Why (and how) women should approach health and fitness differently to men

Ladies, ever wondered why it seems so much easier for your boyfriend or husband to stick to a diet or fitness plan and get results? Why some weeks you are full of energy and others you hardly want to drag yourself out of bed? How you can go 2 weeks eating healthily then all of sudden all you want is chocolate and ice cream? If you’ve found yourself questioning whether you just have less motivation or your body just doesn’t function as well then you’re not alone. The answer is simple and something that we live every single day, often without even being aware of it. Can you guess?

IT’S

OUR

MENSTRUAL

CYCLE!

As women we are simply not the same from week to week. Our hormone levels are continuously shifting which has a huge impact on our energy levels, mood, cravings, sleep and so much more. This can make it hard for us to stick to a routine and often feel like a failure for being inconsistent. We can think of men as being like the sun and women more like the moon. The sun shines consistently day by day, sometimes there might be some clouds in the sky or even a huge storm that affects how brightly we see its rays but behind all of that it keeps on shining just the same. The moon however moves through it’s lunar cycle from the new or dark moon where the sky appears empty to the full moon where it shines big and bright.

The lunar cycle is such a good metaphor for our menstrual cycle. The new moon represents menstruation, the time of the month when we are much less energetic and physically need to rest. The full moon represents ovulation when our energy levels are at their peak and we are overflowing with creativity and physical energy. Don’t get me wrong though, just because the moon appears dark at the new moon, it doesn’t mean there is no light, the light is just on the other side so we don’t see it. This is the time when lots of inner work is being carried out including physical and mental healing and the seeds of inspiration for creative projects are being birthed.

Because for men, the hormonal shifts are much more subtle and occur mostly on a 24hr basis, they can more easily stick to a daily routine that works for them week in week out whereas us women have both our daily and monthly rhythms to take into account. Our bodies are also more sensitive to stress from working out or not eating enough food as they are constantly trying to maintain hormonal balance and fertility. We can choose to see this as a weakness or we can see it as a super power that we can work with. There are times of the month when our strength and stamina can feel unlimited and we can surprise ourselves with what we can achieve and there are other times when we can push ourselves through a grueling workout and actually cause ourselves more harm than good because our bodies have to rely on stress hormones and adrenal reserves to make it through.

Of course we all know this on some level but we often think of it as something we have to work against rather than work with. Often we feel like we are “normal” for a couple of weeks and then BAM our hormones come along to ruin everything and we fall off the wagon. But what if we became more aware of how our bodies change throughout the month and actually build this into our health and fitness plan? What a game changer that would be! No more beating yourself up because you got so hungry before your period that you ate a large bar of chocolate every day. No more dragging yourself through intense workouts on your bleeding says when your body is crying out for rest. Instead using self-awareness and self-compassion to create a health plan that truly works for you.

What could this cyclical approach to health and fitness look like? When it comes to nutrition, this would be truly trusting your body and allowing yourself to eat intuitively. This doesn’t mean allowing yourself to eat a large bar of chocolate every day because, “PMS”, but it does mean loosening up on the diet rules, understanding why those cravings might be there and making sure that you are well fed and nourished during the day. The quantities and types of foods you crave will likely change throughout your cycle and this is ok, in fact it is essential. Your metabolic rate and nutrient requirements shift with your hormones and so the foods that will support your body also change week to week. The simple overall guideline for a healthy diet of eating mostly whole, unprocessed foods applies throughout the cycle but the amount of energy, macro-nutrients and the ratio of raw vs. cooked foods can definitely change. It’s much better to tune into your body to find what works for you, but if you’re struggling with getting started I did write a series of posts on how to eat for each of the phases of your menstrual cycle.

With fitness and exercise, again it is very individual. Some women need to fully rest during their period otherwise they will feel like they are dragging throughout the month ahead. Others, me included, need a bit of easy movement to help manage painful cramps. I’m sure there are some women who can exercise intensely during their period without any issues but I think this is the exception rather than the rule. If you do workout during your period, ask yourself whether you are doing it because you feel like you should or whether it is what your body is genuinely asking for. In general, during your period and the few days before it’s a good idea to at least slow down, decrease the intensity of your workouts and create space for some more restorative activities like yoga, stretching and gentle walking to help your body recover and restore energy.

On the other hand, the rising energy and stamina in the couple of weeks after your period (the follicular and ovulatory phases) are a great time to really get out there and move your body. This is a good time for more intense cardio workouts as you can get all of the benefits of getting your heart rate up and sweating without feeling totally drained. Movement can also be a great way to boost your mood and reduce PMS symptoms as you approach your period, but our energy levels tend to start to drop off towards the end of the pre-menstrual phase so it’s good to be aware of this and be prepared to take it easier without feeling guilty for not performing at your best. In general it’s about understanding and accepting that as women we are not the same everyday and we can’t expect ourselves to show up, robot-like, in the same way every day. That is a recipe for disappointment, hormonal imbalance and burn out as I’ve learned the hard way!

Over to you

I hope you found this post interesting and it gives you a new perspective and understanding of why a traditional approach to health and fitness might not work perfectly for you as a woman. If you have any questions or want to share your experiences, let me know in the comments below! If you’re interested in health and wellness for women, follow along with my blog and please share with anyone else who might be interested. I’ll be making a post soon on my top book recommendations for learning more about synching with your menstrual cycle so watch out for that too.

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Why and how I include treats as part of a healthy diet

The last couple of weeks we have had lots of celebrations! Valentines’ day, pancake day, my birthday and my boyfriends’ mums’ birthday all within the space of ten days. Considering the three of us have been in lockdown together for nearly four months now we are making the most of every opportunity to be festive. And with everywhere closed that has pretty much meant one thing.. FOOD. Here’s a sample of the tasty treats we have been making. We have crepes, carrot cake, kourou (Greek feta pastries) and lemon drizzle cake curtesy of the one and only Mary Berry. Yum!

I think it’s such a gift to be able to enjoy tasty foods and share the experience with loved ones. Food can be such a sensual experience and a way for us to connect with ourselves and other beings. As humans we are designed to enjoy food as it is essential for our survival and preparing and eating delicious food can be a ritual that brings us a lot of pleasure. Of course we can survive on simple foods and that is great too but there is something about biting into a delicious homemade cake or warm pastry that gives us such satisfaction. Cooking for or with our friends and family is often a way that we show our love and memorable mealtimes are moments that we remember many years later. Passing on recipes down generations is a way to keep cultural traditions going and remember generations before.

It’s such a shame to reduce food to only fuel. Especially now the world is closed it is even more important to take enjoyment from our food. And by that I don’t mean we should be eating emotionally and using food to numb out. Or that we should be indulging in artificial junk foods that harm our bodies. I mean that we should take the time to buy and prepare delicious, nourishing food for our bodies and souls. And that includes sweet and savoury treats! There is a huge difference between baking some cookies at home and eating a few round the table with loved ones vs. buying a packet of cheap biscuits from the supermarket and eating ten in one sitting whilst watching TV alone. One bring genuine pleasure and enjoyment and the other is just a mindless habit. I think that part of including treats in a healthy diet is really to take the time to eat them mindfully and savour every bite.

I remember the days when I used to be afraid of celebrations because I was so anxious around food. If I was invited to a party I’d be worried about what food would be there and if I’d be tempted to eat foods that were unhealthy or off my diet. I’d be so focused on food that I’d forget to enjoy myself or I’d get really drunk to make the food anxiety go away for a few hours and then not remember the party the next day. If I went to a restaurant I’d have to triple check the menu beforehand to make sure there was something I could eat otherwise I’d freak out at the table and not be able to decide at all or I’d end up over eating to the point of feeling sick and spend the next week trying to burn it all off. It sounds so crazy now I look back but I know this is a reality for many others too. It’s so freeing now to be able to eat whatever I want and know that it all fits within a healthy diet. I am allowed to enjoy food without feeling guilty about it.

But I’m still a nutritionist and I still want to remain fit and healthy so how do I balance the two? The key is that I base my diet on whole plant foods. This means that most of what I eat is unprocessed and comes from the earth. I’m not vegetarian (I was vegan for nearly 3 years but that’s a story for another day) but lots of my meals are plant-based and this makes up the foundation of my diet. I don’t restrict the amount of these foods that I eat and try to “save calories for later”, I just eat until I am satisfied at each meal and move on. I follow “balanced plate method” which is something I teach to my health coaching clients, a way to create filling, satisfying meals every time. I eat lots of fruits and vegetables, grains, beans, nuts and seeds and on a day to day basis I try to keep processed foods to a minimum. When I want to eat a treat I just do it and because I’ve already met my needs for calories and nutrients I don’t have a need to go overboard.

I think an important thing to note here is that I also don’t allow myself to eat emotionally anymore. By that I mean that if I am feeling sad, stressed or angry, I focus on understanding and processing that emotion rather than stuffing it down with food. If I have a craving for a food I will ask myself first if it is because I am trying to avoid feeling a certain way. If it is then I will turn to other self-care tools rather than food which will help me to soothe myself and actually feel better rather than distracting myself and pushing the feeling down until later. But if the craving is not emotional but just a natural desire to eat something tasty for whatever reason then I’m ok with giving my body what it is asking for. I’ve learnt to trust my body around food and listen to it’s hunger and fullness cues and in return it has learnt to trust me and no longer sends out urges to eat insane amounts of food.

Something I realised is that the thing driving my fear of over eating was the fact that I was constantly hungry. I was always on a diet an maintaining a body weight that was below my body’s natural set point which meant that I was always fighting against my body’s hunger signals. When I did give in and eat what I was craving I wouldn’t be able to stop. I thought that this was just a normal part of being healthy and that giving in to it showed my lack of willpower. It was only after I went through a period of extreme binge eating, when I could no longer fight my hunger and decided to just surrender to it that I realised that this was genuinely my body telling me it needed more fuel. And once the hunger was satisfied and my body reached it’s set point weight the food obsession gradually went away.

Whatever we resist persists and I think that putting food into categories of good and bad only makes us go more crazy around the “bad” foods. As soon as I let myself eat whatever I wanted, the cravings went from mountains to molehills. After years of trying to figure out why my binge eating was happening, I was shocked! So now I am maintaining a healthy weight that my body likes, but not necessarily what my mind wants and I’ve learned to be ok with that. It’s so worth it to be a few lbs heavier and not have the constant fear of gaining weight. I’ve learned that I don’t have to be perfect to be healthy and that health is about way more than what you eat or how much exercise you do. Holistic health includes mental wellbeing and in my opinion, eating treats and not depriving myself means I feel so much better psychologically and emotionally. Living an overly controlled, restricted life is not fun and definitely does not lead to long term happiness. Balance is always the way!

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed this post and it gives you the confidence to allow yourself treats as part of your healthy diet. Let me know your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

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Real health #27 Top 15 foods for healthy hormones and weight loss

A quick post for you today with some of my top foods to include in your diet to nourish your body, balance your hormones and reach your healthy, happy weight. If you haven’t already, check out yesterday’s post on how the calorie density of foods affects weight loss. Lots of the foods on the list below are “low calorie density” meaning that they will help you to feel full and satisfied when combined with other foods. At the end of the article I will give you some examples of how to put simple meals together including these foods.

  1. Potatoes (any variety, especially sweet potatoes)
    Potatoes have to be my top food on the list. Mainly because they are so demonised in the dieting world and I want to throw the idea that potatoes are bad for you out of the window! Potatoes are a super filling food which will give your body the energy to function at it’s best and also provide a good dose of vitamin C, vitamin B6 and also vitamin A for sweet potatoes. Eat them with the skin and you’ll get the added benefits of a fibre boost to aid digestion and keep you full for longer.

  2. Oats
    Oats are another great source of complex carbohydrates which will give you the fuel to lead a healthy, active life. Eat them raw in muesli, blended in a smoothie or cooked as porridge with whatever toppings you like. Oats are a good source of minerals such as manganese, zinc and biotin and also provide you with fibre and protein to keep you feeling full and satisfied for hours.

  3. Greek yoghurt
    I just loooove greek yoghurt! It makes such a tasty, satisfying breakfast or dessert and also provides plenty of protein to help with repair and growth and fats to support healthy hormone production and absorption of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Yoghurt is also an excellent source of calcium to keep your bones and teeth strong and to maintain healthy thyroid function.

  4. Tahini (sesame seed butter)
    Another food I love from the Mediterranean culture is tahini. I was first introduced to this liquid gold when I started to make my own hummus but now I love it on toast, on porridge oats and in salad dressings. The bitter taste isn’t for everyone but it is a great mineral dense food providing calcium and iron as well as a dose of fat and protein to make your meals tasty and satisfying.

  5. Broccoli
    Now onto the veggies.. broccoli is definitely a winner. Cruciferous veggies such as broccoli, cauliflower and kale all have a component called DIM which helps to detoxify excess estrogen from your system and improve your hormonal balance. Broccoli also has plenty of fibre to aid digestion and lots of vitamin C. Top tip – pair with iron rich foods to aid with absorption.

  6. Leafy greens
    Maybe I am cheating here by grouping them together but a healthy diet is not complete without those leafy greens. Whether it is soft baby lettuce in a salad or cooked dark greens such as collards or chard, getting those leafy greens into your body will do wonders for your hormonal and overall health. They provide a huge amount of vitamins and minerals as well as fibre to help sweep out excess hormones from your system.

  7. Courgette (zuccini)
    Courgette is another low calorie density food that can add bulk to your meals and help you feel satisfied. It’s not the most nutrient dense vegetable but it does offer vitamin C and B6 as well as smaller amounts of iron and calcium. But the mild taste of courgette makes it a vegetable that most people can include into their diet and it is less likely to cause bloating and gas like the cruciferous veggies can which makes it a winner for me.

  8. Berries
    How could I forget about the fruits?? It’s hard to limit myself to just a couple of fruits as I love them all but berries definitely make the top of the list. They are packed full of anti-oxidants, vitamins and minerals and water rich helping to hydrate your body so you can feel your best. They are delicious hot or cold and are usually available year round fresh or frozen. My favourites are raspberries and blackberries – yum!

  9. Bananas
    Another fruit that has to make the list is the humble banana, another fruit that people tend to be afraid of. Don’t be – I wouldn’t like to try and count the amount of bananas I have eaten over the last 5 years but trust me it’s a lot! Bananas are such a versatile fruit and can be enjoyed as a snack or used as a sweetener to your meals. They give you a good dose of carbs to boost your energy and mood and are a good source of potassium, vitamin C and B6.

  10. Hemp seeds
    Now these is a real nutrient power house. Hemp seeds are a great plant-based source of omega-3 fats, zinc, iron and magnesium so if you’re veggie or vegan definitely include these in your diet for hormonal balance and overall health. They are also a complete protein to support muscle growth as well as healthy skin, hair and nails. You can eat them sprinkled on porridge or salads or blend them into a smoothie for extra creaminess.

  11. Black and kidney beans
    Kidney beans and black beans are another great plant-based source of iron and calcium as well as magnesium and vitamin B6. These are great to eat before and during your period to support healthy blood iron levels. They also provide some calcium as well as protein and plenty of fibre. Top tip – if you are just starting to include beans in your diet, take it slow, add in small amounts and let your digestion adjust over time to avoid gas and bloating!

  12. Red lentils
    Red lentils are softer and generally easier on your digestion compared to beans but they too are a good plant-based source of iron and vitamin B6. Lentils also provide folate which is an essential vitamin for women who are trying to conceive. Lentil soups are a warming, filling meal especially for the cold months. You can mix it up by adding different veggies, herbs and spices to change the flavour.

  13. Chickpeas
    Last one of the legumes is chickpeas! They have a similar nutritional profile to kidney beans but with the added benefit that they can be blended with tahini and lemon to make humus. This is great for anyone who doesn’t like the texture of beans as it can be added to wraps and sandwiches or used as a dip for veggies or tortilla chips. Chickpeas are also great baked as a crisp snack or added to veggie curries as a protein source.

  14. Salmon
    Fish and seafood are an amazing source of zinc for healthy hormones as well as iodine. Salmon and other oily fish such as mackerel or sardines also provide those omega-3 fats to support your brain health and lower inflammation as well as being essential for healthy hormone production. The NHS recommend including one portion of oily fish in your diet every week for optimal health.

  15. Eggs
    Last but not least, we have eggs. I have included these because they are such a dense source of nutrients, especially vitamin A, B12 and selenium. Just adding one boiled egg to a salad can make it so much more satisfying but they also make a quick and easy meal for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Go for organic free-range eggs where possible to avoid hormone disrupting anti-biotics and chemicals.

Here are some simple meal ideas to give you inspiration.. enjoy!

Breakfasts

  • Porridge oats cooked with mashed banana and tahini
  • Greek yoghurt topped with oats, lots of berries and a sprinkle of hemp seeds
  • Oat and banana pancakes topped with berries and tahini

Lunch

  • Leafy green salad with salmon and boiled potatoes
  • Omelette with broccoli and courgette
  • Red lentil and sweet potato soup with side of wilted spinach and courgette

Dinner

  • Black and kidney bean chili with a side of grilled courgettes
  • Sweet potato and chickpea curry with a side of steamed broccoli
  • Roasted or baked potatoes with grilled salmon and veggies

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed this article and the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts and your favourite healthy foods if I’ve missed them off the list!

  • If you want to follow along with this Real Health January blog series, like this post and follow my blog for daily updates. And please share with anyone you think might be interested!
  • If you are looking for guidance, support and accountability on you health journey, please contact me for information on the health coaching packages I offer. I would love to work together with you to get you feeling your best again!

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