When you step on the scale in the morning and notice that it's risen overnight by three, five or even 10 pounds, you may feel a little panicked. Take a deep breath; it'd be almost impossible to eat the 10,500 to 35,000 extra calories required to gain that much fat in one or two days. You've likely gained weight because of water retention. Even though you haven't actually gained fat, you may feel as if you did.
A high-sodium meal, a heavy workout, dehydration or hormonal changes can be the cause of water retention. If you're hauling around excess water, it will flush naturally after a day or two. Dietary strategies and exercise may help you lose it faster. If bloating and water retention are chronic and not sporadic, check with your doctor since they may stem from a medical problem.
Causes of Water Weight
Water weight accumulates for a variety of reasons, some of them beyond your control.
For women, hormonal changes cause water retention in the five days before your period. Levels of progesterone, a hormone that helps support the fetus early in your pregnancy, rise substantially -- a side-effect of which is water retention. When the month passes with no pregnancy, the water flushes away with the excess hormone.
In some cases, too much sodium -- either from a restaurant meal or a binge during which you polished off a family-size bag of chips -- can cause you to feel puffy. High fat foods and excess alcohol can also contribute to water retention.
Ironically, not drinking enough can cause your body to hold onto water. Your body senses its fluid levels are out of balance and will hold onto water until you correct it until you rehydrate.
A heavy workout can temporarily leave you modestly dehydrated right afterwards, which shows up as a lighter size on the scale. But the next day, when your muscles are still inflamed, fluids rush in to help with repair and can make it seem like you've gained a pound or two. If you exercise regularly, you may always retain a little water in your blood plasma because your body becomes "superhydrated" and wants to ensure you don't run low on fluids during a workout. This is a natural, positive state that supports your athletic efforts.
Signs of Water Retention
Water retention makes you feel heavy, but it can also cause swelling in your fingers and ankles. A bloated tummy can result from water retention, so much so that your favorite pair of jeans just won't button. Achiness and stiffness, particularly around your joints, sometimes occurs.
The excess water stores in your tissues between the blood vessels and in your muscles. It can pool in your feet and ankles, especially if you stand a lot during the day. Sometimes, water retention won't markedly show up as puffiness or bloating, but you just feel heavy and weighed down.
Move Your Body to Lose Water Weight
Water retention makes you disinclined to exercise, but physical activity helps you sweat away excess water weight. It might be hard to get motivated for a brisk walk, light jog or dance fitness class, but the movement will make you feel better.
If you feel the water weight might be due to regularly working out, don't stop. The extra hydration is healthy, and so is your fitness routine. If you stop drinking fluids to support workouts, you'll also be risking poor performance. Put more emphasis on how you feel and your strength and endurance, rather than on a number on the scale.
Actively hydrating regularly throughout the day can help you lose water weight due to dehydration. A glass of water between meals is one method, but also consider the foods you eat. Aim to drink as many as seven to 11 cups -- or 100 ounces -- of water daily. Fruits and vegetables contain large amounts of water and contribute to your daily intake; aim for generous portions at meals.
Moderate the number of caffeinated drinks as well as beverages containing alcohol, sugar and artificial sweeteners you consume daily, too. Although these technically contribute fluid to your system, they also require a good deal of fluid to process and can leave you mildly dehydrated.
Eat More Potassium
The mineral potassium counteracts some of the effects of consuming an excess of sodium, including moderating your water balance. Eating more potassium-rich foods may help you flush that water weight more quickly than you would on your own, and it offers other benefits, including support for nerve and muscle health. Sweet potatoes, tomatoes, yogurt, fish and white beans are quality sources of the mineral.
Don't take a potassium supplement unless directed to do so by your medical provider.
Lay Off the Refined Grains and Sugar
Too many carbohydrates, especially the processed kind found in white bread, white pasta, sugar and soda, can cause you to hold onto water weight. When you eat carbohydrates, your body converts it to glucose, which is stored in your muscles -- along with water -- as glycogen. Reducing the amount of carbs you eat wastes your glycogen stores and the accompanying water.
Get most of your carbs from vegetables, fruits and whole grains, rather than refined forms. Replace the white breakfast bagel, white bun on your burger and white rice with dinner with whole-grain toast, a large salad with seared steak and quinoa instead. You'll reduce your carb intake and up your fiber intake, which helps stool move more readily through your digestive tract, taking water along with it. Never cut out a whole food group, though. Carbohydrates are an important source of energy.
Results from Water Weight Loss
If you flush 2 cups of water from your system -- or 16 ounces -- you'll end up a pound lighter. When you flush this water weight though, you haven't lost any fat.
Oftentimes, the changes you make when you start a diet plan, such as consuming more water and eating healthier foods such as more vegetables, fruits, lean proteins and whole grains, can cause you to drop weight quickly in the first couple of weeks. This is usually water weight, along with a little fat, and not a miraculous fat loss. The quick loss can motivate you to stick with the program though and help you feel lighter and less bloated.
Losing More Than Water Weight
While losing that bloated feeling makes you feel better, if you have extra weight from fat to lose, you'll need to reduce your calorie intake and exercise regularly. Consuming 250 to 500 calories fewer than you do daily to maintain your weight combined with a daily burn of 250 to 500 calories through physical activity results in a pound or two lost per week. These measures will help you lose fat weight, not just water weight.
Many of the same measures you adopt to lose water weight help your overall weight loss. Eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables along with lean proteins and whole grains at meals keeps you satisfied and nutritionally supported. Go for fruit, low-fat yogurt and small servings of nuts for snacks instead of salty processed snacks that impede your weight loss by adding water weight and extra calories. Avoid alcohol and limit your caffeine and sodium intake, and you'll be on your way to a thinner, less-bloated you.
- Experience Life: Drink to Your Health
- CNN: What's Water Weight
- ABC News: 4 Confusing Weight Loss Concepts Cleared Up
- Shape: When Your Weight Fluctuates: What’s Normal and What’s Not
- Fitness: 6 Reasons You're Not Losing Weight
- Health.gov: Sodium and Potassium
- Shape: Why You Gain Weight on Your Period