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!)

 

Baggage Claim: Love, Apathy & Forgiveness

One of the mantras we hear about a lot from therapists and other health care professionals is that “forgiveness is for you, not for the person who hurt you.” The bottom line is that as long as you are hanging onto the anger and hate, the person who hurt you has some kind of control or influence over you.  People often say that the opposite of love is hate and that’s not true: the opposite of love is apathy.  Basically, if you truly don’t care about the other person, you don’t care enough to think about them or allow them into your life at all.  Hating that person keeps him or her in your life; apathy removes all traces.

I was watching the TLC program 90 Day Fiance: Happily Ever After? where one of the women had just gotten a divorce from her foreign-born husband and made a big deal of getting in his face to make sure he knew that “I’m over him!” The truth is, no matter what she’d telling herself, the fact that she is going so far out of her way to get in his face and make trouble for him with Immigration tells me that she is most definitely not over him.  While I think she has a valid point that her ex is a slug who used her to get a green card, the fact that she allows so much of her life to be influenced by him and what’s he’s doing shows that she’s not ready to cut ties with him. While she probably does not love him anymore, she still ‘cares’ enough to want to hurt him.

Apathy means letting go of the person who hurt you entirely.  It means you don’t care if he or she meets someone else, moves away, or drops off the face of the planet. It means you have gone on with your life and this person is just someone in your past who no longer has any effect or influence over you.  It’s a wonderful thought to contemplate, but much harder to accomplish than it sounds.

Therapists like to promote the idea of ‘Forgiveness,’ so you can have some kind of ‘Closure.’ The point is that this is all about you and not about them. I frankly prefer the “I-Don’t-Give-A-Damn” philosophy that comes with apathy.  Who they are and what they did is all over with and they can either go to hell or go to Texas because I don’t really care anymore. For me, the idea of Forgiveness means I have to care enough about what they did to me to warrant closure, and while I like to talk tough, sometimes letting go of the anger is much harder than I’d like it to be.

While I am definitely not a therapist or any kind of health care professional, I know my own emotional landscape and its pitfalls pretty well.  For example, I know it takes a lot to make me angry, and I mean really angry.  Irritation comes up pretty quick and usually fades about as fast. (I admit I am easily irritated which is getting worse the older I get.) Real anger takes a long time to build up and it doesn’t go away anytime soon.  If you’ve gone to the trouble to make me that angry, I’m going to stay angry for awhile and if you try talking to me, you are flat out wasting your breath because 1) I am too angry to pay any attention to what you’re saying; and 2) I am not done being angry yet. You’ve gone to a damn lot of trouble to get me that worked up and it takes me a while to expend all that energy that you’ve stirred up.  Once I’m done being angry, I’m much more amenable to listening to what you might want to say, but until then, fat chance!

The point is that holding onto negative emotions like rage/ anger, hurt, hate and fear keep the person responsible in your life.  That means if you are trying to grow into a healthier person, you aren’t going to get very far dragging all that baggage with you. These kinds of negative emotions are what keep us eating all that supposed ‘comfort food’ and it’s what keeps us reliving traumas that drive us to eat.  Plain and simple, they keep us from moving forward with our lives: we never move beyond the point where they hurt us.  When we hang onto that anger, hurt or humiliation, we keep reliving the moment and ‘refreshing’ the negative emotions. Letting go of those emotions and the person involved with them, whether through Forgiveness & Closure or plain old apathy,  allows them to fade away at last.  We all know that negative emotions can make us eat more, can undermine our confidence, cause us to doubt our judgment, make us feel insignificant or stupid, but they also make us physically ill.  Those who hang onto negative emotions have more physical health problems and illnesses (including things like cancer) than those who learn to let go of them. Some health care professionals theorize that the negative emotions fester like an infection until they actually take a physical form.  In other words, our negative emotions can be strong enough to kill us if we aren’t careful.

As I said above, we all know what we should do, but actually doing it is a whole other thing.  There is one particular family member in my life who is a completely toxic person and being around her is completely unhealthy.  I have developed a thick skin when it comes to her rudeness and narcissism, but it’s a lot like eating something to which you have an allergy, i.e. “eating gluten gives me terrible cramps, but I’m going to eat it anyway.” If only avoiding this person were as easy as avoiding gluten! Reaching a point of forgiveness with this person is nearly impossible for me, because- simply put- I’m not done being angry yet.  However, I have found that with each of her thoughtless narcissistic transgressions, I am getting closer to apathy.  I don’t want to ‘forgive’ her because, to me, that means I require some kind of closure to be shut of her in my life: frankly, I’d just rather close the door on her and move on. Right now, because she is still connected to other people in my life whom I care about deeply, that is not possible, so I am stuck in an unenviable middle ground.  Until I learn either to ignore her narcissism or not allow her to make me angry, I’m going to be carrying around a lot more baggage than I care to.

 

Giving in to Stress is Deal with the Devil

When you are on a fitness or weight loss journey, we are used to taking the budget approach to calories and fitness. A lot of our calorie calculators look like a long math problem: 1200 calories + 1350 food = -150 calories + 400 exercise = 250 calories left over. Yes! I can eat that 200 calorie cup of yogurt after dinner! It’d be nice if it really was so simple, but the truth is that metabolism isn’t so cut and dry, and more than food and exercise affect it.
What we don’t realize is that almost everything we do in our lives has a cost and a consequence, whether weight related or not. Relationships, work, food, exercise, and every day life: they all have a cost in our lives and a lot of times, that cost is hidden.
We’re get used to looking at labels and putting on our activity trackers with our watch or jewelry. We diligently log our food and water, and we make a point of getting more sleep. These are all good healthy habits we should be proud of, but when it comes to the stress in our lives, we don’t see it as something with a cost, or at least a cost that can be controlled.
Stress, both good and bad, is a normal part of life. That’s a given but we don’t always think about the effects stress has on us or on our health, fitness and weight loss. Even ‘good stress’ like exercise or a vacation trip, puts pressure on our health. We’ve all heard the expression “a vacation from the vacation.” It’s because the packing, the traveling, the being away from home, and then all the unpacking, laundry, and fitting back into every day life: you guessed it! There’s stress! Even if the vacation was wonderful and relaxing, getting back into your routine can take some work.
There are other stressors in our lives we may not recognize, like helping someone out. Even something as simple as picking up someone’s mail or feeding their cat while they’re gone can be a stress, especially if you already have a busy schedule. It’s one more thing to get into your day, and the more of those “little easy things” you add to your day, the more stress you are under. We’re used to thinking of calories and exercise adding up, but stress also has a cumulative effect.
When we don’t manage our stress like we manage the rest of our health, simply put we are buying trouble. Managing our stress can be as simple as not cramming our schedule full to bursting, even if it’s “healthy” stress like exercise. (That’s why we need recovery/ rest days.) “Fun stress” also takes a toll, if you finish the end of every day or every weekend exhausted. Stress relieving activities don’t have to be things like yoga or meditation: they can be simple things like walking the dog, taking the kids to the park, or just spending some leisurely time in the pool. Other choices: doing a puzzle or crossword, getting a manicure, reading a book. Essentially, if it’s something you enjoy that’s restful, then you need to make time for it in your schedule on a regular basis, but cramming it in just so you have “stress relief” may work against you. These should be activities that don’t really have a timer attached.
We know there’s limits on our calories and our time for sleep and exercise, but they are also limits on how much stress we can handle. We’re mindful of things like gluten, sugar, and overtraining, but we also need to be mindful of what else we sign up for when we sign up for the other non-health activities in our lives.