Most Americans have tried dieting in one form or another. Whether you have picked up the South Beach Diet, Atkins, Paleo, the new Dukan Diet craze, or just omitted foods on your own… you have heard and most likely experienced a sudden significant drop in weight – right at the start. You hear that the sudden weight loss has nothing to do with fat loss, but water. Most of us think, huh? That doesn’t seem fair. I haven’t been eating any of my favorite foods, I’m always hungry. How could I NOT have lost real weight that the scale says I have lost? What is this mystery water weight? Why doesn’t it count? How come I can lose 5 lbs in one week and gain it all back in the next? Today I am going to unravel the mystery of water weight loss.
In my post, What it Takes to Lose a Pound, I explained the basic principles of weight loss. What calories are and how many you need to lose weight. Take a look to brush up on this information before continuing on.
I’m going to start by using an example. Let’s take Mary, she is a hard working woman who has slowly gained weight over the last ten years due to an increase in stress, decreased activity, and increase in eating food out. One day she hops on the scale, freaks out about the number and wants lose pounds immediately. She runs to the nearest bookstore, gets the newest fad diet book that promises large amounts of weight loss in a snap and begins the next day with drastically reducing the calories she consumes on a daily basis. By the end of the first week, she is famished, miserable, but has lost 7 lbs! She feels happy and satisfied with that amount and returns to her normal routine the following week. By the end of the second week, Mary’s 7 lbs of weight returns and she is back where she started. Sound familiar? Let’s breakdown this process.
First, anytime you reduce the amount of food (calories) you eat, you will get a loss of weight – whether it is cutting out fat, carbohydrates, or protein. Every single day we take in different amounts of food and expend varying amounts of energy (calories burned). This is why if you weighed yourself every day, you see a different number on the scale. Our bodies are constantly modifying and adjusting based on what we do and what we put into them. When we have a continual decrease in calories for a couple of days in a row we immediately feel like we have lost weight (i.e., fat). However, fat is not what we have lost. Our highly evolved bodies are created to withstand days of decreased food intake without turning to fat as a calorie source.
Carbohydrates are the major energy source for the body; they are broken down into glucose (blood sugar). Glucose provides our cells with energy. Our brain relies solely on glucose! That is why it is important that we always have some glucose in our blood. There are two main ways we get glucose into the blood: 1) We can eat food with carbohydrates – an apple, a piece of celery, a slice of bread, etc. or 2) If we are not eating carbohydrates, our liver will release some glucose. Now you may be asking, where did the liver get glucose? Excellent question! The liver (my favorite organ) has complex roles in the body. One of those roles is to take up extra glucose after we eat and store it as glycogen. This store of glucose is important in keeping our blood sugar level normal. When we get really excited and adrenaline (epinephrine) is pumping through our veins, our liver releases glucose so our cells can make energy. If the liver didn’t do this, you would become hypoglycemic (low blood sugar), could pass out, and if glucose levels were low enough long enough, you could go into a coma.
Another role of the liver is to break down protein and turn it into glucose. Unfortunately protein is not a good source for glucose. Only 58% of protein can be turned into glucose. Our body needs protein; it maintains cell growth, regulates body processes, and makes up our muscles and organs. When we don’t have enough glycogen, the body will start using protein to make carbohydrates, resulting in a loss of muscle mass. The body does not turn to fat right away for energy.
So what does this have to do with weight loss? When we go on these 5-7 day fast/diets our body does not see this as a weight loss plan, but goes into more of a starvation mode. It goes WOW! What happened yesterday and today? I didn’t get as many calories as I normally do, I better use that glycogen I stored up. So as the week goes by and we starve our bodies we use that glycogen to keep our blood sugar even and to ensure our brain operates. Get excited, here comes the water part. Glycogen is surrounded by lots of water. When we use up the glycogen we are also losing that water (2 cups of water is 1 pound). Combine this with some muscle breakdown and at the end of the week that scale is not showing a loss in fat, but demonstrates the water loss from the decrease in glycogen stores and muscle loss. Now if we continued to restrict ourselves, our bodies would adjust their metabolic rate and weight loss would become reality. Most people cannot handle these severely restrictive diets and I certainly do not promote them. So when you go back to eating your normal diet after the weight loss, your body’s first response is to re-stock the glycogen loss, thus putting the “weight” back on.
There is one more component of water weight that I need to briefly mention and that is sodium. Ever feel bloated after eating a large meal? Yes, some of that has to do with eating way too much food; however it is also from the body’s reaction to the sodium intake. When we eat salty foods the sodium goes into the blood stream making the blood concentration out of sync. The blood likes to be in balance with water and sodium (electrolytes). If we eat a lot of salt the body has to flood the blood with water to balance the shift. It will take a couple of days to wash out all of the added sodium and water. So when you switch from eating a high sodium diet to a diet low in sodium, your body will also lose extra weight. This action will also be seen on the scale.
Water weight = (glycogen+water) + small amounts of muscle + (sodium + water)
Please ask questions and leave any comments!
Very informative post, thank you.
I never really understood why people would talk about “water weight,” and now it makes sense. Thank you!
You mentioned that after some point in time, our bodies will adjust their metabolic rate, making weight-loss a reality. Is that something that is only facilitated by sticking it out through the initial shift in nutrition? How long does that usually take? Does exercise (duration and frequency) alter one’s metabolic rate?
Glad it helped!
So metabolism a big topic on its own and I will definitely be writing a piece on it. But to give you a quick answer, yes. It takes a while for your body to respond to weight loss and to have your metabolism change, and it certainly takes longer than a week! Exercise does impact your metabolism in very minor ways. After a workout your metabolism might rise to afford you a free 20-50 calories in the day, but nothing substantial. This is why many people gain weight when they start exercising. They think they get to eat more because their metabolism increases, this is more myth then reality. Building muscle however will boost your metabolism, because muscle requires more energy(calories) then fat to work. Hope this gives you a little clarity. I will get more in depth later 🙂 So stay tuned.
I was going to make some sassy remark, but the cartoon in there covered it… great post!
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