It’s easy to make mistakes with all the confusion about nutrition nowadays. Although everyone is affected by the bewildering and often contradictory dietary advice, women may suffer more from bad nutrition information due to gender differences in hormones, body composition, and metabolism.
A classic example is the tendency women have to slash calories in an effort to lose body fat. After all, women are being advised by everyone from their doctor to their best friends to eat as few calories as humanly possible. Low-calorie dieting is associated with weight cycling, which occurs when you diet, lose weight, and then regain it.
It works like this: On low-calorie diets, a large portion of the weight lost is from muscle mass (anywhere from 35 to 70 percent), which leads to a substantial drop in the amount of calories your body burns everyday.
Women start out with lower muscle mass than men to begin with. Combined with the fact that women tend to be less active and have a lower protein intake, they generally lose more muscle than men when they diet, setting them up for greater rebound fat gain. Weight cycling also leads to inflammation and is associated with increased health problems, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
It’s hard to navigate the bad advice and identify an effective and real-life approach to eating. This article will help you cut through the nonsense and provide research-based alternatives so that you get everything you can out of your efforts.
Mistake #1: A High-Carb Intake
It’s in vogue to say that it doesn’t matter how many carbs are in your diet as long as you can stick to it. Although it is theoretically possible to lose fat with a high-carb diet, this approach leaves a lot to be desired for most women because it ignores how women’s metabolism differs from men’s.
Women’s bodies are set up to be metabolically flexible and able to switch between burning fat and glucose from carbs with ease. However, when women adopt higher carb diets, metabolic flexibility gets reduced and the body adapts to “running” more on glucose than burning fat.
The result is increased food intake and greater cravings for high-energy foods. It also has negative effects on female metabolic health and is associated with an increased risk of inflammation. Triglycerides, which are the amount of fat in the blood stream, and LDL cholesterol increase when women replace dietary fat with carbs. These two factors raise heart disease and diabetes risk and may predispose women to obesity. For example, women in the EPICOR study with the highest intake of carbs had a significantly greater risk of heart disease (by about twofold) than those in the lowest quartile.
Solution: When choosing an eating plan to promote fat loss, most women will benefit from a more balanced macronutrient distribution: Try getting a higher protein intake to maintain lean mass, a decent amount of healthy fat (35 percent of calories), and a moderate carb intake from whole food sources (about 40 percent of calories).
This combination promotes metabolic flexibility and helps reduce blood sugar fluctuations and elevations in triglycerides, LDL, and inflammation. Additionally, the higher protein and fat intake should promote satiety and help you stay steadier with your eating so that you avoid overshooting your calorie intake.
Mistake #2: Unbalanced Fat Intake
Although some women are still scared of dietary fat, most have gotten on board with the whole healthy fat thing. What still trips many women up is trying to identify what kind of fat is actually good for you.
Studies show that humans evolved eating a diet with close to a 1-to-1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fat. Omega-6 fat comes from seed and vegetable oils like canola and soybean oil, whereas omega-3 fat comes from fish and some meat and seeds. Diets with a fairly balanced ratio between the two are associated with lower risk of obesity, cancer, and other diseases. On the other hand, a large intake of omega-6 fat has a pro-inflammatory effect on the body.
In the 1970s, the USDA came out with dietary guidelines recommending the replacement of saturated fat like butter or coconut oil with vegetable oils such as canola or soybean oil in order to lower heart disease and lose weight. This resulted in a high intake of omega-6 fat and a skewed ratio closer to 25-to-1 of omega-6 to omega-3 fat, resulting in higher levels of chronic inflammation and a tendency towards obesity. A high intake of omega-6 fat is harmful for everyone, but women appear to be more adversely affected.
Studies show gender differences in enzymes that are involved in the metabolism of the omega fats. With the same diet that is high in omega-6 fat, women experience higher conversion of pro-inflammatory compounds (called eicosanoids), which have carcinogenic and obesity effects. In one recent Danish study, increasing omega-6 fat intake was associated with fat gain and increased waist circumference in women, while the opposite was shown in men.
Solution: You want to focus on two things when it comes to dietary fat: Quality and variety. Choose fats in their most natural state: nuts, seeds, avocado, or the fat that is normally present in meat, fish, or dairy. When it comes to cooking oils, choose sources that are cold pressed and minimally processed, such as olive oil and coconut oil. Getting omega-3 fat, either from your diet (fish, grass-fed meat, flax), or a fish oil supplement will round out a healthy fat intake.
Vegetable oils tend to be highly refined and contain a high proportion of omega-6 fat so they should be avoided. Additionally, avoid hydrogenated oils (also known as trans fats), which are chemically altered fats that are consistently shown to harm health.
Mistakes #3: Juice Detoxes
Most juice detoxes get one thing right: They provide plenty of antioxidants that kickstart the detox process and help take harmful free radicals out of circulation.
Unfortunately, they don’t allow the body to complete the elimination process. In order to successfully detoxify, your body requires a few key things. First, in order for the body to eliminate waste products, they must be bound to an amino acid, which is supplied by protein.
Second, dietary fiber keeps toxins that are on their way out of the body from breaking free in the intestines and re-entering circulation. Fiber also feeds the healthy gut microflora that play a principal role in detoxification.
Both protein and fiber are largely absent from juice, which is one reason that people often feel absolutely terrible when they go on a juice cleanse. The body doesn’t have the raw materials necessary to eliminate toxins and they stay in circulation, wrecking havoc in the body.
Solution: Give your body everything it needs for detoxification: Focus on eating high-quality protein from whole, organic sources at every meal (meat, low-toxin fish like wild Pacific sardines and wild Alaskan salmon, Greek yogurt, whey protein) and fibrous foods (veggies, fruit, beans, lentils).
Whether to include fresh juice is up to personal preference: It is high in antioxidants, but those can just as easily be gotten from vegetables and fruit. On the other hand, if reducing body fat is a goal, juice is generally not recommended since it elevates insulin and blood sugar more than if you were to eat the same calories in food form.
#4: Eating Due To Peer Pressure
Humans are extremely susceptible to social cues when it comes to eating. For example, people eat more when dining with overweight dining companions, especially if they are of the same sex.
Then there are all the times we are offered sweets and treats: Not only can it be hard to resist all these tempting foods, women often don’t feel comfortable saying “no thank you” to food in social situations.
Another interesting factor is that women tend to prefer “comfort foods” with a poorer nutrition profile than men. While men prefer meal-related comfort foods like steak and burgers, women choose sweets, like cookies, ice cream, and chocolate cake (all foods that are easy to overeat and devoid of nutrition).
Solution: Be aware that we are very easily swayed by other people’s choices. Begin to be conscious about what and how much you eat with friends or when under stress.
If you have trouble saying “no” to food in social situations, you need a plan going in. Many women find it’s easiest to simply accept the food and then nibble. Unfortunately, this can backfire with you giving in and eating more than you want, or if you hold out, people will comment on your lack of restraint.
You can also pass entirely, saying you don’t eat sugar, gluten, or some other aspect of the food in question. If you do it enough, people will get used to you passing on food. They may judge you for it but they’ll still like you!
#5: Avoiding Key Performance Supplements—Creatine, Beta Alanine, HMB
Due to widespread misconceptions and gender-based marketing tendencies, women are avoiding key performance supplements like creatine, beta alanine, and HMB.
Raise your hand if you take creatine. If you’re a woman, there’s a 99 percent chance you didn’t raise your hand. Men, on the other hand, are more likely than not to have supplemented with creatine. Women are unnecessarily avoiding one of the most effective cognitive and physical performance enhancing supplements available. Why the huge discrepancy?
Creatine is marketed directly to men as a mass gaining supplement and most women are scared to death of gaining weight. Fortunately, women don’t gain weight in the same way as men from creatine. In fact, while male athletes tend to gain 3 to 9 pounds of lean mass from creatine, women are more likely to reduce body fat percentage because creatine improves work capacity, allowing for a better quality workout. In one study, female soccer players lost 1.5 percent of body fat after taking creatine in conjunction with a training program.
Beta alanine is another supplement that women tend to avoid to their detriment. Beta alanine improves your muscles levels of carnosine, increasing work capacity at high intensities making it perfect for helping you get through a tough sprint or crossfit workout. It also improves strength in older women who are at risk of reduced muscle and functional ability. It just so happens that women naturally have lower muscle carnosine levels than men, making supplementation that much more beneficial.
Finally, HMB is a supplement that increases fat burning in the muscle, accelerating fat loss. This is key for women who have higher levels of intramuscular fat and rely more on fat for fuel during training.
HMB may also help preserve muscle mass during fat loss because it serves as a metabolite of the amino acid leucine that is necessary for triggering muscle building. In one study, female judo athletes who took 3 g of HMB for 3 days while cutting fat prior to a competition lost 5 percent body fat and preserved muscle and strength compared to a placebo group that had no changes in body fat and got slower and weaker.
Solution: If you’re serious about your training, consider using these performance supplements to get more out of your efforts. Be aware that creatine has significant cognitive benefits as well, improving memory and brain function, particularly when sleep deprived. A dose of 3 to 5 grams a day is all you need to get athletic and cognitive benefits.
For beta alanine, taking 3 to 6 grams a day before a workout for at least 4 weeks will raise muscle carnosine levels for less body fat and greater work output.
HMB is best used in conjunction with intense training cycles when trying to reduce body fat. Taking 3 g 1 hour prior to exercise is the recommended dose.
#6: Giving In To A Sedentary Lifestyle
It seems like at every turn, modern life encourages us to be sedentary. You could view this trend as worse for women because at rest, women are metabolically disadvantaged compared to men.
Women burn more glucose and less fat at rest, which makes it harder to burn body fat. However, the tables turn when women are physically active because they rely on fat or fuel to a much greater degree than men.
This means that exercise is critical for women because it capitalizes on the fact that the female body favors burning fat during vigorous activity. Additionally, even though you can't out-train poor eating habits, properly designed exercise programs go a long way in preventing some of the negative effects of suboptimal nutrition.
One thing to watch out for is “compensation.” Studies show that more than half of the population has a tendency to eat more in response to exercise, compensating for calories expended during training and preventing fat loss.
Solution: If you’re new to exercise, it’s time to get active. What you need is a plan for exactly what you do every time you work out. We recommend starting with strength training. Choose six compound exercises (squats, lunges, presses, rows, step-ups) per workout and perform 8 to 15 reps for 4 sets using weights that are challenging.
Including two conditioning workouts a week is also a good idea. Depending on your stress level and fitness you can start with brisk walking, adding intervals in which you pick of the intensity for short bursts lasting 60 seconds as you progress. Ultimately, if fat loss is a goal, you want to work up to an organized interval workout such as 60 seconds of near maximal effort followed by 60 seconds of active rest. This can be done on a bike, a track, a treadmill, outside, or whatever work for you.
Another protocol proven to produce body composition changes is 8 seconds of sprinting on a stationary bike followed by 12 seconds rest repeated for a total of 20 minutes.