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A Practical Guide to Water Weight

Starting with, what the hell is it, anyway?

When you’re losing weight, some fucker will always tell you, “Oh, you didn’t really lose five pounds, that’s just water weight.” On the flip side, when you’re packing on the pounds, you’ll tell yourself that you’re, “Pretty sure it’s all water weight.”

I submit it to you that, in either case, most of us have no idea what the hell we’re talking about. So let’s figure it out together. Starting with the most obvious question…

What is water weight, anyway?

“Water weight is simply excess water stored in our cells and in the area surrounding our cells,” says nutritionist and personal trainer Sean Salazar of Anywhere Gym. When we’re retaining water, that excess water will exist primarily in the tissue surrounding the cells. “Our cells will swell a bit, too, but this takes time and cell size won’t change a whole lot,” says Salazar, hence the water being stored between them. This is why someone with a lot of water weight might see, say, their ankles swell up.

Where does it come from?

The most common cause of gaining water weight is stuffing yourself with too many carbohydrates. Salazar explains that when we consume carbs, they’re converted to energy (specifically, glucose) but when we consume too many carbs, it gets stored as fat. It’s the process of converting those carbs into fat that makes you retain water: According to Paleo Leap, consuming one gram of carbs requires three to four grams of water to process and store it. So when we’re eating more carbs than we can use, our bodies are going to retain water simply to store that fat.

“People are way too carb-heavy in their diets,” says Salazar. “It should be about 40 percent of your diet but, in the United States, people often consume more than 60 percent.”

Additionally, excess salt is going to make you retain water, too. The reason for this is that the body and cells always try to retain the same salt-to-water ratio in the body, and when you consume a lot of salt, the body is going to retain water to level things back out. If it didn’t do this, you’d get dehydrated

Do we need that water weight?

The average human on a moderate carb diet will have about 1.5 pounds of water weight on them. If you have a heavy carb diet, it’ll be more, but water weight only gets stored if we’re not converting those carbs into energy, so simply put, no, we don’t “need” it. Salazar explains, “Our cells need water in and around them to keep the body and organs running, but what we refer to as ‘water weight’ is excess water that the body is holding onto due to eating foods like carbs.”

Why do you lose water weight before regular weight (i.e., fat)?

When you’re sitting in a hot sauna, you may sweat off two pounds of pure water weight without moving a muscle. That’s because it doesn’t require you to burn the weight off like fat — it’s just water, so it’ll easily exit though your pores just by sweating it out. The same happens while you’re sweating during a workout.

Even when you’re dieting though, the water weight will be the first thing to go because, “When people get into a weight-loss mode, they tend to eliminate lots of things,” says Salazar. “One thing we tend to get rid of is a lot of carbohydrates, and since we’re no longer taking those carbohydrates in, they’re no longer retaining water like they used to.”

How do you know if you’re losing water weight or actual weight?

It’s tough to determine just how much fat you’re losing versus water weight. Salazar says that if you’re losing more than a couple of pounds per week, unfortunately, most of that is going to be water weight — realistically, your body isn’t going to lose that much weight that quickly.

There are more extreme cases, of course: If you watch The Biggest Loser and see someone drop 12 pounds in a week, they’re going to be losing water weight, fat and possibly even muscle due to the fact that their extreme calorie reduction may lack sufficient protein. These big drops in weight are achieved by being able to work out for hours and hours a day, basically the equivalent of a full-time job. “That’s why so many of those people gain the weight back after the show is over,” Salazar says.

Losing more is possible — especially if you’re trying to lose a lot of weight — but if you’re a fairly average size and seeing big drops in those first few weeks, or if you’re having weight fluctuations instead of steady drops, it’s probably mostly water weight that you’re losing.

Does water weight “count” when you’re trying to lose weight?

Salazar believes so. “If your diet is a temporary change, or an inconsistent one, then you’re going to see the water weight go right back on.” But, he continues, if you see yourself steadily lose weight after those initial few weeks, then you should feel free to count that water weight as gone.

Think of it like this: If you’re truly changing how you eat on a permanent basis by reducing your carb intake, you’re reconstituting your body’s makeup so it’s now adapted to consuming less carbohydrates. With that new lifestyle, your body will no longer retain such heavy amounts of water, so you won’t have so much of that water weight floating around inside you anymore.

Wasn’t that fun? Now, the next time someone undercuts your weight-loss victory, you can dazzle them with your vast knowledge of the subject. Or at the very least, you can understand why your all-calzone diet makes you feel as bloated as hot-air balloon.