It’s Mostly Water Weight

Water retention can be a sign of serious health problems, as when water pools around the ankles or causes the belly to become very large and distended. This article isn’t about that. This article is about harmless water weight — the kind that makes people anxious when they step on the scale.

Normal, non-disease causes of extra water weight:
— You are very well hydrated
— You have a salty diet or carb-rich diet (both attract water)
— You had a heavy workout (fluid retention in the muscle is part of the recovery process)
— Fluctuations in water retention during normal menstrual cycles

If you drink plenty of water during the day, and weigh yourself every morning, you may find some days that you seem to have gained 2 or 3 pounds since the previous day. It may just be because of what you ate the night before. This is can be disconcerting, especially if that meal was a delicious and comforting pasta feed, but it really can be “mostly water weight,” and the water is generally helping to promote your health. The proverbial “8 glasses of water a day” weigh 4 pounds, after all, so if you are well hydrated, you can easily take in 5 pounds of material — or more — every day, even at a level that does not result in weight gain.

Some people deliberately bring on water weight. When marathon runners “carb load,” their goal is to top up their stores of glycogen, an energy source that the body keeps in the muscle for quick use. Each glycogen molecule also stores water with it, and the water is almost 3 times heavier than the glycogen it’s stored with. An athlete can easily put on 4 or 5 pounds for competition day with a carb load, which makes it easier to maintain a healthy level of hydration through an extended effort.

These water variations show us that fluctuations of a few pounds in body weight are not very important in the grand scheme of things. If you’re concerned that your weight is zig-zagging when you’re trying to make it go down, try one of these methods to cut through the noise:

— Weigh only once a week, ideally finding a point where your eating is very consistent week to week (it might be Wednesday to avoid the effects of a weekend treat meal)

— Lighten your intake of salt or carbohydrate

— Be sure to note where your heavy workouts are in relation to your weight; this can help you see a normal fluctuation pattern

— Keep a careful weight record through a few cycles, if you are menstruating or using a hormonal contraceptive, to figure out what your usual pattern is

— If you like math, calculate a “moving average” of your weight — a technique that helps smooth out the daily fluctuations and get trend information (or let the Hacker’s Diet, a beloved and popular user of this technique, do it for you)


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