Fat Loss vs. Weight Loss: Water Retention and the Jumpy Scale
Ever heard the old saying, “You have to go slow to go fast?”
Unfortunately, when it comes to fat loss, our diet/fitness culture subtly feeds unhealthy expectations that the harder you work, the faster you’ll see progress.
Here’s the reality: the processes of fat loss and muscle gain are not overnight experiences. These changes happen excruciatingly slowly, and – while I don’t advise that clients ignore the scale – it needs to be remembered that the scale doesn’t tell the whole story, especially on a day-to-day comparative basis. In other words, if you “gain” or “lose” several pounds overnight, you really didn’t.
For example, have you ever “cleaned up” your diet and lost five or six pounds in a week?
Unfortunately, this “weight loss” is illusory. It may be hard to hear, but fat loss simply doesn’t happen that quickly.
While – in the case of weight loss – this may be disappointing, this should be comforting to you in the case of a sudden gain. Take heart that when you weigh yourself on Monday after a fun weekend and have gained five pounds, you haven’t really gained five pounds.
I can’t emphasize this enough: gains and losses that happen so quickly are not changes in body fat. They are changes, instead, in water retention.
Water Retention is Not the Boogeyman of Weight Loss
When people hear “water retention,” they automatically think of “bloating.” Most of us associate “water weight” with the puffy feeling caused by eating too much sodium, especially at a restaurant. It has an extremely negative connotation. Sometimes, water retention does manifest as unpleasant sodium-related bloating, but water retention can happen for a myriad of reasons, and some of them aren’t so bad.
Here are some common reasons that we experience water retention, other than eating a salty meal:
- The menstrual cycle
- Birth control
- Elevated stress, which could be caused by:
- Lack of sleep
- Emotional stress
- Exercising (fluid retention in the muscles to help protect and heal micro-tears in the muscle tissue after exercise)
- A caloric deficit
It’s those last two points – over-exercising and a caloric deficit – that loops this topic back around to the overarching theme of the metabolism this month. Let’s explore each one individually.
I separate “exercising” and “over-exercising” in the list because they really are two different things. I can’t be clear enough that anytime you exercise vigorously (but not “over-doing” it), you will experience some fluid retention around the muscles. This is the visible “pump” that you can see during a workout, if you lift weights.
However, over-exercising is a different animal. This is when healthy, vigorous exercise has moved into neurosis territory.
What “over-exercising” looks like for each person can be extremely individual. What is “appropriate” for a person on their fitness journey can be determined by their history with exercise, level of fitness, health, season of life, and goals. In other words, a “healthy routine” for one person could be a recipe for disaster for another person, or vice versa. It’s not black and white.
But here’s a mindset clue:
People often “overdo it” when exercise habits are motivated by burning as many calories as possible, instead of by increasing fitness.
Fitness can include:
- Cardiovascular health
However, keep in mind that “fitness” and “leanness” are not synonymous. When a woman gets these terms scrambled up in her head, though, “over-doing it” often ensues.
The problem is that exercise has the potential to yield diminishing returns. If you are not exercising at all, adding a three-times-a-week jog into your schedule boosts your fitness significantly. If you then add in two days a week of weight training, you experience yet another increase in your returns on fitness. However, if you take this to the next level and weight train and run every single day, you may only experience a slight bump in benefits. If you then add in some HIIT classes on top of everything else, you may actually start moving backwards.
Exercise, in some conditions, can be interpreted by your body as stress. Often, when you reach this chronic level of over-exercise, your body begins to over-produce cortisol to give you the boost you need to keep reaching your activity goals. However, this cortisol has the undesirable byproduct of water retention.
This is just one reason why you can be incredibly active – going to the gym twice a day, going to HIIT classes, and slogging it out on the cardio machines – and still not losing weight or seeing the results you want.
I should also point out that, eventually, this over-stressing of your body’s activity levels will also cause your abdominal region to become more prone to localized fat gain. Once you reach this point, it’s not just water weight anymore. However, unlike the water gain, this doesn’t happen overnight.
To my next point, this symphony of discordant bodily processes is especially liable to happen if you are not appropriately fueling your active lifestyle.
A Caloric Deficit
This is why I preach, preach, preach a moderation lifestyle. Any caloric deficit, especially if you are highly controlling about your diet, will eventually be interpreted by your body as stress.
Again, the leaner you are, the bigger problem this will be, but it can happen to anyone. If you lower your calories to a level that begins to brush against your basic metabolic needs (you know, the calories you need to keep your heart beating and your lungs pumping), your body will begin to push back.
One way that it will do this is – you guessed it – water retention.
Most of the time, I see this happen when a client has experienced an initial (and satisfying) drop in weight. And I don’t mean water weight – I mean real fat loss and buying new clothes. Then, after about three months, this weight loss levels off. At this point, women often “lean in” – they start exercising harder and they start restricting calories more and cutting out their favorite foods… at the same time.
The body does not like this at all.
When I’m talking to a client, I often use to finish sentences with: “All other things being equal.”
“If you change this about your diet, don’t change anything else about your exercise. Keep doing what you’re doing.”
“If you change this about your exercise, don’t change anything else about your diet. Keep doing what you’re doing.”
So what’s a lady to do, who is getting frustrated by the scale, but wants to keep making progress?
Here are some takeaways:
Practical Tips to Remember
- Normal, healthy women see consistent fluctuation in weight.
- Hydration is a good thing. Having “water weight” is essential for health.
- The number on the scale represents a nuanced, dynamic summary of slow muscle gain, slow fat loss, and daily changes to water retention.
- Therefore, if you want to include weighing as a method of assessment, here are key attitudes to adopt:
- Low expectations of the changes in daily or weekly numbers
- Acceptance of variables like the menstrual cycle (and hormones in general)
- Awareness of the relationship between possible weekend eating and subsequent water weight gain
- If the scale gets really stuck for several weeks (or a month or more), don’t look first to getting stricter with your eating or exercising. Instead, get your life stress under control. Remember, stress = cortisol. Get your sleep right, and learn to manage your schedule and emotional stress.
- Make changes to your exercise and eating gradually. Don’t jump into insanely difficult challenges – instead, be realistic with yourself about what changes you can adopt and maintain.
- Be gentle with yourself, especially with nutritional changes. Don’t cut out all your favorite foods. Instead, continue to eat foods you like, and allow yourself treats that you enjoy. This will help to decrease stress.
- Remember to drink a lot of water to stay really hydrated. This will help your body release the water that it doesn’t need.
- Weigh yourself like a scientist. Only weigh yourself in the morning, before you’ve eaten, but after you’ve gone to the bathroom. Keep your parameters consistent. If you’re especially prone to changes in water weight, consider weighing yourself on the same day of your menstrual cycle, only once per cycle.
- I advise clients to consider their weight not as a set number, but a range. Give yourself a five-pound range that represents, on any given week, the highest number you see, and the lowest number you see. You’ll know you’re gaining or losing if you consistently see your entire range move over a few weeks.
- Be realistic about where you are on your fitness and weight loss journey. If you are just starting out, you’ll likely lose weight more quickly. If you’ve been losing weight for awhile (especially if you are moving below 30% body fat and into the mid or low 20’s), remember that weight loss will slow down and will probably become extremely inconsistent. However, this doesn’t mean that you’re doing anything “wrong,” or that you won’t continue to become fitter-looking.
- If you hit a plateau for quite awhile (a month or more), experiment with separating the variables of diet and exercise. For a few months, focus more on nutrition and dial down the intensity of your exercise. Alternately, you could focus more on athletic goals, and dial in a higher calorie goal (gasp!), emphasizing high-quality food sources and attention to macros.
- Using an app like “Happy Scale,” which I recommend to many of my clients, is a helpful way to keep track of your weight without getting on the emotional roller coaster of watching your weight go up and down. This app helps you to average out your weight over time, so that you have a more accurate sense of your fat loss progress. It even creates a stock-market-style visual that helps you see the “trend” in direction.
I write this post because seeing the scale move up and down can be one of the most discouraging experiences for my clients. They often think something is wrong with them, but in reality, their bodies are doing something very normal and healthy. Are some people more prone to water retention than others? Absolutely. But for most people, it’s still not something to worry about, and you can use the tips above to help yourself accept and manage this natural bodily process.
In other words, when you (1) understand what water weight is, how you can (2) manage lifestyle factors to mitigate it, and (3) correctly interpret what you’re seeing on the scale, you can buy yourself a lot of peace of mind.
Remember, you have to go slow to go fast. If you put in effort consistently over time, you will see results.
Note: This week, my professional organization released this article that covers some of the same ground, although the author focuses more on glycogen in the muscles than I do. It’s an interesting read – check it out!
Follow-Up Questions from Last Week
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Last week in “Three Metabolism Myths, Busted,” we explored how some widely-held cultural beliefs about the metabolism hold us back.
Answer the following questions about your experiences with last week’s posts:
- Question 1: How have your activity levels changed throughout your lifespan? How do you exercise now, compared to 10 or 20 years ago? How do you think this influences your metabolism?
- Question 2: Did you know that your metabolism reduces as you lose weight? How does this affect your thinking about weight re-gain after dieting?
- Question 3: What foods have you heard touted as “fat burning” foods? What do you think of these health claims now? What are the most important foods for you to be eating?