…and you’re still seeing the same dismal sight in the mirror and on the scale every week.
Well, if you’re stuck in such a predicament, don’t do what most people do: exercise more and eat less. It’ll just make things worse.
You see, the culprit is likely water retention , and if you don’t know how to deal with it properly, it can fuel an emotional firestorm of anger and frustration.
Well, I don’t want that to happen to you, so I wrote this article.
And by the end of this article, you’re going to know what causes water retention, why so many people trying to lose weight struggle with it, and how to bring everything back to normal, including your weight loss.
So let’s start at the top.
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In a perfect world, we would lose weight in a neat, orderly manner.
We would stick to our workouts and meal plans like good little boys and girls and would wake up a little lighter and leaner every day.
The weeks would breeze by and before we knew it, we’d be the proud owners of a shiny new set of six-pack abs.
And people say dieting is hard. Hmph!
Well, that’s the dream at least.
But then we wake up and have to accept that in the real world, weight loss can be quite erratic.
You might lose a pound or two per week for several weeks and then, for no good reason, see no change for a few weeks, as if your body suddenly forgot how to burn fat.
Then, just before you get desperate enough to dabble in gluten-free or Paleo voodoo (or literally voodoo), you lose four pounds overnight.
WTF is going on?
How can you maintain what you know is a calorie deficit only to have nothing change for extended periods of time, and then, just as mysteriously, see a dramatic shift in the right direction?
Well, the answer is simple.
The fat you lose through proper dieting can be obscured–both on the scale and in the mirror–by additional water that your body is holding on to.
Many people have heard this but don’t realize how significant the effects can be. It’s not uncommon to lose upward of 3 to 4 pounds of fat over the course of 3 to 4 weeks without even knowing it due to increased water retention.
The fat loss only becomes visible when the excess fluid is flushed out of the body, creating the illusion of extreme fat loss over very short periods.
Why does your body hold onto more water when you diet though? And what can you do about it?
Let’s find out.
What a World War II Starvation Experiment Can Teach Us About Water Retention
During World War II, Dr. Ancel Keys led a groundbreaking scientific study wherein 36 men willingly submitted themselves to a semi-starvation diet of about 1,500 calories per day for 6 months and hours of hard labor every day.
This become known as the “Minnesota Starvation Experiment” and its purpose was to learn about the physiology and psychology of starvation, and to work out a proper regimen for helping starved war prisoners back to normal diets and metabolic health.
One of the many interesting findings that came from this study was that weight loss progressed in a nice, linear fashion in the beginning. Men lost about 2 pounds per week, every week. After some time, though, it became erratic and unpredictable.
Body weight would remain stagnant for several weeks followed by overnight “bursts” of large amounts of weight loss (3+ pounds).
It’s physically impossible to burn several pounds of fat overnight, so how is that possible?
Well, the scientists looked into the phenomenon further and found the answer: water retention.
What was happening is the men were steadily losing fat even when their weight wasn’t changing because as they lost more fat, they held more water.
This only became obvious once the excess water was expelled, which gave the appearance of very rapid weight loss.
Bodybuilders are very familiar with this phenomenon. They call it the “whoosh effect.”
I want to repeat something:
The calorie deficit did systematically reduce body fat levels, but the reductions in total body weight were often counter-balanced by increases in water retention.
The reason I want to call attention to this is many “gurus” like to claim that this experiment actually “proves” that calorie-based dieting “doesn’t work” because subjects weren’t losing weight despite being in a calorie deficit.
Now, what triggered these “whooshes” of weight loss, you’re wondering?
Sometimes they just occurred randomly, but scientists found that reliable trigger was a dramatic increase in caloric intake.
For instance, a 2,300-calorie meal was served to celebrate the half-way mark of the experiment, and researchers noted that many of the men woke up several times to pee that night and, in the morning, were several pounds lighter than the day before.
If you’ve ever dieted down to a super-lean level (7% body fat and below for men, 16% and below for women), you’ve probably experienced something similar after doing a refeed day.
Why is this, though? What’s happening physiologically?
The answer has to do with a hormone called cortisol, which your body produces in response to stress.
Potassium is another mineral that has the opposite effect on cellular fluid levels. Whereas sodium sucks fluid in, potassium pumps it out.
This is why research shows that restricting potassium intake can increase fluid retention.
Now, if you’re like most people, your diet is probably very high in sodium and quite low in potassium.
If you want to check, head over to Calorie King and start adding up. And don’t forget to add in guesstimates for how much salt you’ve been using as well (salt has about 2.3 grams of sodium per teaspoon).
I’ll bet money that your sodium intake is at least 50% higher than the USDA’s recommendation of about 2.3 grams per day (and 1.5 grams for African Americans, individuals with hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease and individuals ages 51 and older).
This mineral imbalance contributes to water retention, but it’s a lot worse than that.
A study conducted by scientists from the Center for Disease Control and Harvard University found that people with the highest ratio of sodium to potassium were twice as likely to die of a heart attack and had a 50% higher risk of death from any cause than people with the lowest ratio.
The bottom line is people with diets very high in sodium and very low in potassium are playing with fire.
(I should note, however, that people that sweat regularly may need more sodium to offset losses through sweating. I personally eat around 3.5 to 4 grams per day.)
So, here are some good rules of thumb for keeping your sodium intake under control:
Look at the sodium content of canned or pre-packaged foods.
They’re often loaded with sodium as a preservative.
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