Weight loss is a funny thing.
When this happens it’s common to think you’ve hit a weight loss plateau.
You might even start thinking you need to eat fewer calories, do more cardio or switch diets to get things going again. Then suddenly and seemingly overnight your weight drops and all the weight you’d been expecting to lose is gone.
Firstly, weight loss is not, and never will be neat and tidy. It’s not going to come off in a clean and orderly fashion. Secondly, often weight loss can be obscured by additional water your body is holding on to.
This means it’s common for people to lose 1 – 2 lbs a week but not realise it due to the increase in water retention, only to see what appears to be rapid weight loss a couple of weeks down the line.
More confusingly this water retention masks your progress on both the scale and in the mirror meaning that if you aren’t aware of what’s going on, you can be tricked into thinking you’re not making progress.
In this article, we’re going to look at why your body holds onto more water when dieting and how to overcome it.
Water retention is the build-up of excess fluid in your body that gives the appearance of weight gain on the scale and in the mirror.
It manifests itself by making you look softer and less lean than normal and can be a big source of confusion and frustration in the dieting world.
Related: Why Your Weight Fluctuates
Water retention is the result of imbalances in hydration in the body and can cause bloating and puffiness. It’s a common issue particularly amongst dieters and those at lower body fat levels.
It primarily results in the appearance of stalled weight loss and/or erratic weight fluctuations. There are 3 main causes of water retention;
Cortisol is commonly known as the stress hormone and is produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress and low blood sugar levels.
It’s responsible for several things in the body including, of course, fluid retention.
Now typically cortisol doesn’t cause water retention. However, as you’ll see there are certain situations where circumstances collide, and it forces you to hold onto excess water.
One of these circumstances is a prolonged calorie deficit with researching (1) showing that this dramatically raises cortisol levels and increases water retention. This means as your cortisol levels rise so will the amount of water you hold onto, making you look puffy and bloated.
Logically if a large increase in cortisol increases water retention, then a large drop with produce the opposite result and this is exactly what happens.
An increase in calorie intake will often produce a whoosh of weight loss as your cortisol levels return to normal and the excess water is expelled from your body.
When eaten sodium binds to water in the body and helps to maintain the balance of fluids inside and outside of your cells.
So, when you eat a lot of sodium it can cause you to retain excess water and when you reduce sodium intake it has the opposite effect and reduces the amount of water you’re holding.
As for potassium, this vitamin is important for restoring fluid levels in your cells by pushing the water out. So unlike sodium, it’s actually a low potassium intake (2) that can cause you to hold onto excess water.
These two vitamins work together to manage the levels of water you have in your body. Normally, this system works well. However, when you dramatically increase sodium or restrict potassium it throws this balance off and water retention occurs.
As a result, you look soft and puffy until you can restore the balance and can flush the excess water out.
Water is an important part of the human diet and vital for the proper functioning of the body. As a result, if you don’t drink enough water your body will begin to hold onto the water you do drink. (3)
If you want to manage, reduce and ultimately eliminate your water retention issues then there are several things you’ll need to do.
However, it’s also important to realise that water retention is a normal part of dieting and this is particularly true the longer you’ve been in a calorie deficit and the leaner you are.
The aim here is not to prevent you from ever holding onto excess water but instead to give you the strategies to minimise your chances and get rid of it when it comes.
High salt intake is a problem for a lot of people, it’s a go to seasoning and is packed into tonnes of supermarket products for taste and its preservative properties.
The best way to manage your sodium intake is to become more aware of how much is in any prepacked foods, sauces and seasonings you buy. Aim to cook most of your food yourself instead of buying premade items and go easy on the salt.
This amount is lower for children, those over 50 and anyone with hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease.
Additionally, this amount may be slightly higher for anyone who is particularly active to help counteract the amount of sodium they lose through sweating. (7)
Just as a high salt intake is problematic, so if a low potassium intake. In fact, research (8) shows that nearly 98% of adults in the US are not getting enough potassium in their diet.
To ensure you’re getting enough potassium in your diet to combat water retention you’ll want to include some of the following foods;
Daily recommendations for water intake vary depending on whereabouts you live in the world, your gender and your exercise levels but you want to be getting around 2 litres per day.
By staying hydrated you allow your body to function properly and can avoid retaining additional water and becoming bloated.
A good measure of your hydration levels is the colour of your pee, clear or light yellow means you’re hydrated and anything darker means you should think about drinking some water.
Elevated cortisol levels are often the biggest contributor to water retention, primarily because of the effect that being in a prolonged calorie deficit has on them.
This means your ability to manage your cortisol levels becomes particularly important for reducing and/or eliminating water retention when trying to lose fat. There are several ways you can do this;
There are sometimes when you’ll go through all the steps above and realise that water retention isn’t the problem. When this is the case there are usually 2 main culprits.
Perhaps the most common culprit is simply needing to lose more fat. You see when you’re 15% or more body fat (approx. 25% for women) you will naturally look fluffier due to the amount of fat you have.
When this is the case you want to focus on losing fat which will naturally make you look leaner and more muscular.
Other times you may find that you’ve hit a weight loss plateau and need to take steps to get fat loss moving again.
To learn how you know if you’ve really hit a plateau or not and how to get weight loss moving again, read this.
Water retention can be a pain for even the most experienced of dieters. It makes you look puffy and fluffier than you are, distorts weight loss and can mess with your head.
However, it’s important to remember that is a normal part of the weight loss process, particularly if you’ve been dieting for a long time or are very lean, and it can be managed relatively easily.
By moderating your sodium and potassium intake, reducing your cortisol levels and staying hydrate you can manage and, in most cases, eliminate water retention.