A woman’s guide to understanding weight fluctuations
Are you scared of the scale? Have past experiences of annoying weight fluctuations put you off dieting all together?
The vast number of my female clients have had this experience before working with me.
It’s a familiar story.
- You start a diet and all seems to be going well.
- You decide to have a “weigh in” after one week.
- You jump on the scales in excited anticipation of a good sign of progress.
- You weigh 2kg more than when you started.
- You lose your shit.
Sometimes it’s a setback, sometimes it’s worse. Past clients have told me stories of crash dieting, endless cardio, and binge eating. All occurring after a negative scale reading.
Weight fluctuations, clothes not fitting the same as they did a few days ago, and cravings are part and parcel of female weight loss. The culprit is the menstrual cycle. The menstrual cycle adds layers of complexity to something that seems simple on paper, making life for you, and me, that little bit more challenging. However, as with most things in life, greater understanding builds confidence. This is the aim of this post. I’m here to tell you what’s going on.
At the time of writing, about 50% of my total clients are women. I like working with them, and they seem to be able to tolerate my particular nuances pretty well, so it’s a win-win. The coaching process is largely the same too, with one glaring difference. While a man’s physiology is relatively similar day-to-day, a woman’s is most definitely not.
It’s important to understand that if I talk about the menstrual cycle, I’m not talking about how it makes you feel. Research can give me a certain amount of insight, but I’m not pretending to be a massive beacon of male emotional intelligence. I can empathise, kind of, but I have no idea what it feels like. I’ll stick to telling you what happens.
Menstrual cycles can usually last anywhere between 24 and 32 days. The average is 28, which is split into two phases; the follicular phase, and the luteal phase. The early follicular phase starts at day 1 with the onset of menstruation. The luteal phase starts with ovulation at around the half way point. To not start sounding like a GCSE textbook, let me make things simple. All you need to know is that during this time, it’s the rise and fall of hormones that is largely to blame for the dreaded scale weight jumps.
A tale of two hormones
Oestrogen and Progesterone are the two major female reproductive hormones. Their rise and fall over the course of the cycle is largely what causes water retention, probably by affecting sodium handling. As I’ve written about before, a change in sodium can cause huge changes in fluid retention, and it might be the cause here. While the reasons for water retention might not be completely clear, we do know that it happens and when.
Ups and downs
The first part of the cycle, starting with the early follicular phase, is where water retention is the lowest. As oestrogen rises after about the first week, some retention usually occurs. Water then drops after ovulation at about the halfway point, only to come back with a vengeance in the last 4 to 7 days in the pre-menstrual week.
What this means
If you weigh yourself randomly at any point across your cycle, you’re likely to get results so different that they seem completely random. One minute you seem on track, the next you’ve gained weight. You’re down again one minute, only to be up more than your starting weight the following week. Before frustration gets the better of you, try this fix.
Apples to apples
Daily weighing is frowned upon in certain corners of the internet. The idea is that it leads to an obsession with the numbers on the scale. Despite evidence to the contrary, it can still be controversial. If you don’t want to weigh yourself at all, then that’s is totally fine. Going off what you look like in the mirror, or how a target piece of clothing fits is a viable approach. If you are going to weigh yourself though, regular is definitely better than random.
What you want to do is weigh yourself every day, or at least 3 times a week, and take a weekly average. By comparing that average to the same week next month, you can get a good idea of progress.
Week 1 on your diet is compared to week 5. Week 3 is compared to week 7. What we’re attempting to do with this method is compare your weight in the same part of the cycle month to month. It’s not perfect, but it’s loads better than the random approach. The chart below shows what that might look like over 12 weeks.
Notice that once you look at the bigger picture, you can see the trend is downwards.
An extreme example
With time, you can learn to understand and even expect fluctuations. This is important for me when working with athletes involved in weight class sports. A week before the competition, I know not to freak out if weight is going up rather than down. If I’ve seen it happen before, it’s normal.
A powerlifter client of mine recently said this:
“When my weight fluctuated due to hormones, cycles, and water retention (usual female stuff), Steve could almost plot how my body was going to act”.
In getting Diane from 70 to 63 in time for her competition, knowing when to expect weight fluctuations was essential.
Action plan recap
- Expect weight fluctuations. Sometimes large ones.
- Weigh yourself daily, or at least 3 days a week.
- Don’t stress or worry about the numbers
- Take an average at the end of the 7 day period.
- Compare that average to the corresponding average 4 weeks later.
Being scared of the scale is much less likely if you frame the results as part of the bigger picture. Expecting weight fluctuations puts the ball back in your court.
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