Weight or Water? Weight Loss & Retaining (or Not Retaining) Water

I hate it when this happens: I get on the scale and it looks like I’ve gained weight.  My first thought? “It’s water weight! Right? I must be retaining water. Right? Because I can’t have gained weight?”

Yeeaahhh, riiigghhtt.  I couldn’t have gained weight so it must be water!  ……except it’s not.  It’s weight aka fat! But my first thought is pretty much the Number 1 excuse for why the number on the scale went up! Unless we made some kind of planned deviation from our eating plan, like a celebration or a holiday, gaining weight means we messed up somehow, either by eating the wrong things, too much overall or both.  Most of us know it’s not water, even if that’s the excuse our minds hide behind, and for me, after facing the grim truth that chocolate chip cookies are not Paleo and on my food list, I once again ban them from my shopping cart!

However, that doesn’t mean that our bodies don’t ever retain water. In certain circumstances, we do retain a certain amount of water in our tissues.  It’s not twenty or thirty pounds of water or maybe even ten, but depending on how much you weigh and the circumstances, it can be as much as 5 lbs. Five pounds can be a lot for but, again, it’s dependent on the circumstances, so you can’t just automatically dismiss that 5 lb gain as “water weight.”

Our weight fluctuates under everyday normal circumstances, even if we are ‘behaving ourselves.’ Water retention tends to be the biggest component in that fluctuation so if we find we’ve gone up a couple of pounds, it could really be that retained water.  Of course, the same holds when we find we’ve dropped a couple of pounds: it could be that water coming off! This is why so many weight loss professionals discount the scale or regular weigh-ins. Unfortunately, the scale is the easiest tool for us to use on a regular basis, so what we want to see is the downward trend over time. We want to see our weight going down, even if it does ‘bounce up’ a couple of pounds as long as it’s followed by a loss of the same amount or more.

However, depending on what we are eating, how we are moving and who we are, we can try to minimize our water weight.  The biggest culprits for retaining water are: 1) our diet; 2) our exercise; 3) our hormones; and 4) our stress levels. When we pay attention to these factors, we can have a better idea if that number on the scale is because we ate that pasta primavera last Tuesday or if it’s because it’s ‘That Time of the Month”!

Number 1 is number one for a reason, but not exactly like most of us might think.  When we think “water retention and diet”, we tend to think Salt.  Yes, salt is a big factor.  Salt is an electrolyte and our body keeps it in solution, so it’s not uncommon to eat a big bowl of salty popcorn and then feel puffy the next day. Usually in a day or so, we pass the water and we feel less puffy.  However, the other factor in that salty popcorn might take a bit longer to fade away.  That is the carbohydrates in the popcorn.  When it comes to carbs and retaining water, the best description of them is “little sponges.” Carbs soak up the water and it stays with us a while. No wonder you feel puffy after eating it! Between the salt and the carbs, hello! You’re retaining water for sure! When we eat a lot of carbs, even if it’s something not salty, if it’s a carbohydrate, it’s going to hold water, so a diet rich in carbs is going to show it on the scale.  Not only does your body store the excess carbs as fat, they also hold more water than protein or fat, so your weight will go up the more carbs you eat, salty or not.  I know from my own experience, after I’ve binged on carbs and then gone back to low carb/ no carb, after a couple of days it feels like I’m always running to the loo! It’s my body getting rid of all the stored water.

Most people know to watch their diet for any water-retaining culprits but we don’t usually think of exercise as one.  When we exercise, especially more strenuous than usual, it causes ‘damage’ to our muscles, which then need some time to repair themselves.  This is how our muscles get stronger and why we need recovery time.  That ‘damage’ is normal: our muscles build themselves up during the repair. But to do that, muscles need water, so after exercising, our muscles retain water! This is why some people don’t weigh themselves the day after a workout: they know their muscles are full of water! This is one reason our trainers are always pushing us to drink during and after a workout: we’re sweaty and our muscles need the water too! Even if it feels like it wasn’t a strenuous workout, if your muscles feel a little sore, you are probably retaining a little water!

Hormones are another no-brainer for most of us (and the guys can skip this one!) If you are a woman of child-bearing years, you are eminently familiar with this scenario. For most of us, the week before our period, we puff up like a balloon as our body stores water in preparation either for growing a baby or getting ready to shed the uterine lining.  If you are pregnant, congratulations! And get ready for some major changes in your body! If you aren’t pregnant, your body will start shedding a lot of water in a few short days.  All of us women have been through this more than a few times, and if you are one of the lucky ones who doesn’t turn into a water balloon, you are the envy of every woman who does! That said, most of us know when not to weigh ourselves in order to avoid the appearance of weight gain.

Stress is another sneaky culprit with water weight.  When we are chronically stressed, either physically or emotionally, our body just recognizes it as “danger/ stress” and will hang on to the Basics to make sure you survive whatever stress you are facing.  For the body, those Basics are water and fuel aka fat. This is why so many health and fitness gurus are pushing stress management.  Incidentally, it’s also why they are pushing more sleep, since our body treats poor sleep quality and sleep deprivation as a stressor.  We all know how crappy we feel when we don’t sleep well or enough, so it takes a physical toll on our bodies beyond just exhaustion and low energy headaches: our body stores fat and water as a result! The problem is that most of us have a hard time knowing when we are getting enough rest and managing our stress, so when we get on the scale and see the number isn’t budging,– or worse, going up– it just seems to add to our frustration and stress! This is one of the benefits to adding a proper sleep schedule and stress management routine: they not only help feel better mentally and physically, they also help you lose weight!

When it comes to managing our water weight gain, it’s really just one part of a healthy lifestyle.  If we manage our carb intake, get enough sleep, relaxation and keep our bodies moving, we should be able to identify if the number on the scale includes a few pounds of water or not. We also need to know that water is not bad! Many pro athletes know that diuretics (“water pills”) are a quick and easy cheat for losing a few pounds in order to make their target weight.  But a “cheat” is exactly what they are if you are taking them just to lose weight! Dehydrating yourself either by not drinking enough or using diuretics can be dangerous.  Our bodies are dependent on water to send chemical signals to organs, including such vital organs as your heart, lungs and brain. No water, no signal, no life! Like so many other necessities, our bodies function properly in a narrow band of the Right Amount: too little water can cause as many problems as too much water. Our bodies are pretty good at keeping our water where it needs to be to keep you healthy: now it’s just up to us to do our part (and put down the popcorn and chocolate chip cookies!)

 

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