Women are unique, so the best approach to fat loss for women is unique.
As a general rule, women have more body fat than men. Of course, this isn't always the case, but this trend seems to be the most common when looking at the population as a whole.
Women also tend to store more fat in their bum and thighs, whereas men usually have more belly fat. Again, not always the case, but another common trend.
There are different theories on why women have more body fat and store it more quickly than men. Still, the most widely accepted involves evolutionary benefits and hormone levels.
Women’s Hormones and Fat Loss
Women have more estrogen than men, so a woman's body can support a healthy pregnancy. While estrogen is a helpful hormone for women's health, it also promotes fat storage . This can make it harder for you to lose body fat.
Even if kids aren’t in your plan or you’re “done having kids” earlier in life, your body doesn’t know this. It will still cycle your hormones as if you want to optimize your body for monthly fertilization.
During and after menopause, changes in estrogen, progesterone, and other hormones can also increase fat storage, especially around the midsection, and can lead to weight gain or difficulty losing weight.
But while fat loss for women can be a little more complex than for men, several methods can increase your body's ability to burn fat and help you lose weight.
What’s a Healthy Body Fat Percentage for Women?
When trying to lose fat, there isn't one magical body fat number you need to aim for.
Healthy body fat percentages are given in ranges; for women, anything between 25-31% is considered acceptable, while 32% or higher is classified as obesity .
Women who are physically fit and work out regularly and consistently usually have 21-24% body fat.
Keep in mind that with losing fat, the goal isn't to lose as much fat as quickly as you can. Your body needs some fat to function correctly. This body fat is called essential fat; for women, it’s about 10-13% .
If you aim to optimize performance, more body fat can be advantageous. Feeling your best in the gym and through your recovery requires more calories, lower stress levels, healthy hormones, plenty of quality sleep, and lots of high-quality food. For more information on losing fat and gaining muscle, check out this article.
It is also important to remember that the “best” body fat percentage for you is likely the percentage that allows you to enjoy your life, feel healthy and happy in your skin, and that feels sustainable long-term.
While there may be times in your life when you want to “lean out” for a special occasion or need to drop weight for an athletic competition, most people generally can’t live at VERY lean levels for long periods without sacrificing health, performance, their social life or some combination of the three. A lot of mindset work goes into finding the balance that works for you, and a 1:1 coach can help you work through it.
How Long Does It Take to Lose Body Fat?
Now that you know what healthy body fat levels look like, let’s set some realistic expectations for you before jumping into the best ways to promote fat loss for women.
There are many different factors, like overall body composition, hormones and age, that affect how quickly you can lose weight. But as a general rule, you should only expect to lose about 0.5-1% of your body fat each week or 2-4% each month at most.
On a week-to-week basis, this generally looks like about .5-1lb of average weight loss per week. Finding your average weight loss each week requires a consistent morning weigh-in and comparing the average of your past seven weights on the same day.
That means if you're currently at 43% body fat, it could take at least three months to get into the targeted range of 31% or lower. And that's with lots of consistency and dedication.
At WAG, we consider “optimal consistency” ending within 5g of a protein goal, 5g of a carb goal, and 2g of a fat goal. From here, the more adherent you are to this level of consistency, the faster you’ll see results.
As you start your fat loss journey, keep those numbers in mind. And don't get discouraged if you only see small changes. These small changes add up to big results as you continue on your path. Are you curious about how to measure body fat percentage and what it will take to reach your leanness goals? Check this out!
How to Boost Fat Loss for Women
Diet and exercise are the foundation of fat loss, but they're not the only things you need to consider. When you're trying to reach your weight loss goals, you need to follow a comprehensive program that addresses your mental health, sleep cycle, diet, and exercise.
Addressing these areas will not only give you more energy and make you feel better overall. They also help balance your hormones, which play a role in fat storage.
Add Resistance Training to your Cardio
Some women fear resistance training (or strength training) because they think it will build muscle and make them look “too bulky.” But weight training can slim you down by helping you burn fat while increasing your lean muscle mass.
In one study, a group of overweight women started using resistance bands three times a week for 12 weeks. They lost a significant amount of body and belly fat while building lean body mass .
When you build lean body mass, it helps improve your basal metabolic rate (BMR), or the number of calories your body burns when you're not doing anything. Having a higher BMR makes it easier to lose fat and maintain a healthy body weight.
If you’re not already, lift weights a few times a week and do cardio.
Switch up Your Workouts
If you feel like you’ve reached a standstill regarding fat loss, you may benefit from switching up your exercise routine a little bit. For example, if you do a lot of high-intensity training like Crossfit, try to also incorporate some progressive overload into your resistance training.
All this means is cycling through repetitions while gradually increasing resistance each week. For example, do eight repetitions of each exercise on Monday, ten repetitions on Wednesday, and 12 repetitions on Friday. Repeat this cycle every week while simultaneously adding more weight or resistance.
If you don’t already, you may also benefit from incorporating interval training, a form of exercise where you alternate short bursts of high-intensity exercise, like sprinting, with longer bursts of low-intensity exercise, like jogging, into your routine.
When doing this training, you spend about a minute or so working as hard as you can to increase your heart rate. Then, reduce your effort for a couple of minutes to recover before starting again.
While you can do regular aerobic and cardio exercise, incorporate interval training a few times a week for optimal fat burning.
Prioritize Healthy Eating and Protein Intake
Have you ever heard the phrase "abs are made in the kitchen"? That's really a catchy way of saying your diet has a large impact on your body composition. Even if you’re hitting the gym or the CrossFit box regularly, you won't see much progress if you ignore what's on your plate.
That doesn't mean you have to do any strict dieting or daily calorie counting, but you need to make healthy choices about your food intake as much as possible.
Protein is the most satiating macronutrient, so ensuring you eat enough and spread your intake throughout the day is essential. This will help keep you full and help you get rid of body fat, and retain lean muscle mass.
Protein also plays a big role in muscle maintenance and recovery. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn at rest, which can keep the fat-burning process going far after your workout.
Aim for 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal. To put this in perspective, 4 ounces of chicken breast contains about 32 grams of protein .
Pay Attention to your Macros
While calories aren't the only thing that matters with weight loss, you do need to pay attention to your overall calorie intake. Excess calories are stored as body fat, and if you overeat often, you'll have a much harder time losing fat.
On the other hand, if you're in a calorie deficit — or you're consuming fewer calories than your body needs — you're more likely to lose excess fat.
A great way to ensure you're staying within your target calorie range is to track your macros and make a meal plan you can follow each week. Tracking your macros prevents overeating and helps optimize your micronutrient (or vitamin and mineral) intake since different types of foods all have something different to offer.
Remember that nutrition is never one-size-fits-all — some people need more carbs, while others need a high-protein diet. Take time to understand what works best for your body.
Set aside more time for self-care
Women tend to put a lot on their plates (no pun intended). Taking care of adult life, going to work, and sometimes looking after loved ones, plus all of the other responsibilities you have can take a toll and add a great deal of stress to your life.
This type of chronic, never-ending stress isn't only mentally harmful. It can also increase levels of a hormone called cortisol. When cortisol levels are high, it can make it harder to lose fat and contribute to weight gain, especially in the form of belly fat.
While it's impossible to get rid of stress completely, it is important to take the necessary steps to manage or reduce your stress levels. Ask people for help, reduce your workload if you can, meditate, do yoga.
There are many ways to approach stress relief, so find the best combination that works for you and set aside some non-negotiable time to practice it regularly.
Our biggest self-care tip is to let go of what works for others and listen to what your body tells you. If journaling isn’t your thing, try walking or coloring. Not a meditator? Grab a journal and write.
Getting stuck thinking there is a “right” or “best way” to de-stress can cause more stress. Hone in on what works best for you and go with it.
Don’t Put Sleep on the Back Burner
Getting enough sleep sets you up for a really great day by allowing your body to restore itself and helping to improve your energy levels. But sleep is an important part of your weight too.
Like high-stress levels, a lack of sleep can increase cortisol. Sleep also disrupts two other hormones—ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin is the hormone that tells you you're hungry (think, “stomach grumble ghrelin”), while leptin is the one that signals that you're full.
Sleep deprivation increases ghrelin while simultaneously decreasing leptin. This hormone cascade can always leave you feeling hungry, even when you've just had a meal.
One study that involved 245 women found that getting enough quality sleep, defined as at least seven hours per night, increased the chances of weight loss by as much as 33% over a six-month period .
Conversely, women who sleep fewer than five hours per night are likelier to gain weight .
Outside of the impact on your hunger and dress hormones, less sleep also decreases your energy levels. When you have more energy throughout the day, you push harder in your workouts, and your NEAT also increases, which can bring up overall calorie burn throughout the day and, therefore, increase fat loss.
To lose fat as quickly as possible, prioritize your sleep schedule and try to get at least seven hours, preferably eight, of high-quality sleep every night.
There are a lot of different factors to consider when trying to optimize fat loss for women. While you can start implementing this advice on your own, if you’re new to a healthy lifestyle, it can feel overwhelming to navigate without any help.
If you'd like some guidance, a WAG nutrition coach can help design a weight loss program specifically targeting you and your individual needs. We'll work with you to get to know your body, your goals and your lifestyle so you can lose weight in a sustainable and maintainable way.