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Explaining Water Weight
Dieting can play many mind games and stepping on the scales can be a daunting moment especially if we have been dieting for many weeks and our weight hasn’t changed for a while.
The scales may not have changed because we’ve been overeating, not been following our workout program, under estimating our calories, over estimating our total daily energy expenditure or by boozing too much.
If you are not making any of these mistakes what’s happening?
But another potential reason could be that you’re holding onto water. Which can be very common after long periods of dieting. – This is commonly known as Water Weight.
We would all love to lose a pound of fat every week until we reach our goal, but this doesn’t happen very often due to metabolic adaptions we have no control over. This can result in us losing weight for a few weeks, up to a point we see no change for a couple of weeks, but then low and behold the weight loss continues.
All your hard dieting will only be noticeable once this water weight has been lost.
So Why Does this Happen?
Sometimes this water retention can just happen spontaneously, can be due to menstrual cycle in females, sodium and potassium intake.  It can also be due to a hormone called cortisol, which your body produces in response to stress and dieting. Research has shown that increased levels of cortisol have increased water retention when dieting. [1&2]
An experiment conducted during WWII, Minnesota Starvation, where Ancel Keys and colleagues put 36 men through a period of semi starvation of approximately 1,500 calories per day showed cortisol to do this. The men lost >25% of their weight, experienced anemia, fatigue, apathy, extreme weakness, irritability, neurological deficits, and lower extremity edema. 
The aim of the experiment was to understand human starvation and also understand the best strategies for the Allie relief mission. However, what they also found was that that body weight remained stable at several stages of dieting, but this was then followed by a big weight drop over night. This was later found out to be due to water retention. This wasn’t to say they were not losing weight over these stable periods, as they were in a calorie deficit losing fat and muscle, but the water retention masked the weight loss on the scales.
Why the Sudden Drop in Water Retention?
About halfway through the experiment, a relief dinner was given of 2,300 calories. This meal resulted in a sudden drop in ‘stress’ and cortisol leading to a lot of water being lost at once from the body. The dramatic loss in weight over night is what is now referred to as the ‘whoosh.’
This ‘whoosh’ in weight can be due to a random day of accidentally/purposely over eating or a scheduled re-feed.*
*A re-feed consists of raising your calories just above your total daily expenditure for a day, which can aid in lowering cortisol levels and stress within the body. While many feel this will also raise ‘metabolic boosting’ hormones (i.e leptin, insulin, thyroid) over a 24 hr period, this is becoming more and more unlikely, as a re-feed of 24hrs is too short to do this. A re-feed/diet break that last a few days/weeks is needed to rep the full benefits of resetting your hormonal profile, improving performance in the gym and psychological benefits.
Now we are at the bit that we all want to know the answer to…
How To Prevent Water Retention
Sometimes it is unpreventable and this is no big issue, physically, unless it becomes painful with bloating. Saying this, it can have strong psychological implications.
– Diet intelligently and do not crash diet whilst looking for a quick fix.
- Don’t conduct endless amounts of cardio daily
- Participate in weight training 2-3x per week
- Eat as much as you can while losing weight
All of the above will keep stress levels to as low as possible while maintaining/building muscle, and therefore keep cortisol as low as possible.
When dieting only look to create a 20-10% calorie deficit (calories in < calories out) daily while looking to lift weights 2-3x per week for a beginner. When it comes to cardio only use it when and where needed, unless a fitness/endurance athlete. This is to prevent injury, ensure adequate recovery from lifting and keep it up your sleeve for when it is needed. Cardio should only be added when calories become too low to lower any more and you hit a weight loss plateau. Lifting weights has many muscular benefits along with cardio vascular benefits so prioritise lifting weights. However, if doing some cardio is what you love and all you have time for then fill your boots. It’s ultimately all about doing what you enjoy.