Should women Train or eat any different to men?

Do women require a different approach to their plan?

Can you eat carbs and still get a beach body?

Women are different to men in a few ways, their body structure, hormones, physiology, and the way they approach getting in to shape. In my experience men will very often eat all the carbs, women will generally choose lower carb diets.

When I first started coaching, the majority of my clients were women, and still are. Over the years I have seen a pattern in how females approach their nutrition. The approaches that I used to get these ladies in shape were very different to what they were used to, or had been led to believe in.

Throughout the data I collected via photos, food diaries, girth measurements, client feedback and body analysis, my findings were that they could handle higher quantities of carbohydrates than they were actually used to consuming. As you can imagine, there had to be an ethical approach to this as most women I worked with feared carbs. Another pattern I became aware of was at different times of their menstrual cycle, they were stronger in the gym some weeks, needed more rest and craved more carbs, what we actually found is that increasing carbs by around 10% in some weeks, the extra carbs were utilised well and didn’t cause any extra fat storage. Therefore planning their nutrition and training around their menstrual cycle became a key area of focus.

This short article will cover a variety of points, demonstrating the need to take a tailored individualistic approach with each person, but even more so taking into consideration the needs of a female cycle and how carbs can be an important tool for fat loss and performance.

So off the back end of that, we know that women are different to men in many ways, some research suggests that women use less carbohydrates during training than men, thus burning fat as the dominant macronutrient fat as fuel – (Tarnopolsky, 2008). Based on that study, this may suggest that women should go with a higher fat -lower carb diet when training for fat loss – Hold that thought for a minute.

Segway into Hormones, how do these affect our physique

When we think about hormones and, one of the key hormones most people seem to know about when building a physique is testosterone, especially for men. Testosterone is well known as the anabolic hormone that creates pleasing amounts of muscle tissue in men who train and eat properly. Some men even use additional testosterone via anabolic steroid’s in order to vastly increase more muscle tissue (not something we recommend you do).

But women actually have a lot less testosterone than men, and a higher dominance of the hormone estrogen. Estrogen is thought of as the enemy hormone in men. Straight away men think female traits and body fat in areas they don’t really want such as the bum and nipple area.  But what most people forget is that the hormone estrogen is an important hormone in the development of a physique, especially when we are working with women.

Estrogen has many roles, according to this study it helps to repair muscle tissue and is shown to be anti-catabolic to a degree (Hansen & Kjaer, 2014).  Some studies also say that a higher fat diet increases testosterone and estrogen in women, so as you can see, this is where the low carb-high fat diet fad in women may come from, especially those looking to get in shape and tone up. 

High fat diets

High fat diets promote satiety, which boasts another key component to the long term adherence of dieting. One study in women found that a high fat diet results in up to 15% less food intake simply through food satiation (Bolhuis et al., 2016). So what that means is that by increasing their fat intake (and possibly protein), they become less hungry thus by default consume less calories, hence why a low carb diet may work in some people. It isn’t necessarily the low carb environment which causes fat loss, of course, but purely the fact that calories were lower in general, placing the subjects into a calorie deficit.

If the carb intake was increased and the fat intake lowered and calories were matched and the subjects were still in a calorie deficit, the results would be just the same in both dietary approaches – this study simply shows that in some women, a lower carb approach helps with satiety and therefore adherence.

So are we still swaying towards a high fat diet being the best approach?

Not so fast!

Women tend to have higher insulin sensitivity according to this study (Heeg et al., 2011). Research shows that insulin sensitivity can play a big role in weight loss success and compliance on a low fat and low carb diet (McClain et al. 2012). This research may suggest the more insulin sensitive an individual is, the more likely they are to succeed on any type of diet whether it be low fat or low carb. 

What is insulin?

Insulin is the key hormone for carbohydrate metabolism, so this would support the argument that women can also tolerate carbohydrates well, and they shouldn’t be totally eliminated from the diet as most people are led to believe. Carbohydrates are a great tool in any fat loss journey, one of the most common ways of allowing higher carb intakes and allowing a calorie deficit is by cycling carbs. Having set days throughout the week or month where carbs are increased can provide a good benefit to performance and cravings.

Above is one of my clients.

Initially, she never set out to compete, just to get in incredible shape. After months of dialling in her diet, increasing her carbohydrates and hitting high carb days of 300g and more, we knew that she responded well to higher carb days throughout the week. These high carb days allowed diet flexibility, helped her with adherence, cravings, performance and helped her overcome removing the mainstream dietary low carb restrictions women normally follow. Her body and the way she looked at food changed in a big way after moving away from the low carb diet she had previously been following. As her body changed and her physique grew, we decided to pop her on stage. A show came up and we decided she was ready, we worked tirelessly on her posing and felt we made a good dent in what we had to do to make this work. There she won her first category at the Miami pro worlds.

This picture shows you that by not restricting yourself to one way of thinking, you don’t need to hold yourself back or make dietary exclusions and restrict your food. High fat/low carb or high carb/low fat both work, it just takes an outside trained eye and someone to take that self-contemplation away.

Having a coach provides you with the accountability and reassurance that what you are doing is correct, and to make decisions you can’t see and wouldn’t necessarily do yourself.

"Having a coach provides you with the accountability and reassurance that what you are doing is correct".

There is no one size fits all diet, or generic approach. As coaches we need to take the individuals wants and needs into account. Choose foods they do like, and remove foods they don’t like, build a meal plan that works and have a positive structure and sustainable plan moving forward.

A higher fat, lower carb diet approach may result in better body composition (more muscle, less fat) and performance for all women on paper. However, not all women do well on the same approach and a higher carb, low fat approach at times works well. My approach is to find what works for you, and put that into action. There are so many ways to get in shape, but why make it hard and uncomfortable when you can enjoy the process and achieve better results that you deserve.

As you can see there is no ONE best approach, there are so many biased approaches in the nutrition world that people become confused and frustrated when it comes to applying this to you. If you can’t afford a coach, experiment if you are to find out how well you tolerate carbs or fats, and where your nutrient timing around workouts make you feel at your best. How does your nutrition around your menstrual cycle work best for you? Are you giving yourself enough time before making too many changes to your training and nutrition?

Doing the same thing year-round may not be ideal, but that said, changing things every week isn’t any good either. In fact, I’ve got one client right now who has lost nearly 2 stone on a low-carb diet over the last 3 months, we know the initial loss will be glycogen and water weight but she is doing well, low-carb being (<100g) with higher fat, which was working well for her. 

However, her weight did stall at one point for longer than two weeks and she starting feeling on the tired side, we had to increase calories (mainly carbs) for a short period of time to initiate a further shift in body composition and energy levels, this is called a diet break.

Guess what? We now started to carbohydrate cycle and she has lost another 0.5kg and is feeling even better.

Do I promote carb cycling to some people? Sometimes Yes, in some people, not everyone, nor does everyone need to carb cycle? Why?........Because it takes planning. It’s not essential and there are other ways to get in great shape such as a balanced carb intake daily, or one high carb day each week, as I mentioned earlier, a calorie restriction is important in fat loss.

The results are in the planning, and how you create a calorie deficit that is sustainable while dieting.

If you liked this article… Please check out my coaching page. I have the opportunity for one female client who wants to get in serious shape this summer. If you are committed, want to understand nutrition further to better yourself and get in the best shape of your life – you can book a free skype with me to discuss moving forward.