to their muscle composition and higher metabolism.
For example, if a woman and a man both run one mile, the man will burn more calories than the woman due to his higher levels of muscle mass.
Before you pout “It’s not fair!” keep in mind that obesity rates among men are equal to obesity rates among women. So even with their natural muscle-building, fat-burning advantages, men are still not doing so well either.
Specific differences can be highlighted when we look at body fat percentages. The essential body fat level for men is around 2%. This is the amount of body fat needed to protect the internal organs of a male body.
The essential body fat level for women however, is 8-10% because extra fat is needed to protect the reproductive organs, and women have breasts (which are mainly fat). However, at this level, a women still does not have enough body fat to menstruate, and is considered unhealthy. The lowest level of body fat for a women to be healthy is around 12%-17%.
Here is a very handy visual chart from BuiltLean that shows what each body fat percentage looks like.
Healthy body fat levels for women are about twice the healthy body fat levels for men (you can check out the male body fat chart here). Another thing to keep in mind is where women & men store their body fat. Men tend to store fat in their abdomen, resulting in a gut. Women store fat in their hips, thighs, abdomen, buttocks, and breasts. If your concern is mainly looks, take heart in knowing that women carry fat in much more aesthetically pleasing ways than men.
It is important to keep this differences in mind as you move forward, because a diet and training plan than will help men lose weight will not necessarily work well for women.
Diet is the first thing to address when it comes to weight loss because diet is the most important factor. Diet accounts of 80-90% of your success and failure. You cannot out-exercise a bad diet. You will see more success on good diet paired with 3 hours of light exercise a week, than on a bad diet paired with 7 hours of intense exercise a week. Really. It’s that important (The New York Times agrees with this).
You have probably heard that dieting is a simple numbers game. Eat less calories than you expend to create a calorie deficit. 3500 calories equals one pound, therefore to lose one pound you must eat 3500 calories less, or burn 3500 calories exercising.
This is true, but it’s not the whole picture. Quality of calories is just as important- if not more important, than quantity of calories.
Here is a simplified example:
Pam sits around and eats navel oranges all day. She eats 2000 calories worth of navel oranges every day.
Sue sits around and eat orange gummy candies all day. She eats 2000 calories worth of orange gummies every day.
Even though Pam & Sue are eating the exact same number of calories, in one month Sue the orange gummy eater will have gained a lot of weight, while Pam the navel orange eater will stay the same weight (or even lose some). This is because quality of calories is crucial to diet.
The single best thing you could do for your diet is to cut processed foods out.
- They are highly addictive. Processed foods stimulate dopamine production in the brain, making them hard to resist, and easy to eat in excess, leading to weight gain.
- They are loaded with GMOs (Genetically-Modified Organisms) which also promote weight gain.
- The vast majority of processed foods contain high fructose corn syrup, which is one of the biggest culprits behind the obesity crisis today.
One Princeton research team proved that all sweeteners are not created equal. Rats with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained 48% more weight than those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same.
Even those Special K 100-calorie snack bars and Weight Watchers microwave dinners are guilty. Though these products are marketed to help you lose weight, if they come from a shrink-wrapped package with an ingredient list you can’t pronounce, artificial dyes, preservatives, and additives, they are not effective in helping you lose weight.
The “diet plan” for losing weight is a simple answer: Fresh fruits & vegetables, whole grains, unprocessed meats, and other whole foods. This is actually easier said than done. We live in an unhealthy environment where unhealthy, processed foods are more readily available than unprocessed foods, and sometimes it’s tough – if not downright impossible – to find food that isn’t battered, fried, or processed.
The upside to eating non-junk foods is that you can eat all of it. Go ahead and gorge yourself on 20 apples, 30 bananas, pounds upon pounds of kale. As many pounds of kale as your stomach can handle. You will get full before you get fat from unprocessed foods.
Small Steps to a Healthier Diet:
- Clean the junk food out of your fridge and pantry. If junk food is not in your house, you will not eat it at home.
- Replace processed food with healthy alternatives. For example, replacing Jiff peanut butter with all-natural peanut butter.
- Cut back on the soda. Ideally you should cut soda completely out of your diet. Soda will be the death of all of us one day.
- Cut alcohol out of your diet for one month. If this is too drastic, try eliminating only beer from your diet, or limiting yourself to only drinking alcohol on weekends.
“Cardio” is the most basic form of exercising. It burns calories, is not too difficult, and quite hard to “mess up”. However, in terms of efficiency, hours upon hours of cardio may not be your best bet for losing weight.
Interval training is much more effective than steady-state cardio for burning fat. Interval training is short bursts of high intensity activity cut with with rest periods of low-intensity activity in-between.
A study from the University of New South Wales followed the fitness and body composition changes in 45 overweight women in a 15-week period. The women were divided into two groups and assigned interval or continuous cycling routines. The interval “sprint” cycling group performed twenty minutes of exercise, which repeated eight seconds of “all out” cycling and then twelve seconds of light exercise. The continuous group exercised for 40 minutes at a consistent rate. At the end of the study, the women in the interval group had lost three times the body fat as the women in the continuous exercise group. (Marks Daily Apple)
There are a few reasons for this.
- First is Exercise Post Oxygen Consumption (EPOC), more commonly known as the “afterburn” effect. After engaging in intense exercise, the body will continue to burn calories even after you stop moving.
- Interval training promotes more muscle growth than endurance cardio, resulting in more calories burned daily.
- Finally, long bouts of steady state cardio has been shown to lower your metabolism. Because your are expending energy for such a long amount of time your body will want to conserve calories. Evolutionary speaking, this is how starving humans survived while being chased by wolves all winter (you can read more about this phenomenon here).
Some interval workouts to get you started:
- A Power Interval Cycling Workout
- A High Intensity Interval Treadmill Workout for Beginners
- A Basic Interval Swimming Workout
- A Walking Workout with Intervals
The other essential component of losing weight in a healthy manner, and keeping it off, is to build lean muscle mass. We’ve already mentioned that each pound of muscle burns an extra 14 calories a day. Muscle is also what gives bodies their attractive shape. Yes, even on women.
If you lose weight without building muscle you will stay the same general shape, only “smaller”. This is because your body will still have the same general composition of organs, bones, and fat. If you want your bum to become lifted & round, or a hint of abs instead of stomach jiggle, you cannot just lose weight, you need to replace fat with muscle.
There are a few myths about lean muscle mass & women that need to be dispelled:
1) Getting “Toned”.
“Toned” has come to mean shapely arms, a tight tush, and a generally firmer body. However, “toned” is simply another term for “building lean muscle mass”. They are the same thing.
What is misleading is that there are not certain exercises that created “toned” muscle, and other exercises that create “bulky” muscle. Chair pose in yoga does not create differently shaped hamstrings than squatting with a barbell. The muscles in your body are a set shape, and they either grow or they don’t.
What does this mean for you? It means building muscle can be really fun! You are free to pick any strength-building activity you’d like. Yoga will make you “toned”. So will lifting heavy weights. And so will kickboxing class. And so will a million other strength-building activities. Choose what you like.
2) High reps at a low weight.
This myth stemmed from the fact that the male body builds muscle more efficiently by reps of 6-8 while female body responds better to reps of 10-12. This is a notable difference, to be sure, but it was blown completely out of proportion into the weird belief that men should do low reps at a high weight, and women should do high reps at a low weight. This led to a whole bunch of women curling 3 lb dumbbells for 50 reps and wondering why nothing is happening.
Doing high reps at a low weight is very inefficient form of exercise. I won’t say it’s useless – because it’s better than doing nothing at all – but high reps at a low weight will not help you build muscle or “get toned”.
Muscle growth is caused by exercises that create micro-tears in the muscle fiber. You experience this as muscle soreness after a really great workout. Your body then sets to work mending these micro-tears, resulting in larger muscles that are more capable of handling a higher work load in the future. If you are not adequately challenging your muscles and creating these micro-tears, your body will continue to stay the same general shape.
The solution? Low reps at a high weight. When training, pick weights that make you “fail” (you cannot continue more reps) after 10-12 reps.
3) Building lean muscle mass will make you look like a bodybuilder.
False. To build enough muscle mass to look like a female bodybuilder, you would have to eat enough calories to support that type of muscle growth. You would have to eat enough calories to support your active, day-to-day life, plus calories to make up for the ones you burn while exercising, plus more calories to support muscle growth. That is a ton of calories.
Each body is different, so to figure out the correct number of calories you must eat to build one pound of muscle a week, check out this calorie calculator.
To look achieve a “bulky” look, not only do you have to eat an insane amount of calories, you would have to eat the right balance of proteins, carbs, macronutrients, etc.
The point is, unless you are deliberately following a strict bodybuilder exercise routine and diet plan, you will not bulk up. Bulking up is very difficult.
Now that you know what is not true about lean muscle for women, where should you start?
Try incorporating two sessions of strength-building activity into your workout routine each week. That could mean going for a walk and doing squats every quarter mile. That could also mean alternating between cardio & weight training days at the gym. You could run to yoga class and then do yoga. There are plenty of options for women to incorporate strength training into their exercise.
Some strength training workout suggestions:
The scale is a very misleading way to judge health & weight loss. This is because muscle is much more dense than fat. One pound of fat takes up much more space than one pound of muscle.
Think of fat like a volleyball, and muscle like a baseball. The volleyball takes up much more space than the baseball, but they weight about the same. Or, if you want to see what five pounds of fat looks like compared to five pounds of muscle, click here (the photo is kind of gross, you’ve been warned).
Because muscle is much more dense than fat, and because we have established that building lean muscle mass is essential for healthy weight loss, the scale is not going to be your best friend during your weight loss journey.
This is because as you are shedding body fat & replacing it with muscle, you may not see a very big difference in poundage. However, you will be able to feel if your jeans are less tight. These are changes that the scale will never be able to reflect.
In fact, it is very possible to go up in weight, and down in pants size. A 150 pound woman who does not engage in strength training will honestly look much more “flabby” that a 150 pound woman who lifts weights regularly. The scale is merely one option by which you can track your progress. You can also use how your clothes fit, tape measures, weekly photographs, or other creative ways to track the changes in your body.
A Summary of Weight Loss For Women:
- Women & men are built differently, and you cannot expect to lose weight at the same rate as your male workout buddies.
- Quality of calories is equally important is number of calories. Eat unprocessed, whole foods.
- Cardio is important to lose the extra weight, but interval training is much more effective than steady-state cardio.
- Building lean muscle mass is essential to get that “toned” look. Once you lose the extra baggage, you want your body underneath the excess fat to look nice and shapely. You need muscles for this.
- Muscle is more dense than fat. If you are replacing body fat with lean muscle (as you should be doing), then the scale will not adequately reflect your progress. Many women benefit from throwing their scales away.
I hope this Guide to Weight Loss for Women was informative and helpful to you on your fitness journey!