At a time when New Year’s resolutions and “New Year, New You” mantras abound, our Women’s Health With Evolve column looks at the evidence and science behind common myths and misconceptions related to women’s nutrition and exercise

The wellness industry makes millions each year marketing new trends in nutrition and exercise, most often with unsubstantiated claims that draw the attention of women in pursuit of the ‘perfect body’.

The bombardment of conflicting information about what diet and exercise regime is ‘best’ for the female body, especially at this time of year, can be extremely confusing and sometimes harmful to women’s health. Women who overtrain and underfuel can impact their hormonal profile which can in turn cause issues with bone health, fertility and the immune system. Excessive regimes can also cause metabolism to slow, ironically making weight loss more difficult and resulting in gaining the weight back very quickly. This is why extreme diet and exercise regimens can have a yo-yo effect.

Here, as part of our quest to provide evidence-based exercise and nutrition information to women, we debunk some of the most common myths around diet and exercise to help you on your path to better health. 

Myth 1: Steady state cardio for fat loss

Truth: Pounding the treadmill, or hitting the cross trainer day in day out and not losing weight? You're not alone. In fact, many women report this predicament. So, what's going wrong?

First, not all fat is equal. For women in particular, some types of fat are necessary in order to maintain certain hormone functions like a menstrual cycle, while high levels of visceral fat are associated with reduced health contributing to heart disease, obesity, strokes, diabetes and more.

If overall health is the priority, steady-state cardio is a fantastic option with widely demonstrated improvements in cardiovascular health, mental health, stamina and endurance. But, when fat loss is the goal, high-intensity-interval-training (HIIT) and resistance training are generally considered superior.

HIIT consists of rotating exercises with periods of rest, such as, for example, a minute of squat jumps, rest to recover, a minute of mountain climbers, rest to recover, trying to hit the same number of repetitions for each working set. The short burst nature of ‘high intensity’ exercise intervals burns more calories in a shorter period of time than going for a 20-minute run at a lower intensity. Working out in intense bouts means your respiratory rate returns to normal more slowly meaning you can use up to 40 percent more energy throughout the day as your body recovers.

Resistance training is another great option which includes lifting weights to load the bones and muscles and weight-bearing exercises using one’s own bodyweight. Muscle tissue is considered  more metabolically active than fat tissue, meaning you continue to burn calories even after you have finished working out. What’s not to love about that?

Myth 2: Lifting weights will make you bulky

Truth: One comment we often hear is “I want to be toned, but I don’t want to be muscular”. Firstly, let’s reframe the word “bulky”. We believe there’s nothing wrong with being strong, healthy and muscular and this shouldn’t define masculinity, femininity or your worth. If we look back through time, certain roles or behaviours were considered more masculine, and women have pushed through those barriers to be at the forefront in all areas of the world. Muscle mass should be no different. However, for many this is a genuine concern. So, will resistance training or weight training make you bulky? Generally speaking, the answer is no.

For women, it is actually very difficult to put on muscle mass. We have to take into account hormones, the intensity and frequency of training, and diet. Performance competitors and professional athletes exercise for a living; it's the main focus of their daily life. If you’re hitting the gym and lifting weights a few times per week, and continuing to eat your regular diet without considering caloric intake, output, nutrient density and nutrient timing, you’re unlikely to get “bulky”.

Myth 3: Women should cut carbs

Truth: The poor carbohydrate has a bad reputation and is often removed when a woman feels she needs to lose weight. But carbohydrates play an integral role in a balanced diet and are essential for fuelling our brain and muscles, maintaining hormone regulation, and for nourishing the gut microbiome. When women cut carbohydrates from their diet there is a high possibility of experiencing hormonal dysfunction and the associated health risks, which include infertility, osteopenia (weakened bones), cardiovascular disease, gut dysfunction and mood disorders.

But not all carbs are created equal. The ones that should be included in your diet are wholegrains, oats, beans and pulses, lentils and plenty of vegetables and fruits rich in colour. These carbohydrates are high in fibre and help to prevent constipation, lower the risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes and increase the diversity of our good gut bacteria to support immunity and the production of serotonin which can lower the risk of mood disorders.

Myth 4: Lighter equals healthier

Truth: Contrary to popular belief, being lighter on the scales does not always signify health. The unhealthy obsession with diet culture and a constant striving to see a lower number on the scales can play havoc with women’s hormonal health and consequently impact other physiological areas.

Low energy availability results when a woman cuts out food groups to lose weight. In a situation of energy scarcity, the body minimises its energy expenditures by curtailing less-important functions that are not essential for survival, such as menstruation. A lack of menstruation and subsequent drop in oestrogen not only affects a woman's fertility but also impairs bone health, increases the risk of osteopenia and cardiovascular disease, and reduces the function of the gut making a woman more susceptible to digestive and mood disorders.

So what should women do?

Nourish with intention. The female body goes through a hormonal life cycle that needs nourishment to ensure hormone balance, cardiovascular health, bone health and cognitive function. Eat a balanced diet that includes plenty of colourful vegetables and fruits, wholegrains, healthy fats and lean proteins. Restrictive diets may achieve an aspirational number on the scale, but that number doesn't always equal optimal health.

Additionally, include strength training, weight lifting and a combination of aerobic and anaerobic cardio into your exercise routine. We all want to feel good, and that can be linked to how we perceive we look, but wherever possible let go of the aesthetic outcomes—there is only so much you can control. The most important thing to do is focus on overall health.

Ziggy Makant is a women’s health personal trainer at Joint Dynamics Evolve, specialising in pre- and post-natal strength and conditioning. She has been training women at all life stages for the last 10 years.

Lisa Tarquini is a women’s health nutritionist at Joint Dynamic Evolve. She specialises in the perimenopause and menopause, gut health and healthy weight management.

Front & Female’s Women’s Health with Evolve series is a collaboration with Joint Dynamics Evolve, Hong Kong’s first multidisciplinary women’s health clinic with services spanning physiotherapy, osteopathy, rehabilitation, personal training, nutrition and psychology. The series addresses all aspects of female health to support women at various life stages and open up the conversation around women's health topics, from the awkward to the unknown.

Tatler Asia
© 2023 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.