26 Apr Hormonology Guide to Slimming down
- Research proves you can shed unwanted excess pounds faster by syncing your eating habits and exercise regimen with the ups and downs of hormones in your cycle.
UPDATED April 26, 2022 (originally published May 26, 2015)—The following is a weight loss program I created that takes advantage of hormonal effects to improve the effects of sensible eating and the expert-recommended amount of exercise. If you have an eating disorder or are triggered by descriptions of weight loss journeys and/or weight loss advice, please skip this post. This post is not intended to suggest that you need to lose weight to fit any type of perceived ideal appearance. The information provided below is only for those who seek to shed excess pounds as a way to improve their health.
In 2014, I’d become unhappy with my weight. I’d slipped into a few unhealthy habits (for example, eating as entertainment instead of when I was hungry) and I’d let go of some healthy habits (such as exercising regularly). I noticed that the numbers on my bathroom scale had creeped up above my appropriate body mass index (BMI), which is a rough estimate of what a healthy weight is for your height and age.
As a longtime health journalist, I was aware of the problems that come from these added pounds: It meant my heart was working harder, my joints were under more pressure and I could be at a higher risk of certain health conditions, such as prediabetes.
So, I decided to do something about it.
I knew that adopting a healthier eating style and resuming regular exercise were critical components of any weight loss plan I intended to follow.
But, as the founder of Hormonology, I had a hunch that I could be even more successful at shedding excess pounds if I also tailored my eating and exercise plan around the ups and downs of hormones in my menstrual cycle.
That’s because of the thousands of hormone studies I’ve reported on, there were many that examined hormonal effects on appetite, blood sugar stability, cravings, metabolism, muscle-building and other factors that impact body weight. All I had to do was plug these studies into a menstrual cycle calendar, then tailor an eating and exercise plan around these hormonal ups and downs.
And so I did, creating the first Hormonology Weight-Loss Plan.
The unexpected results of my experiment
After writing a practical and easy-to-follow eating and exercise plan that was tailored around my monthly hormone cycle, I began using it right away. To be perfectly honest, even though I was hopeful, I really wasn’t expecting the results I achieved: Within about five months, I dropped more than 25 pounds. Then, I dropped a few more pounds after that, resulting in a total weight loss of over 30 pounds within six months, landing me right in the middle of the “normal” range of my recommended BMI.
One year later, by following the same Hormonology Weight-Loss Plan principles, I continued to keep all the weight off. And it was pretty easy. Far easier than I ever expected.
So, not only did the Hormonology Weight-Loss Plan I created help make it far easier for me to lose the weight than I predicted. It also made it a lot easier to keep it off than I predicted.
Researchers prove this plan works
Despite my surprise at losing so many pounds so quickly and maintaining my weight loss, I had to conclude that it was only logical that this cycle-focused plan would work. I mean, we all know that hormones can make losing weight more difficult due to food cravings, lulls in energy and other challenges. But, truth is, hormones affect your appetite, metabolism and muscle in ways that actually promote weight loss.
Once you know how to harness these pound-melting hormonal influences, you use them to help reach your target weight.
And it’s not just me saying this. Researchers confirmed this was true. About a year after I originally wrote about my plan, a team from Denmark’s University of Copenhagen published a study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that found premenopausal women lose more weight when they tailor their eating and exercise habits around their menstrual cycle.1
In fact, their results were pretty impressive: In their study, one group of women followed an eating and exercise plan that was synced up with their menstrual cycle, similar to what I’d devised, for six months, just as I had. Another group followed a sensible eating and exercise plan without syncing it to their cycle. In the end, the cycle-syncers lost 14.3% of their body weight versus 8.3% for non-syncers (a nearly 9.5-pound difference) and they lost 1.1 inches from their waists versus .62 inches for those who weren’t cycle-syncing. You can read more about this study in my post here.
The Hormonology Weight-Loss Plan
Because shedding unwanted pounds can be challenging, I want to share the same Hormonology Weight-Loss Plan I used with you to help make it easier.
Throughout the guide, I explain how each week’s tips helped me drop the weight and keep it off.
I just want to emphasize that this guide doesn’t make losing unwanted excess pounds effortless. You’ll still need to exercise and adopt a healthy, lower-calorie, lower-fat diet to reach your own personal weight-loss goal.
However, knowing how your hormones will be impacting your appetite, metabolism, energy, cravings, water retention and other factors that affect your weight can help you reach your goal faster and help you stick to your exercise and diet regimen so you don’t give up.
That’s because you’ll be aware of hormonal hurdles coming your way–like intense food cravings–so you can dodge them.
Plus, you’ll know when to take full advantage of hormonal benefits that make losing weight easier–for instance, by doing more aerobic exercise during the two weeks in your cycle when you burn up to 30% more fat when working out.
Read on to learn how to take advantage of your body’s hormonal benefits and sidestep hormonal diet saboteurs each week of your cycle–and find out how each week’s tips worked for me….
Week 1: Set your goals and get started
Day 1 (first day of period) to Day 7
While it’s true you may get off to a slow, tired, achy start due to your period, this week is actually perfect for starting–or rededicating yourself to–a weight-loss regimen. That’s because as estrogen rises throughout your Week 1, it boosts optimism and inner strength, making it easier create–and stick to–diet and exercise resolutions. Even better, cravings for sugary, salty, fatty and carb-rich foods that plagued you during the second half of your cycle due to progesterone ease up as this hormone makes a hasty exit. On top of that, research shows you’re naturally eating a little less now than you did during the second half of your cycle thanks to rising estrogen, which has a mild appetite-suppressing effect. While pep and endurance may start out low in the first half of this week, they grow in intensity by the second half thanks to rising estrogen, giving you more energy to work off the weight. Another added bonus: You’re building more muscle during strength-training exercise now through the end of your Week 2 thanks to rising estrogen, which speeds up muscle cell growth and repair.
Your Week 1 weight-loss challenges: If you end up caving in to temptation by eating a food on your no-no list, rising estrogen is giving your brain a bigger feel-good buzz from it, making it difficult to cut yourself off before doing real damage to your calorie count. And if you’re bothered by menstrual cramps, you may be tempted to soothe away the pain with indulgent snacks.
To reach your weight-loss goal: Start by mapping clear, practical and attainable diet and exercise strategies–don’t let estrogen-fueled optimism let you bite off more than you can chew (ha ha) or you could give up altogether. Then, take advantage of these low-craving days by eating more high-nutrient, low-calorie foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein sources. Finally, monitor your eating habits (for instance, by eating mindfully or jotting down what you eat in a daily diary) to help you become more aware of when you’re about to go overboard with snacks or portion sizes. If you do tuck into your favorite munchies, use portion control dishes or dole out a small serving so you don’t accidentally eat more than you intended. Also smart: Add in strength-training workouts two to three times in this cycle week, for example, by using free weights or doing isometric exercises. While muscle weighs more than fat (which can throw off your bathroom scale numbers), the added muscle actually helps your body burn off more calories while at rest and helps your body balance blood sugar, leading to losing more unhealthy fat.
How I used these tips to drop 30+ pounds–and keep them off: At the start of every Week 1, I rededicated myself to my diet and exercise regimen, going over my goals and weight-loss plan, which for me included cutting down portion sizes (I admit that I don’t count calories–too many numbers to keep track of), not drinking my calories (bye-bye, cola and sweet tea) and exercising three to four hours per week at first while I was losing the weight, then about two to three hours weekly for maintenance (I do high intensity intervals on the treadmill and use free weights). Because my rising estrogen energy kicks in pretty quickly in my Week 1, I also included more active tasks in my day, like walking my dog and doing intensive housecleaning and/or gardening.
Week 2: Take action
Day 8 to ovulation (which is Day 14 in a 28-day cycle, sooner for shorter cycles, later for longer cycles)
Peaking estrogen and testosterone amp up the positives from last week–you’re still enjoying a slight appetite-suppressing effect, you have loads of energy and endurance, and your optimism keeps you motivated about reaching your weight-loss goal. These rising hormones also make you more open to trying anything new, including healthy recipes and workout routines. This makes it a great week to amp up your efforts by joining a support group or exercise class, fitting in an extra workout and challenging yourself to swear off one high-calorie baddie altogether, like soda, full-fat ice cream or fried chips. Rising estrogen continues to help you create muscle faster, so try to fit in strength-training workouts two to three times in this cycle week.
Your Week 2 weight-loss challenges: High hormones are also amping up all the negatives from last week, for instance, once you start munching, it may be difficult to keep calorie counts in check because these hormones make it taste so darned good. What’s more, you may feel so overly confident about reaching your goals that, if you do overindulge in calorie-rich foods, you’ll try to convince yourself you’ll be able to make up for it by cutting back on something else or exercising more. You have one more challenge to your weight goal this week: Peaking estrogen makes your stress response more intense, which can prompt the production of stress hormones, like cortisol, that trigger emotional eating and prompt your body to store fat rather than use it for fuel.
To reach your weight-loss goal: Continue monitoring your portion sizes. And, keep stress levels in check by taking a walk, meditating, practicing yoga, doing slow breathing exercises or sipping chamomile tea at the first sign of tension.
How I used these tips to drop 30+ pounds–and keep them off: During my Week 2, my hormone-fueled energy was always soaring. So, I added in more exercise days and did higher intensity workouts. However, heed my important warning: On some days, my peaking hormones had made me so enthusiastic and overconfident about my physical abilities that I pushed myself too far, leading to soreness or injury that prevented me from working out the following days. So, be aware of this high-hormone hazard. I also ate less in my Week 2 because I knew high estrogen was reining in my appetite. But, just like exercise, this can be taken to an extreme, so I always made sure to still eat three meals daily. They were just smaller meals. To keep stress in check, I sipped chamomile tea, took walks and slowed my breathing.
Week 3: Munchies vs. fat burn
Begins day after ovulation and lasts 8 days (which is Day 15 to Day 22 in a 28-day cycle)
The excitement and confidence you had about your weight-loss goal during the first two weeks of your cycle could be replaced by fear and self-doubt about not making any progress. That’s because estrogen and testosterone are plunging, taking your self-assuredness down with them. What’s more, progesterone rises all throughout Week 3, and this prompts bloat by triggering constipation and water retention, making you feel like you packed on 10 pounds overnight. But, it’s not all bad news–really! Research shows that progesterone helps your body burn up to 30% more fat during aerobic exercise all throughout your Week 3 and most of your Week 4. This means brisk walking, hiking, jogging, running, biking, swimming and other workouts that get your heart rate up are more effective at slimming you down on these cycle days.
Your Week 3 weight-loss challenges: You may get suckered into thinking you blew your diet because the numbers on the scale stop moving or you notice that you added one or two pounds this week. The constipation and water retention from rising progesterone are the likely culprits, which means the weight stagnation or gain is likely temporary. However, it’s still key to be mindful of what you’re eating since this hormone is also triggering cravings for sweets, carbs, fats and salty foods, making them more difficult to resist when you go grocery shopping, to the movies, parties or anywhere else munchies may be within easy reach. On top of that, this sedating hormone is making your energy drag, so you may not feel like getting up off the couch to exercise.
To reach your weight-loss goal: Combat a weight-loss stall by shedding those extra ounces from constipation with high-fiber foods (such as whole fruits, vegetables and grains) along with water. Fiber and water work together to move contents out of your digestive tract. And, try natural diuretics (such as asparagus, melon and dandelion tea as long you have no ragweed or rubber allergies) to eliminate water retention. Or, sweat out that fluid you’re retaining through exercise. Just don’t curtail your daily water intake to reduce bloat. Not only does fluid restriction not aid weight-loss, dehydration can actually worsen water retention by prompting your body to hold onto fluids even more tightly. Also, try to avoid lots of salt since it exacerbates fluid retention. As for cravings, when the urge hits, go for a short walk, play a video game or read for a few minutes. Research shows that distracting yourself for a short while helps you get past food yearnings so they fade without you giving in. Finally, motivate yourself to move by reminding yourself that your body burns up to 30% more fat during aerobic exercise. Then, take advantage of this biological blessing by doing fun activities that get your heart pumping, such as hopping on a bike or dancing.
How I used these tips to drop 30+ pounds–and keep them off: When rising progesterone lulled me to stay in bed when I should have been hitting the gym, I just reminded myself that this same hormone helps my body burn up to 30% more fat from aerobic exercise during this cycle week and most of the next week in my cycle. Most times, remembering this boosted my motivation to work out right up! However, when initially losing the weight, my motivation often came spiraling back down whenever I stepped on the bathroom scale: Like clockwork, every Week 3 the numbers would slow to a crawl…or not budge at all…no matter how much I stuck to healthy eating habits and exercised. But, I reminded myself over and over that this is the phase when progesterone-fueled water weight and constipation can really skew the numbers. And, virtually every time I waited till my Week 1 arrived again–and my body shed all that excess stuff it was holding onto–my weight would suddenly plunge. Patience and perseverance in this cycle week and the next cycle week were seriously key. As for food cravings, I got my worst right at the start of my Week 3 as progesterone rose and estrogen fell–that’s such a food craving double-whammy! So, this was the time in my cycle when I allowed myself to indulge in one incredibly decadent treat, like a malted milkshake. And, I ate it slowly and mindfully. This way, I got to enjoy something I absolutely loved while still keeping overall calorie intake in check, so I didn’t feel deprived or guilty.
Week 4: Final stretch
Final 6 days of your cycle
Okay, so cards on the table: This may be the most difficult week of your cycle when it comes to sticking to your diet. That’s because plunging estrogen drags down the feel-good brain chemical serotonin, which can sap willpower, make you feel like you somehow failed in your weight loss efforts and/or that you don’t see any positive changes in your body. If you can get past those negative feelings and not let them sabotage your goals, you can actually use your Week 4’s hormones to help you slim down faster. That’s because progesterone is still making your body burn up to 30% more fat during aerobic exercise up to two days before your period.
Your Week 4 weight-loss challenges: To make up for your lack of serotonin, your body will likely push your toward comforting carbs (such as cookies, bread, cake, pizza, etc.), because they boost serotonin levels back up. (Ever notice how grouchy people get while doing low-carb diets? Mystery solved.) Plunging estrogen is also making you more sensitive to aches and pains during your workout and driving down your pep and endurance. As a result, you may tire out easily or find it harder to do you usual exercise routine.
To reach your weight-loss goal: When you get a hankering for carbs, remind yourself that “simple” carbs (like sugar and white flour) aren’t the only serotonin-lifters around. Healthier carbs (like whole grain bread, brown rice and beans) also boost flagging serotonin back up. Even better, they’re filling and help stabilize blood sugar, so you’ll naturally eat less at meals. You’re still experiencing bloating and constipation due to elevated progesterone, so continue with Week 3’s tips for combating both. And, finally, if you feel like giving up altogether on your weight-loss goals, just remember it’s probably just due to plunging hormones. Try journaling your feelings or connecting with a friend or support group. If you keep up the forward momentum, you’ll see in just a few short days you’ll be feeling optimistic and renewed about your weight-loss efforts once again.
How I used these tips to drop 30+ pounds–and keep them off: Knowing my body was still burning up to 30% more fat during aerobic exercise throughout most of my Week 4 kept me motivated to exercise. And, if flagging estrogen sapped my energy, I didn’t feel like I needed to push myself to do a marathon workout. I let my body be my guide. I can get food cravings during my premenstrual week, but they’re usually not as intense as they are when progesterone is rising in my Week 3. So, I allowed myself something small, like two tiny “bite-sized” versions of candy bars and that usually banished my cravings completely. But, that may be because I already eat a lot of healthy serotonin-boosting carbs, such as beans and whole grains, as part of my regular diet. If you don’t get as much of these foods, you may have more intense food urges during your premenstrual week. During my initial weight loss, seeing those numbers on the bathroom scale remain at a standstill on these cycle days was tough and a bit demoralizing–but, as I mentioned before, once I reached my Week 1, without fail the numbers would suddenly drop and I’d see the results of all my hard work. So, I always kept reminding myself during my premenstrual Week 4: Patience is key!
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(1) Nina RW Geiker, “A weight-loss program adapted to the menstrual cycle increases weight loss in healthy, overweight, premenopausal women: a 6-mo randomized controlled trial”, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 104 (2016): 15-20