In an ideal world, weight loss would be perfectly linear.

You’d lose weight in a predictable manner, seeing small but consistent changes each passing day. But this is rarely the case, which my experience has proven me many times over.

If you’ve ever been on a diet and tracked your progress with the scale or the mirror, you’re probably familiar with water retention and long weight loss plateaus. Even though your diet is on point, nothing seems to be happening.

Stalling at the same scale weight for weeks is not unheard of – I’ve experienced it myself. Fortunately, these phases are followed by rapid weight loss seemingly over night. This delayed weight loss is often referred to as the “whoosh”-effect. Nothing for weeks…and then whoosh, 2-4 lbs lost over night. What triggers a whoosh? No one knows, but Lyle McDonald offered a hypothesis based on something his old exercise physiology professor said.

So what’s the big deal here? The issue with water retention is the frustration it brings while waiting for the whoosh.

Waking up every morning to see no progress on the scale can have profound effects on your motivation to maintain your diet and training regimen. Why put in all this effort when nothing is happening? Doubt creeps up. Maybe you’re eating too much? Maybe you’re not doing enough cardio, maybe your carb intake is too high? So you cut calories and increase cardio in the hopes that it will get the scale moving down again. If we’re talking water retention (and not an actual stall), this has the potential to actually worsen the situation. Dumbfounded you watch as your weight creeps up even higher despite your ambitious attempts to set things right.

So at times like these, it’s no wonder that people are likely to say “screw this shit” and go off their diet for a day. Or two. Or a week. In the worst case it triggers a binge that sets them back several days or weeks. Not good.

Given the negative impact of water retention on your morale, knowing the causes for water retention, and how to deal with it, can be very useful when you find yourself in this situation.

Water retention – what is it?

Water retention (or edema which is the term used by the medical establishment) is a common, concrete phenomenon that occurs during calorie restriction. It’s not just some trivial vanity issue unique to the fitness crowd.

The magnitude of water retention varies; most often it’s mild, but enough to obscure your fat loss results on a short-term basis. Sometimes it’s more prominent, giving you the impression that nothing is happening for weeks. More severe types of water retention are a common characteristic of malnutrition and life-threatening starvation; it can be so extreme that people will appear to lose no weight at all, as greater amounts of fluids accumulate under the skin. Jewish doctors often observed this phenomenon in the Warsaw ghettos during World War 2.

Water retention can take many forms, such as swollen watery tissue or as an accumulation of fluids in the stomach, chest, lower body and in between joints. You might notice it in the form of fat that feels “squishy” or in the form of red strech marks when waking up in the morning. You can also notice it on your ankles when taking your socks off in the evening; the pressure from the socks leaves an indentation, which might be barely noticeable (no water retention) or big enough to fit half of your thumb in (an extreme example as told to me by a competitor after three days of post-competition binging and gaining 35 lbs). The latter is called pitting edema.

During starvation, inadequate nutrition depresses the pumping mechanisms within the cell that keeps excess salt and water out. The cell deteriorates and the distinction between in and out is lost. However, for the average Joe out there, water retention is more often related to daily shifts in water and salt intake.

Lessons from The Minnesota Experiment

In the Minnesota Experiment during World War 2, men willingly embarked on a semi-starvation-like regimen designed by Dr Ancel Keys. Yes, that’s the same Keys who “discovered” a connection between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease – a controversial figure. But I digress. The objective of this study was to observe the effects of semi-starvation and to establish guidelines for properly refeeding war prisoners (this is critical, since refeeding victims of starvation can lead to cardiac arrest due to massive mineral and electrolyte fluctuations). His findings were later published in two books: The Biology of Human Starvation: Volume I
and The Biology of Human Starvation: Volume II

A lot can be written about this fascinating experiment, but at this point I want to highlight some curious happenings related to the topic at hand. First of all, this wasn’t quite starvation per se. The men were getting 1500-1800 kcal per day, while engaging in moderate amounts of daily activity, and that’s not too far off from the usual diet fare today. The main difference being that this was done in a controlled setting lasting six months, which is longer than most people would endure a dieting stint.

At the start of the study, the men were losing weight linearly, dropping about 2 lbs per week. However, after some time the weight loss became erratic and unpredictable. No longer was it linear, but rather it occurred in “bursts” with long periods of plateaus. The researchers overseeing the experiment noted that water retention was noticeable in most men and in some cases quite severe.

Half-way through the study the men were allowed a relief dinner to celebrate their progress. One big meal of 2300 kcal was served; roasted chicken, potatoes, gravy and strawberry shortcake. That night everyone got up more often than usual to urinate. The next day they discovered that they had each lost several pounds.

This was not a one-time occurrence. When the experiment was over and the refeeding phase began, the men continued to drop weight at an accelerated rate until calories were increased substantially.

What I want you to take away from this is the following:

  • Refeeding can cause rapid weight loss, a whoosh. This seems counter intuitive, but it’s a phenomenon observed in the scientific literature and retold by many dieters. My clients experience this, and so do people embarking on diet regimens where planned carb refeeds are integral parts of the plan (for example, The Ultimate Diet 2.0).
  • In my experience, the more severe and rigorous the diet, the higher the likelihood of retaining water. In simple terms, higher calorie deficits usually result in more erratic, non-linear weight loss. This is not a proven fact, but rather a hypothesis based on what I have observed throughout the years – and it has some backing if we look at the weight loss curve observed in starvation and studies like The Minnesota Experiment.
  • The hypothesis has credibility if we look at the hormonal response to starvation diets. “Starvation diets” in this context simply mean any diet approach that results in a very high weekly caloric deficit created through diet and/or exercise. This is perceived as a significant stress to the body, to which it responds with chronically raised levels of cortisol. Some cortisol is great, but too much of it is very bad; and studies suggest that cortisol increases in a dose-dependent manner related to the calorie deficit. Prolonged elevations of cortisol can lead to massive water retention. If you’ve ever been treated with hydrocortisone, a pharmaceutical form of cortisol, you know what I mean.
  • The above makes me wonder if the myth of “starvation mode” is actually perpetuated by extreme dieters who find themselves not losing any weight on starvation-level caloric intake (due to severe water retention obscuring weight loss). While some metabolic slowdown occurs during any diet, it’s never so profound that it completely negates a substantial calorie deficit. For example, during The Minnesota Experiment the researchers noted a 15-20% reduction in basal metabolic rate at the end of the study (it was actually 40% compared to the start of the study, but this was due to a higher body weight; a large percentage of the drop could be explained by the simple fact that they weighed less and not due to any hormonal impact).

Now you know a little bit about the erratic nature of water retention and the impact it can have on your body weight and diet adherence. In part two I will get a little more practical and tell you about some effective strategies that can help you deal with it if it rears it’s ugly head.

Also, feel free to comment, e-mail me or share your own strategies if you have found something that works for you.