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Water Retention: Carbohydrates vs. Salt

author image Sandi Busch
Sandi Busch received a Bachelor of Arts in psychology, then pursued training in nursing and nutrition. She taught families to plan and prepare special diets, worked as a therapeutic support specialist, and now writes about her favorite topics – nutrition, food, families and parenting – for hospitals and trade magazines.
Water Retention: Carbohydrates vs. Salt
Stuffed french bread. Photo Credit Eising/Photodisc/Getty Images

Salt and carbohydrates can both lead to water retention, but their methods -- and their impact on your health -- are different. Salt exerts its influence throughout your body and can lead to serious health consequences. Carbs have a more limited effect that may cause slight weight gain, yet can help boost performance.

Different Roles in Water Retention

Sodium helps regulate the levels of water in your body. As a result, the total amount of sodium, or salt, you consume has an impact on whether you retain or eliminate water. As you eat more salt, your body holds onto more water, causing that all-too-familiar bloat.

Carbohydrates also cause water retention, but in a different way. Some of the carbs you consume are stored in the form of glycogen. Glycogen is stored in your liver and muscles, where it can quickly turn into glucose to provide energy when you need it. Molecules of glycogen contain water. The American Council on Exercise reports that every gram of glycogen retains about 3 grams of water.

Effect on Health

The amount of water retained from carbohydrate is restricted because your body has limited space for glycogen storage. If you consume more carbs than usual, or you’re carb-loading to prepare for an athletic activity, you may gain 3 pounds to 5 pounds of water from glycogen, reports the American Council on Exercise. This type of water retention is beneficial because it keeps cells hydrated for optimal performance.

Water retention caused by high salt intake interrupts the flow of minerals essential for nerves and muscles to work normally. It also increases the volume of blood, which causes high blood pressure.

Dietary Tips to Avoid Water Retention

If you have problems with water retention, the first step is to cut down on salt. Don’t consume more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium daily, recommends the Institute of Medicine. Beware of processed and prepared foods, such as canned goods, lunch meat and restaurant products, because they’re the top sources of sodium.

Restricting your carb intake will also help, but they’re vital for energy. Carbs should account for at least 45 percent of your daily calories, according to the IOM. Eliminating added sugars in sweets and beverages may be enough to make a difference.

Eat a balanced diet that includes fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meat and whole grains because lack of B vitamins can also contribute to water retention.

Boost Hydration

You can help prevent water retention by drinking enough water to support the balance of sodium and fluids. Women should get 9 cups daily, while men need 12 cups, according to the University of Michigan. If you become dehydrated due to excessive sweating, vomiting or diarrhea, you can quickly rehydrate by taking advantage of salt and carbs. Sodium enhances the uptake of water from the digestive tract into your system. Carbohydrates may also improve rehydration following exercise, according to a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology in February 2010.

The University of Arizona suggests making a sports drink with 1/4 teaspoon to 1 teaspoon of salt per 4 cups of fluids, which can be a combination of water and fruit juice for carbs.

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