Understanding water retention

By the time this blog goes out I expect you’ll be well into your weight training, running regime or whatever you’ve decided is your activity of choice to help you lose the extra pounds gained over the festive season.

Now, first of all I’ll say that it happens to all of us (we coaches included), so I sincerely hope you aren’t feeling too guilty for your waistline giving way a little bit, as evidence that you had a good time. Furthermore, I think it’s important that we discuss what really goes on when you wake up after 4-5 days of indulgence having gained nearly a stone.

That’s a lot of body fat (adipose tissue) to gain, like, an awful lot, and the chances are that a lot of the scale-weight that you’ve gained isn’t fat at all…

It’s not just at Christmas or during times of overeating either - I’m sure during the year you've been on the scales and seen an increase of 4–5 pounds and also on occasions, a decrease in the same poundage with no real explanation.

I was sent an email not long ago which really laid it out in very simple terms how much food we've got to consume to actually gain a pound of fat. Credit to Andy Morgan (checkout his site at RIPPEDBODY) for simplifying this here.

First thing to think about, and remember, is that 1g of glycogen holds 3g of water. Our muscles are made up of 70-80% water which is stored from our muscle glycogen. Glycogen is our body’s stored form of carbohydrate. Incidentally, we can turn any carb (sugar or starch) into it when we eat more carbs than we strictly need on a given day, and then use them later to train or do anything else.

If we eat fewer carbs than we need in a day (like most do when they start a diet, even if it’s not a ‘low carb diet’ per se, (calories need to be dropped from somewhere) our body – more specifically our muscles - will hold less water, therefore giving us the rather false impression that we've lost weight. This is why low carb dieting causes really rapid weight loss when you first start out.

On the other hand, if we eat more of our fill of carbs than normal, which tends to happen when we go on holiday or have big meals out with pizza on the menu, our body will hold a lot more glycogen – therefore water – making the scales go up!

What you need to understand, or at least learn to understand here is: don't let these temporary fluctuations in weight stress you out. In fact, stress can even make it worse, but that’s another story for another day.

I'll use myself as an example here. Now let's say 1lb of fat = 3500 calories of stored energy (this equation isn’t perfect but its good enough for illustration purposes). My rough maintenance is around 3000 with my day-to-day activity and movement. Even if we assume that all excess energy taken in over and above regular calorie maintenance is stored as body fat (which it isn't), then I'd have to consume 6500 calories just to gain a single pound of body fat.

Is that possible? Well yeah, you put me in front of a Brazilian style buffet and watch it happen. However, if you're eating pretty decently then it’s more likely that you and I have pulled in some more water with the increased carb intake, and maybe a touch more because of an increase in sodium. We also need to bear in mind that if you’re eating more food, in a physical volumetric sense, then this will take a long time to digest and all that food in your gut makes you weigh more too!

"So the take home message here is really, don't get stressed if you see these fluctuations in yourself and the scales.

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Below, in the words of Andy, is quite possibly the most outrageous/best mega-binge day of your life to bring home the point:

‘You start the day by gagging down some bullet-proof coffee with 100g of butter in it in a misguided effort to “ramp up your fat burning ketones” (or some nonsense like that) which you believe will offset the upcoming carnage.

For breakfast, you then proceed to eat the entire carrot cake your Aunt Mary made, because, well screw it, it’s your birthday, you don’t care about your diet on this day, and Aunt Mary’s cakes are awesome.

You catch up on the last few episodes of Game of Thrones while scoffing down an extra-large deluxe pizza, a big bag of cheese Doritos, and then to mourn the beheading of your favourite character you pop open a tub of Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream.

Breakfast and lunch conquered, you then roll out the door to meet the boys, proceed to drink 15 pints of Guinness up till evening, then get a large kebab each to ‘sober up’ before the club. You somehow manage to get past the doormen, and once inside, despite slamming down five double vodka red-bulls you’re all far too pissed to pick up any girls and you stagger out at kicking out time in search of a 3am chicken korma curry.

You wake up and remember none of this of course, but you’re sure you had a good time.

Happy 28th!’

Paints a rather good picture right?!

If we workout roughly how many calories are consumed in this epic day, we are looking at well in excess of 10,000 calories, 650g of fat, 1000g carbs and protein around 200g - and this is without the alcohol added on. So yeah, pretty decent eh?

Now if we imagine all of those calories will be stored as fat perfectly, we're still only talking approx. 3 pounds of fat gain (10,000/3200). The water gains here though, will probably leave you 8-12lbs better off.

Unless you’ve been eating like the above for the past 2 weeks, chill out. Go back to your normal eating (maybe a sensible and small deficit) and watch the weight slide back off as everything gets back to normal.

If you’re really bloated, here are a few easy ways to help stop water retention:

  1. Keep your salt intake relatively even. Salts are used by your renal system to help regulate blood volume and therefore subcutaneous water storage. Your body adapts to your typical salt intake (high or low) and assume this is normal – if you suddenly jack up your intake by inhaling a bag of Doritos, you will store a lot of water for a day or two. Salt your food during the year to make your typical salt intake moderate to high (this creates a buffer) and if you are eating more than usual for one day, stay hydrated.
  2. Increase your potassium intake from dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds. The balance between sodium and potassium is important for water storage.
  3. Keep fibre intake moderately high, but also even. A good fibre intake can help draw subcutaneous water away from your skin and into the digestive transit to help you process food, but then increasing this dramatically (Christmas day sprouts anyone?) gives your body a food bolus it’s not used to which, subsequently, takes a long time to digest. You’ll weigh more if you still have all of yesterday’s dinner in your lower colon.
  4. Keep your carbohydrate intake appropriate and relatively even. Drastic carbohydrate fluctuations like those seen in people’s diets who increase carbs on ‘training days’ and then eliminate them on ‘rest days’ will see glycogen storage swinging up and down like a drunken monkey.

So the take home message here is really, don't get stressed if you see these fluctuations in yourself and the scales. Do the basics, be consistent and understand that if you give it a few days and relax, you'll be back to your normal in no time. A day or two of indulgence can only do so much ‘damage’ and ‘fixing’ it doesn’t take drastic measures.