Have you ever been rolling along nicely on a cut and then, out of nowhere, had your scale freeze up on you? That is, you go one, two, even three weeks without losing any weight, and without looking any leaner?
That said, increased water retention can also be the cause of “mysterious” weight stagnation. Women can really suffer from this due to the fluid retention that comes with the menstrual cycle.
If you’re not familiar with water retention and what to do about it, it can really throw you for a loop because cutting calories further and increasing cardio–the two simplest ways to get the scale moving again–can actually make it worse. This can then lead to a nice, greasy bout of frustration binging, which sets you back even further.
So, let’s learn more about fluid retention and weight loss, and how to defeat it so you can avoid this aggravating pitfall.
In a perfect world, we would always lose weight in a neat, orderly manner.
We would do our daily exercise and follow our meal plans and wake up a little lighter and leaner every morning. On we would go until we eventually have our six packs, we would celebrate with our favorite cheat meal, and that would be that.
Well, it usually doesn’t work out like that.
It turns out that weight loss can be quite erratic sometimes. You can sit at the same weight for several weeks, and then lose 3-4 pounds overnight, and it can sometimes occur after pigging out.
How is that possible? I mean, as long as you maintain a daily caloric deficit, your body is going to mobilize fat stores, so why would your weight stay the same?
The answer lies in water retention. If you lost a pound of fat in one week, it can be obscured–both on the scale and in the mirror–by an extra pound of water that your body is holding.
While daily fluctuations in the amount of water you drink and sodium you eat account for most of the water you retain, simply being in a caloric deficit can cause water retention. A major reason for this is the fact that it raises cortisol levels, which in turn increases fluid retention.
So, let’s take a closer look at this phenomenon and what we can do about it.
Scientific knowledge of this phenomenon goes back decades.
A good example of this is the “Minnesota Starvation Experiment” conducted by Dr. Ancel Keys during World War II, wherein 36 men willingly submitted themselves to a semi-starvation diet of about 1,500 calories per day for 6 months. The purpose of the experiment was to study the physiology and psychology of starvation, and to work out a proper regimen for gradually helping starved war prisoners back to normal diets and metabolic functions.
While there is plenty of interesting information among his findings, I want to call your attention to one observation in particular.
Weight loss progressed in a nice, linear fashion in the beginning. Men lost about 2 lbs per week, every week. Eventually, however, it became erratic. Weight would remain stagnant for weeks with a dramatic increase in water retention, and then a “burst” of weight loss would occur as water was rapidly expelled.
I want to repeat this point: the caloric deficit did systematically reduce body fat levels, but the reductions in total body weight were often counter-balanced by increases in water retention. This extra water would suddenly flood out, causing apparent “bursts” in weight loss of several pounds overnight. Bodybuilders are very familiar with this phenomenon, calling it the “whoosh effect.”
“What triggered these whooshes in the prisoners?” you might be wondering.
Sometimes they just occurred randomly, but a reliable trigger was a dramatic increase in calories for a meal. For instance, a 2,300-calorie meal was served to celebrate the half-way mark of the experiment, and scientists 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% and below for men, 15% and below for women), you’ve probably experienced this “whoosh” after you do a nice re-feed meal/day. In fact, it’s common for weight loss to continue for several weeks even after you reach your body fat goal and start increasing your calories (this was noted in the Minnesota Experiment as well).
If you find your weight stuck for several weeks despite being absolutely sure that you’re in a caloric deficit (weighing food you eat, keeping your activity levels up through exercise), the strategies below will probably un-stick you.
Reduce Your Sodium Intake
Increasing your sodium intake above your normal daily levels increases water weight. Conversely, reducing it below the daily norm reduces water weight. Thus, an easy way to trigger a “whoosh” is reducing your sodium intake.
When I cut sodium, I bring it down to 1-1.5 grams per day for a few days (the Institute of Medicine recommends just 1.5 grams of sodium per day, by the way). That means…
While it might be annoying to count yet another thing in your diet, it’s worth reining in your sodium for a few days to get the scale moving again. (Oh and as a note, I’ve yet to see any valid scientific proof of claims made about “diuretic foods” like asparagus and celery.)
Drink More Water
Drinking plenty of water helps normalize your fluid retention. Shoot for around 1 gallon per day.
Get Your Cortisol Under Control
If you’re retaining a lot of water, it may be due to elevated cortisol levels. To get your cortisol back to normal, try the following:
Eat a Bunch of Food
Don’t you love me for this one?
I’ve talked about the importance of “re-feeding” when you’re dieting, and its benefits extend to dealing with fluid retention. As was seen in the Minnesota Experiment, a jump in calories for one meal can trigger a “whoosh” of water.
So have a nice cheat meal and enjoy it. For an added bonus, include a good amount of carbs, as it can reduce cortisol levels.