You may have heard (or realized first hand!), that it’s more difficult for women to lose fat than men. Slow female fat loss is a problem. Differences in male and female hormones are certainly involved – both in the fat loss process as well as in the patterns of fat storage on the body. But the biggest obstacle is not hormonal issues, it’s one little fat loss relativity factor that almost all women overlook…
This especially applies to short and petite women who still have body fat to lose.
Case in point: Last week I received an email from a female reader who told me she was doing 3 weight training and 6 cardio sessions per week and the cardio was 45 minutes at a clip.
She said she weighed 111 lbs at 4 feet 11 inches tall, but even though she was petite, she had “several pounds of flab” she wanted to lose and just felt kind of “mushy.”
She had been really inspired by the Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle transformation success stories, especially the finalists in our Burn the Fat transformation challenge which were featured at the Burn the Fat Inner Circle.
But she said she was starting to get discouraged because she was losing so much slower than everyone else, it seemed.
First I asked her if she knew her body fat percentage. It may seem odd, but it’s possible to be a so-called “ideal” body weight and have high body fat and low lean body mass. That’s called “normal weight obesity” or in the popular vernacular, “skinny fat”).
With the prevalence of body image disorders today, (and lets face it, the mirror and scale play tricks on us all), it’s especially important to objectively measure body composition, or at least understand body fat versus body weight on an intellectual level.
Having confirmed that she did actually have body fat to lose, even though she wasn’t overweight, here’s what I told her:
When you have a smaller body, you have lower calorie needs. When you have lower calorie needs, your relative deficit (20%, 30% etc) gives you a smaller absolute deficit and therefore you lose fat more slowly than someone who is larger and can create a larger deficit more easily.
Here’s an example for a man
Me: I’m male, 5’ 8”, a lean 192 lbs and very active:
Daily calorie maintenance level: 3300 calories a day
20% calorie deficit = cut out 660 calories
Optimal calorie intake for fat loss: 2640 calories a day
On paper predicted fat loss: 1.3 lbs of wt loss per week
At 2640 calories per day, I’d drop fat rather painlessly. If I bumped up my calorie burn or decreased my intake by another 340 a day, that would be enough to give me 2 lbs per week wt loss. Either way, that’s hardly a starvation diet (Ah, the joys of being a man).
For smaller women, the math equation is very different.
At only 4 foot 11 inches tall and 111 lbs, a female’s numbers would look like this:
Daily maintenance level 1930 calories (even at a moderately active exercise level).
20% deficit would = 386 calories
Optimal intake for fat loss 1544 calories a day
On paper predicted fat loss only 8/10th of a lb of fat loss/wk.
If you took a more aggressive calorie deficit of 30%, that’s a 579 calorie deficit which would now drop the calorie intake to 1351 calories/day.
That’s pretty low in calories. However, you would still have a fairly small calorie deficit. In fact, I would get to eat twice as many calories (2600 vs 1300 per day) and I’d still get almost twice the weekly rate of fat loss!
I know, this isn’t “fair,” but it doesn’t mean women can’t get as lean as they want to be. It means that on average, women will drop fat slower than men. It also means women with small bodies will lose fat more slowly than larger women.
What to do about it?
5 TIPS FOR FEMALE FAT LOSS (*This applies to short and smaller-framed men too!)
#1 Set a goal that’s realistic relative to your gender, body size and weight.
ONE POUND a week of fat loss is much more in line with a realistic goal for a small-framed female. Maybe even a bit less in some cases. Overweight people can lose it faster. Men can drop it faster.
#2: Weigh and measure all your food any time you feel you’re stuck at a plateau, just to be sure.
When your calorie expenditure is on the low side, you don’t have much margin for error. One extra pastry, muffin, cookie, or handful of nuts and ZAP, your little 20% calorie deficit is GONE!
#3: Remember that body fat and body weight are NOT the same thing.
Judge your progress on body composition. (I teach how to measure your body fat and lean body mass in the privacy of your own home as part of my Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle Program).
#4: Keep a weekly progress chart for weight, body fat percentage, pounds of fat and pounds of lean body mass.
Water weight and lean body mass gains can mask fat loss so it’s possible to make progress even though the scale isn’t moving. Pay special attention to the progress trend over time.
#5: Burn more calories in the gym and all day long.
When you have a very low basal metabolic rate because you are very small in body size or stature, you simply don’t have much room to work on the dietary side of the energy balance equation. Typically you hear coaches tell you that diet is the more important of the two sides, but really the only way to achieve more substantial deficits is to use both the nutrition side and the activity side of the equation.
Remember that activity isn’t just your time I the gym. Your non-exercise activity is where the bulk of your activity calorie burn comes from. This means it’s vital stay active all day long. Use a pedometer and track your step count. Take up a physical hobby like hiking or biking or even gardening. Get a dog that demands frequent walks. Take advantage of every opportunity to move more – park in the back of the lot, use stairs, not the elevator, do your own house and yard work. Get up on the hour every hour if you have a desk job, and so on.
And if you’re limited on time for formal workouts, burn more calories in the time you’re already spending. Make 2 or 3 of your long cardio sessions higher in intensity so you burn more calories in the same or even less time. Set up your weight training with big compound exercise and brief rest intervals so you burn more calories from strength training, in the same time, as well.
If you have a naturally low basal energy recruitment and you choose to remain sedentary, weight loss is going to be long slow road ahead. You just get active and stay active.
An update and some concluding advice
When I first shared this information with my readers, some women told me that all this did was get them depressed or prompt them to reply, “It’s not fair!” Well, no it’s not fair. But “Better the hard truth than a comforting fantasy,” as Carl Sagan once said.
Look at it this way: This information should not be depressing – it should be encouraging and empowering to you because this “hard truth” helps shorter/ smaller women understand how to set realistic goals and know exactly what to to do to reach them:
You have to stay very active, train hard, BURN a lot of calories instead of just dieting, and you will reach any goal. It just takes a little patience.
Dropping only ONE pound per week (or less) may seem excruciatingly slow, but even if you get a HALF a pound a week fat loss, that’s still progress. Celebrate it. Keep that up over time, and you WILL reach your goal. Persistent action on a well-formed plan pays.
Train hard and expect success,
Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle: Fat Burning Secrets of the Leanest People in the World