When it comes to women's weightloss, one of the top questions I get as a metabolic nutrition coach is why is it so hard for women to keep their weight off once they've lost it on a diet. If you've ever wondered the same thing, you're not alone. Women specifically seem to struggle with maintaining a healthy weight after dieting and often end up on a diet rollercoaster, year after year, losing and regaining their weight over and over.
So why is this?
Well, to understand it, we need to dig into how the metabolism works and then how women's bodies work to better understand this.
I've talked about your metabolism before but in essence it's a term used to describe all of the biochemical reactions in your body. Metabolism is about more than body weight: in essence its the sum total of all the activities our bodies do to stay alive.
Your metabolism impacts all aspects of your physical wellbeing from your health to your digestion to your fertility & sex drive to your risk of chronic disease.
It has a lot of moving parts and it's affected by all aspects of your well-being. If something is off or not working properly in one area, it's going to affect your metabolism. A great example of this when a woman has a hormonal imbalance - like insulin resistance - that imbalance will have an impact on her metabolism and how efficiently her body runs.
And finally, it's important to understand that while all human metabolisms work - for the most part - the same way, they're also unique because you are unique.
The bottom line is, when your metabolism is running efficiently, you're healthy, you have tons of energy, you feel good and its fairly easy to maintain a stable, healthy weight.
It's All About Energy
The cool thing about your metabolism is that it's all about energy - and more specifically about the transfer of energy.
When we take in food, our bodies store that energy in your body so that it can be transferred when you need it. Our bodies need a certain amount of energy everyday just to run all the essential processes (keep the lights on so to speak) and this basic amount of energy is called your Basal Metabolic Rate or BMR for short.
Your BMR is a measure of how many calories (how much energy) your body needs everyday that doesn't factor in movement or activity. It's basically if all you did was lie around like a sloth for the whole day - this is the amount of energy or calories your body needs to run properly. For women, their BMR needs typically range between 1,400 - 1,600 calories a day.
So, just to be clear - this means most women need between 1400 - 1600 calories a day just to stay alive. This doesn't include energy or movement of any kind.
Everyone's BMR is different. Like I said earlier, our metabolisms run the same way but they are unique because you are unique. Men typically have higher BMR's than women and their metabolism is less likely to be influenced by factors like their hormones.
Other factors influence your BMR like:
The higher your BMR is, the easier it will be to both shed weight and keep it off. Not only that, because your metabolism is highly adaptive, your BMR can change. This is why when women ask me if their metabolism is broken, I can unequivocally say that no - it isn't. Just because your metabolism might be slow now, doesn't mean you can't train it to run faster and more efficiently.
Beyond your BMR, there is another measurement of your metabolism that you should be aware of. This measurement takes into account not just your BMR but also all your movement and exercise for the day. It's called your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) and it's essentially the amount of energy/calories that your body needs every day just to maintain your current weight.
Again, this number is unique to you. It's influenced by all the same factors as your BMR plus it takes into account how active you are and how much (or how little) you workout. Your TDEE will change when you adjust your movement and exercise, when you lose or gain weight and as you get older.
Depending on you, your TDEE might be as low as 1800 calories a day or as high as 2,500. Just remember that this is the amount of energy your body needs to maintain it's current weight.
What Happens to your Metabolism on a Diet
Well, let's be honest. Most diets have women eating, on average, about 1200 calories a day. As I mentioned earlier, the average amount of energy/calories women need is typically between 1400 - 1600.
So, already - without movement or exercise - women are eating less food than their bodies need to survive.
When you add movement - like say 10,000 steps a day - or doing a vigorous cardio workout, that chasm between what you're feeding your body and what it needs to function properly, deepens.
So what happens? Well, an obvious effect of under-eating for any length of time is that your metabolism adapts to this lower food intake amount and slows down to protect you and to keep you alive. Your body will burn calories less efficiently and for women, it will cause hormone issues that will result in your body storing fat as soon as you eat more than that 1200 calories.
This is why women immediately gain their weight back - often all body fat - after dieting for any length of time. Essentially, they have reset their BMR to a lower amount and that's why when they quit their diet, that the weight just piles back on.
Not to mention that undereating has serious health effects that can range from loss of lean muscle to nutritional deficiencies to fertility and menstrual cycles ... and more.
Dieting - specifically low-calorie diets for women - is one of the biggest contributors to the obesity epidemic than anything else. Not only can low calorie diets cause metabolic damage, but they aren't effective long term solution for weight loss because they aren't sustainable. Women who diet frequently, reduce their lean muscle mass and increase their body fat, worsening their health and putting them at risk for obesity related diseases.
Simple Steps to Improve your Metabolic Health
The great thing here is that even if you've dieted for years and your metabolism is as slow as molasses, you can absolutely improve it and your overall metabolic health. Remember, your metabolism is highly adaptive so there are some simplet steps you can take - starting today - to improve your metabolic rate and make it easier for you to shed weight and keep it off.
Get started by:
Eating the right amount (and balance) of foods for YOU. Ditching the cookie cutter 1200 calorie diet and taking the time to figure out just how much food your body actually needs to reach the health and fitness goals you have is essential. Remember, everyone is unique so what you need will be different from what your mom or BFF need.
Building lean muscle FIRST. I know when everyone thinks of losing weight, they think they need to drop into a calorie deficit first but that's not the case. If you want to improve your metabolic rate, you need more lean muscle on your body so that means you should work on building that first and foremost. This means eating at maintenance, or slightly above for a few months to build lean muscle and improve your BMR.
Improving your hormone balance. Women's hormones are intimately connected to how well their metabolism runs so if you have issues like estrogen dominance, insulin resistance, hyperthyroidism and high levels of cortisol, they need to be addressed before you drop into a deficit. Adopting a hormone balancing diet rich in whole foods along with core lifestyle and movement habits will help improve both your metabolic health and hormone balance, setting your body up to release fat and not store it.
Get help. Knowing what to do, how much to eat and how to build a healthy, strong metabolism so you can reach and maintain a healthy weight isn't easy. Work with a nutritionist or metabolic nutrition coach like me to get both personalized nutrition advice and a program tailored to help you reach your goals.
By following these steps, you'll not just set yourself up for shedding weight - you'll set yourself up for optimal metabolic and hormonal health that will enable you to get leaner, stronger and maintain a healthy weight long term. This is the exact approach I use in my Better Body Composition Program and it's how I help my clients look and feel their best.