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!)


Keep It Flowing! Water & Weight Loss

We all know we need to drink more water.  We hear it repeatedly: how water is good for you; how it’s necessary for life; how it’s just plain healthier for you.  We don’t even listen anymore- yeah, yeah, I heard you the first billion times!

So this will be one billion and one: you need to drink more water.  There are all kinds of calculations out there for how much water you should drink based on your weight, your exercise habits, your age and there are experts who pooh-pooh the 64 oz rule and there are those who support it.  I’m going to land somewhere in the middle: I think you should drink at least 64 oz of water a day on top of whatever else you drink.  Most of the ‘experts’ I’ve read believe this is a safe starting point.  However, you should try to drink more water than anything else: coffee, tea, soda, alcohol, sports drinks, etc.  Most of these drinks have sugar and a lot also have caffeine.  Caffeine especially is a diuretic.  This means it will dehydrate you, so you drink 8 oz of coffee and some it comes right back out.  The same can be true of sugar, especially if you are a type 2 diabetic. Your body keeps the sugar in solution, so the more sugar you eat/ drink, the more you pee it out.  This is one of the reasons diabetics have kidney problems.  The same is also true of a lot of the sodium and other electrolytes in the sports drinks: they need to be diluted in the body, and if you have too much of them, the body will pass them out through the urine.  In and out usually in a short while, unless you sweat it out, which amounts to the same thing: less water in the body!

Most of us know that our bodies are mostly water, but what some of us forget at times is that we are also an electro-chemical machine and the ‘wiring’ that keeps us running is the water in our cells.  Most of us know that the more dehydrated we are, the darker our urine is. It’s because the dissolved solids are more concentrated because there is less water available to dilute them (sorry to be a bit gross).  There are experts who say we need to drink enough water so that our urine is clear.  I think that may be a bit much, since ‘more’ is not always good.  It’s not widely known, but we can die from water intoxication.  This is when we drink too much water.  If we drink more water than our bodies can process, we will literally drown in our own tissues.  That electro-chemical machine not only ceases to function when it gets too dry but also when it gets water-logged.

So how much water is too much and how much is too little? This is why I said 64 oz of water on top of whatever else you drink is a good enough number to start with. If your urine is pale yellow or more clear than yellow (again, sorry to be gross), you are doing okay.  You don’t need to limit yourself to that number though: if it’s a hot day or you are doing something physical, you should probably drink more.  If you are sweating, a sports drink along with some water might not be a bad idea.  The whole idea behind sports drinks is the replacement of electrolytes, which we lose through sweat and urine, so replacing them is a good idea, but bear in mind, we get these also in the foods we eat.  So if you have an energy bar or even just a regular meal, you will get a lot of the minerals and salts in the foods you eat daily, especially if you are making an effort to eat healthy.

Water also lubricates our body.  Researchers are finding that dehydration may be one of the causes of stiff joints and fascia, especially in older adults.  Our connective tissues hold a lot of water and the drier they are, the less flexible they are.  So if you are always feeling stiff and creaky, try drinking more water.  As we age, we tend to lose our sense of taste, which is one reason older adults have a decreased appetite, but researchers are finding that we also lose our sense of thirst, and as a result, older adults are more likely to be dehydrated than younger people. The problem is that since older adults don’t get as thirsty as they used to, they are not prompted by their bodies to drink as much as they should.

I confess I am as guilty as everyone else: I rarely drink my 64 oz.  In fact, I got a new water bottle last year (it was on my Christmas list) and I have been gamely trying to use it as much as possible.  I also use the water feature on My Fitness Pal to track how much I drink during the day.  Keeping track is a good way to remind yourself to drink more water, and there are a variety of free apps that will not only track how much water you drink, but will remind you to drink something.  One of the easiest ways is to get a bottle, glass, whatever you want and drink an entire bottle with every meal, especially since water will keep everything moving through your digestive tract very nicely.  Dehydration can lead to constipation (yeah, I know-gross but true!) It also helps with the absorption of vitamins and nutrients and everything else you are eating.

There are usually a few people who think that drinking more water means retaining water and less weight loss, but really, when the body is conserving water because it’s not getting enough, it retains more water than when you are well hydrated.  When we are well hydrated, we are actually less hungry because your body will trigger you to eat when it wants water: we misinterpret the signal as hunger rather than thirst, and we also get a fair amount of water in some foods. Restricting our water intake not only won’t help us lose weight, it can really cause problems in our bodies, such as muscle cramps, constipation, poor concentration and light-headedness among other things.  None of those are conducive to health or weight loss and they sure won’t help with working out.

I know that water isn’t flashy or exciting, but it’s a easy hack.  Staying well lubricated is key for health and weight loss and it’s not that hard to do!