When it comes to fasting, women have some unique challenges.
Hormonal fluctuations play a big role, along with a few other factors.
Obviously I don’t have personal experience with this topic. But I have picked up a few things from research, and talking to other people.
Today I’ll cover 5 topics that I believe are helpful to know about when fasting as a woman.
Let’s dive in. 🙂
1) Intermittent Fasting and the Menstrual Cycle
As you may already know, the first half-or-so of a woman’s monthly cycle consists of menstrual bleeding, and then the build up to ovulation (when an egg is released from the ovaries). Those two steps typically last about 14 days total.
After ovulation, a woman either becomes pregnant, or eventually starts bleeding when the lining of the uterus sloughs off. Then the cycle starts over.
As a graph, it looks something like this:
As you can see, there are some significant fluctuations in the levels of hormones, including estrogen and progesterone.
Estrogen is the main female sex hormone (like testosterone in men). Progesterone plays a big role in developing and maintaining a pregnancy, among other functions.
When to Fast During the Menstrual Cycle
In general, fasting is easier during the first half of the monthly cycle (bleeding and the 10 days or so after), and more difficult during the second half, when progesterone is high.
One reason is that progesterone can stimulate hunger.
Ideally, plan to do your fasting during the first half of the menstrual cycle (a.k.a. the “follicular phase”), when your progesterone levels are lower.
What to Do When You’re Not Fasting (2nd Half of Cycle)
During the latter half of your cycle when fasting becomes more difficult, here are some alternative ways to keep making progress with your health.
Focus on Meal Timing
One simple approach is to focus on consistent meal timing. Eat satiating meals with plenty of healthy fats, and avoid snacking in between meals as much as possible.
Even just this simple step of eating satisfying meals (and cutting out snacks) will often result in health improvements. It can also help with some gradual weight loss, if that’s one of your goals.
By avoiding snacks after dinner, you’ll almost unwittingly be doing some gentle time-restricted eating (sometimes called “intermittent fasting”). For example, you may be eating all your food within about 12 or 14 hours, instead of the usual 16 hours (all day).
Eat “Whole Foods”
Another useful approach is to focus on eating unprocessed foods.
In other words, instead of consuming packaged foods made in a factory, try and stick with “whole” foods. Like vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, nuts, and whole-fat dairy, to name a few things.
(One simple hack is to buy most of your groceries on the outer rim of the store, which is where most of the unprocessed foods reside. Try to avoid the center aisles, which are mainly processed.)
Eating “whole” foods has a lot of benefits on its own, because it cuts out the most harmful substances in our diets: refined sugar, and other processed carbs.
As a bonus, eating unprocessed foods also makes fasting easier later on, because you no longer have wild fluctuations in your blood sugar and insulin levels.
Try Fat Fasting
If you want to try something like fasting, you could try “fat fasting” (which I discussed a little bit in my post about fasting after a cheat day).
Basically, fat fasting means you just eat foods that are very high in fat, and very low in carbohydrates. One simple (and delicious) version includes just 4 foods: avocados, bacon, eggs, and olives.
“Fat fasting” allows you to partially simulate the effects of fasting, and get some of the same health benefits (like lower blood sugar and insulin). But it’s a lot easier than actual fasting when you’re going through a rough part of your monthly cycle.
What If You Don’t Menstruate, or Don’t Have a “Normal” Cycle?
If you don’t have a period at all (like most women over 50, who are postmenopausal), or your period is irregular, the advice above may not quite apply.
Here’s something to consider-
Even if you don’t have a consistent menstrual cycle, you probably still have monthly hormonal fluctuations that are worth taking into account. In other words, your estrogen and progesterone levels may be going up and down, even if you don’t have any menstrual bleeding to mark the beginning or end of the cycle.
Try keeping a journal to see if you can notice any trends.
Are there parts of the month when fasting or exercise seems easier? How about sleep? How does your mood fluctuate?
See what you can observe. The info you gather will probably be helpful when you’re planning out your fasting schedule.
2) Fat Loss Rate (Women vs Men)
If you’re trying to lose weight, here’s something to consider:
Fat loss / weight loss is a little slower at the beginning for women. This is related to hormones and other sex differences.
Basically what this means is you’ll need to adjust your expectations, and be a little bit more patient at the start. After about six to eight weeks, women usually catch up with men, and even start to lose weight a bit faster than their male counterparts.
So stay the course, and be patient. It may take some time for your fat loss rate to pick up.
Gin Stephens (author of Delay, Don’t Deny) sometimes uses the analogy of turning a battleship. After years of unhealthy habits, it can take a while to really get moving in the right direction. But once you do, you’ll gradually start picking up momentum and seeing faster progress.
Use a Rolling Average
Perhaps it’s because they experience more fluctuations (due to hormones, etc), but from what I’ve seen women tend to be a little more hung up on daily weigh-ins, and the exact numbers on the scale.
If you find yourself getting annoyed at the scale, you probably shouldn’t weigh yourself every day. But another option is to use a 7-day or 14-day rolling average.
In other words, instead of comparing today’s weight to yesterday’s weight, compare your average weight over the past 7 days (or 14 days) to your average weight over the previous 7 (or 14) days.
(That requires a little bit of math, but I’m sure you can figure it out.)
By doing that, you’ll eliminate some of the annoying fluctuations that happen naturally on a day-to-day basis, and get a more accurate assessment of your weight loss.
Another way to account for fluctuations would be to compare your current weight to your weight about 30 days ago, during the same part of your monthly cycle (instead of comparing it to the day before). That’s more of an apples-to-apples comparison, since your hormones are probably in a similar place as they were a month ago.
Here’s the bottom line:
Don’t panic if you weigh 1.3 pounds more today than you did yesterday. That can be totally normal, even if you’re doing everything right! There are so many variables that it’s not worth your time or attention to dwell on little number changes from one day to the next.
3) Focus on “Non-Scale Victories”
Considering that women often have slower weight loss at the beginning, and experience bigger fluctuations in their weight from day-to-day, it’s especially important for women to focus on non-scale victories.
What do I mean by non-scale victories?
All the other improvements in your health and well-being that happen when you switch to a healthier lifestyle, besides just weight loss.
Examples of Non-Scale Victories
If you pay attention, you’ll notice you’re making progress in lots of other areas. Here are a few examples.
How You Feel
Perhaps the most obvious example is simply feeling better. When you make positive health changes, you almost can’t help but feel better overall. For example, you may have steadier energy levels, or a more positive mood.
Clothing or Body Measurements
Another good example is how your clothes fit. For instance, even if your weight doesn’t change, you may find your clothes fit more loosely. That’s because you can get thinner in some of the areas that matter, like your waist, without your weight changing much at all.
Why can you get thinner without your weight changing?
Because muscle weighs more than fat. If you’re doing any physical activity at all, you’ll gain at least a little bit of muscle. Not enough to look like a bodybuilder, but enough to slightly increase your weight on the scale.
Consider a scenario where you gain some muscle and lose some body fat at the same time. Your weight on the scale might stay the same, go down a little, or even go up a little. It all depends on exactly how much body fat you’re losing, and how much muscle you’re gaining.
Regardless of what happens to your weight, when you make positive changes to your lifestyle you’ll still be getting healthier. And that’s what actually matters.
Health Measurements (Like Blood Sugar, Blood pressure, etc)
Fasting has a bunch of other health benefits besides weight loss. You don’t necessarily even need to lose any weight to improve your health through fasting!
I see the ugly consequences of medical conditions like diabetes every time I work in the ER. And when I do, I think about how fasting could have prevented most of those problems.
One big benefit of fasting is a gradual improvement in blood sugar and insulin levels, which can prevent something called “insulin resistance”. Avoiding insulin resistance not only reduces your risk of getting type 2 diabetes, it also lowers your risk of basically every other chronic medical condition. Heart disease, cancer, dementia….you name it.
Blood pressure is another obvious example. Tons of people have high blood pressure, and it sometimes causes serious complications. In most cases, fasting can quickly eliminate high blood pressure.
The bottom line?
When you fast, you’ll improve your health in many other ways besides just losing weight. So pay attention, and see what happens to your “medical” conditions as well.
Again, it may be helpful to keep a journal and reflect on your non-scale victories. Ideally at least once a week. This helps shift your attention away from the scale, and towards all the other progress you’re making.
4) Fasting & Feasting (versus Chronic Dieting)
From what I’ve observed, it’s more common for women to be “professional dieters”, having done a bunch of different low calorie diets over the years.
This causes a few issues:
First, these women tend to have a slow metabolism from all the calorie restriction.
Second, they often have a general aversion to feeling full. In other words, they’re kind of “scared” to eat more than a very small amount of food.
Third, women are also more resistant to eating high-fat foods.
Keeping Your Metabolism Strong
The 2nd and 3rd points above are problematic when it comes to fasting. That’s because you need to feast on healthy fats and high protein foods in between fasts, to keep your metabolism strong and allow your body to rebuild.
If you’ve been a chronic dieter in the past, you’ll probably need to hear this a few times before it sinks in.
See what you can do to gradually retrain yourself. It’s okay to eat high-fat foods, and to eat till you’re nice and full! In fact, it’s important that you do eat until you’re full, so your body knows that adequate food is available, and your metabolism can stay strong (or get stronger).
5) Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) & Infertility
PCOS is a common condition, affecting roughly 10% of women in childbearing age. It typically results in some combination of obesity, irregular menstrual cycles, facial hair, and infertility. (Keep in mind, not all women with PCOS are obese.)
The underlying cause?
Insulin resistance (a.k.a. hyperinsulinemia, or just high insulin).
Insulin resistance generally results from eating too much processed sugar and other processed carbohydrates, like sweets, white bread, white rice, pasta, potato products, soda, juice, and so on.
(That’s not the only thing that causes PCOS, but it’s definitely a major contributing factor.)
As soon as someone with PCOS reduces consumption of processed carbs, the condition often improves. Fasting can also accelerate the improvement.
Not only do low carb and fasting cause improvements in symptoms like obesity, facial hair, and menstrual irregularity. A healthier lifestyle can also make it easier to get pregnant.
I talked more about PCOS and fasting — including a specific fasting plan that can help — in a separate blog post. Definitely check it out if you’re interested in that topic!
Summary and Final Thoughts
Women face some unique challenges related to fasting that are a little different from their male counterparts.
Consider doing most of your fasting during the first half of your monthly cycle. Journaling may help, especially if you don’t have a “normal” menstrual cycle due to menopause, medications, or other reasons.
Be patient, and remember that weight loss can take time–and a bit longer than it does for a man. If you stay the course, you’ll probably catch up after several weeks.
Don’t obsess over daily weigh-ins. That’s a recipe for constant frustration. Instead, use a 7- or 14-day rolling average of your weight for comparison. Or just don’t weigh yourself as often.
Take the time to notice other health improvements, besides just weight loss. Like how you feel, how your clothes fit, or your blood sugar and blood pressure levels. Keeping a journal can be helpful here as well.
Like most things in life, your mindset makes a big difference. So keep working at it, and try to manage your expectations.
While you can’t expect to see an amazing transformation from one day to the next, if you stay the course you’ll eventually experience dramatic improvements in your health.
I hope you found these topics related to fasting for women beneficial! And if you did, please share it with at least one other person who can benefit. 🙂