The myths about the best way to lose fat and keep it off are hands-down the most harmful thing affecting women’s ability to change their bodies.
Fortunately, sports scientists have begun to produce research that shows what women need to do in order to exercise and eat for leanness and health. This article will detail the most damaging myths that affect female fat loss and provide real-life tips women can use to get the body they desire.
Myth #1: It’s harder for women to lose body fat than me
Reality: Technically, women do not have a harder time losing body fat than men. In fact, women are metabolically healthier, having much better insulin sensitivity, less visceral fat, and lower levels of fat circulating in their bloodstream.
Women also burn more fat during exercise than men because they have a much greater percentage of type I muscle fibers, which are capable of burning fat instead of glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrates in the muscles). Women’s higher estrogen concentration also has a positive effect on fat burning:
- It limits the breakdown of triglycerides in the blood. Triglycerides in the bloodstream tend to get stored as fat.
- It enhances epinephrine production and growth hormone for greater fat burning.
Studies show that even though men may lose fat more quickly than women when on a low-calorie diet, overall fat loss will be the same in the long run. This is because men have more of the dangerous visceral belly fat than women, and it’s this fat that men lose in the first two months of dieting.
Now, it is true that men have bigger bodies and generally have more muscle mass than women. Muscle burns a lot of calories, so this combination means that men tend to have greater calorie needs than women. But if you weigh the same as a man, have the same percentage of muscle mass, and are equally active, you’ll be able to eat the same amount.
It’s a lot of the “outside” non-physiological things that often get in the way of women effectively losing body fat. Factors such as stress, a tendency to slash calories, or anxiety about diet and body composition impede female fat loss.
Of course, stress affects fat loss for everyone, but it’s possible stress is more harmful to women than men because of how it leads to persistent cortisol secretion and alters metabolic hormones.
Solution: Two things women can do to set themselves up for successful fat loss are
- Increase calorie needs by eating a high-protein diet and training with weights, using a metabolically demanding program geared at building muscle, and
- Getting a handle on stress and anxiety about fat loss and body composition (try meditation, yoga, psychological therapy, or whatever works).
Myth #2: You should start doing cardio to lose fat
Reality: Steady-state cardio is not useful for lasting fat loss.
Steady-state cardio, such as running a 5K or going on a cardio machine for 30 minutes, trains the body to be as efficient as possible. Efficiency is great if you need killer endurance to run 40 miles, but it’s not useful for staying lean.
The body adapts very quickly to repetitive aerobic exercise. Therefore, in order to sustain body composition, you have to continually increase your distance or how hard you train. Another concern is that even though aerobic cardio burns calories while you’re doing it, it doesn’t build muscle or significantly increase the amount of calories you burn in the 24-hour recovery period in the way interval or strength training does.
In fact, cardio tends to lead to lean tissue loss over time, reducing the amount of calories your body burns daily. For example, a recent study found that young women who did an aerobic cardio program in addition to dieting lost a pound of muscle. This resulted in them burning 75 fewer calories every day. They also got significantly weaker on leg and upper body strength tests.
Solution: Prioritize interval and weight training to build muscle and create a post-workout after-burn so that your body continues burning calories at an accelerated rate during the 24-hour recovery.
Myth #3: “I worked out hard today so I can eat whatever I want.”
Reality: It’s completely normal to believe that the easiest way to lose fat is by exercising. After all, that’s what we’re told by the media, public health experts, and our uninformed loved ones.
The sad reality is that anyone who’s not paying close attention to their nutrition will unwittingly cancel out the calories they burned during exercise by eating more.
For example, a recent study of overweight young woman who did 30 minutes of aerobic exercise 3 times a week found that 70 percent of the women gained body fat over the course of the study. The average amount of fat gain for those 70 percent was about a pound, however some women gained as much as 20 pounds.
Of the remaining 30 percent, most stayed the same weight as at the start of the study, but a small few lost a significant amount of body fat.
Scientists call this effect “compensation:” The women who gained weight or remained the same, increased food intake, generally as a form of self-reward. Whether they turned to carbilicous treats, wine, or just some extra fruit and nuts, they undid their good work.
Solution: The right kind of exercise can absolutely help you lose fat and keep it off, but you have to account for what you’re putting your mouth.
Myth #4: "I’m not sedentary—I work out regularly.”
Reality: Lying around and being inactive when you’re not working out is one of the worst things you can do if you want to lose fat. It does nothing for recovery and unfortunately, it’s all too common for people who begin a fat loss program to become increasingly sedentary. This sabotages their efforts because it leads to a significant drop in metabolic rate.
A series of studies have shown that when women do aerobic forms of exercise, or if they train too frequently, they will decrease the amount of calories they burn from something called NEAT or non-exercise activity thermogenesis. NEAT is made up of all the calories you burn besides your workouts and your resting metabolic rate (the calories your body would burn if you spent the whole day in bed).
In contrast, research shows that performing a weight-training program often leads women to increase the amount of calories burned from NEAT. Researchers believe strength training improves how women feel about their bodies, which allows them to be more active in spontaneous activity.
Solution: Prioritize training with weights and consciously focus on being as active as possible in daily life to boost the amount of “NEAT” calories you burn. Most important—avoid sitting for long periods of time. Get up at least every hour and move around.
Myth #5: Fat loss workouts done right should leave you absolutely exhausted
Reality: It’s true that fat loss workouts are not easy—they require hard, intense bursts of work, but they should never leave you falling-over exhausted.
That’s because when you train balls to the walls on a regular basis, stress hormones can become out of balance and your nervous system can get jacked up—a combination that messes with sleep and affects metabolic rate.
The solution is to use the minimum effective dose of exercise. Recent studies testing sprint interval training show how women can program workouts for fat loss without killing themselves in the gym.
In a recent study normal-weight, college-age women did 4 running intervals of 30 seconds each on a self-propelled treadmill 3 times a week for 6 weeks. The women lost an average 1.4 kg of fat, reduced body fat by 8 percent, and decreased waist circumference by 3.5 percent. They also gained 1.3 percent lean muscle and improved conditioning and running speed by 5 percent.
Solution: Two key things enable interval workouts to produce positive changes in body composition:
- Train against resistance. The self-propelled treadmill used in the study was similar to pushing a weighted sled. If you don’t have either of these options available to you, try ergometer sprints on an Airdyne bike, or stair or hill sprints.
- Remember to watch out that you aren’t eating more calories than normal, either as a “reward” to yourself, or because you’re not recovering optimally and stress hormones are remaining elevated, leading to cravings and increased hunger.
Myth #6: Fasting For Long Periods Is A Surefire Solution To Fat Loss
Reality: Fasting for long periods can lead to fat loss in certain populations, however, there are many pitfalls to fasting and most women don’t find it’s the best option over the long-term. Research shows that the drawbacks include the following:
- Fasting leads to the suppression of hunger-reducing hormones that promote satisfaction and help you avoid cravings. You NEED your hunger hormones working for you if you want to achieve optimal body composition over the long-term.
- Fasting leads to an increase in chemical transmitters that downregulate physical activity. In simple terms, this means people often get lazy when fasting and move less, burning fewer calories over the course of the day.
- Fasting activates the fight or flight sympathetic nervous system and increases cortisol secretion in order to mobilize fuel stores. For most people this can be beneficial, however, if you suffer a lot of stress and have an elevated cortisol curve, it will trigger insomnia and food cravings.
- Fasting may alter reproductive hormones, especially in leaner women. This will lead to fertility problems and an altered circadian rhythm.
Instead of an aggressive fasting protocol in which you go without food for long periods (12-24 hours), using time-restricted feeding, which allows you to eat within a 10-to-12 hour window daily has led to consistent improvements in metabolic health.
Scientists believe time-based eating patterns work because they increase the body’s ability to burn fat for energy instead of running on a steady supply of glucose from meals. They don’t lead to the drop in metabolism associated with calorie cutting. They also prevent the chronic changes in hormones and allow you to avoid obsession about food and cravings.
Solution: Identify a meal frequency that allows you to avoid hunger and constant cravings. If for some reason you find you are hungry all the time or cravings are getting out of control, try increasing your protein and vegetable intake.
Try the 10-to-12 hour eating window—studies suggest that longer windows are better for body composition then shorter ones of less than 9 hours, though this too must be individualized.