If you’re trying to lose weight, you’ll find one term popping up again and again: water weight. But what exactly is water weight?
“Our bodies, on average, are roughly 60% water,” says Matthew Landry, a nutrition and health promotion postdoctoral research fellow and registered dietitian nutritionist at the Stanford Prevention Research Center. And our water levels “can fluctuate by as much as 2 to 4 pounds in a single day.”
This number fluctuates based on how much water you’re drinking and how much water you’re losing through sweat or urination. This can have a noticeable effect on some people, especially when combined with a diet high in sodium and low in water.
What Is Water Weight?
Water weight is just that, the mass that water takes up “between and inside our cells,” according to Brenna Thompson, a licensed dietitian and nutritionist working at CityPT, a physical therapy practice in the Minneapolis area.
“Normally, fluids go to the kidneys from where they are excreted from the body through urination,” says Susan Kelly, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Costa Mesa, California. She currently works with Pacific Analytics, a diagnostic lab that conducts medical tests. “But when fluids retain in between the body organs and skin, it seems like the person has gained weight, which is not true because it is the water weight” and not weight from fat.
While water weight is often framed as a barrier to weight loss, it’s not a bad thing – your body needs water to function properly. Regulating body temperature, aiding in digestion and removing waste from the body and supporting brain and heart function are just a few of the jobs your body needs water for.
So if you’re drinking the recommended amount of water, 125 ounces for men and 95 ounces for women everyday, you’re going to have some water weight. However, certain factors may cause your body to hold on to more water than it needs to.
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What Causes Excess Water Weight?
A number of factors may cause your body to retain more water than usual, including:
- A sodium-rich diet.
- Hormonal changes.
- Standing or sitting too long.
A diet heavy in sodium is by far the most common cause of excess water weight. Though proper sodium levels are needed to stay hydrated, too much sodium can lead to water retention.
“When we eat sodium-rich meals, we retain extra fluid in our cells to balance out the high levels of salt,” Landry explains. The USDA recommends that Americans consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, and the American Heart Association sets the recommended daily limit at 1,500 milligrams.
Menstruation may cause bloating or mild water retention or in the days leading up to the first day of a period. This is due to a fluctuation of hormones.
Much of your body’s water is in your blood cells, and gravity naturally pulls blood to your lower extremities. This is why some people feel bloated after sitting for an extended period of time during air travel. If you have a sedentary job, this can also occur. An easy way to remedy this is to get up from your desk and move frequently during work to keep your blood pumping throughout the body. Try getting up every 30 minutes, and walking around for at least a minute or two.
It may sound counterintuitive, but if you’re habitually not drinking enough water, chances are you have excess water weight. This is because when we’re dehydrated, “our bodies tend to hang on to any extra fluids until our fluid balance is restored,” Landry says.
Certain medications may cause mild to moderate water retention, including antidepressants, some blood pressure medications and even over-the-counter pain relievers.
Though it’s not fully understood why, the tendency to hold on to extra water weight may run in families.
Mental factors like stress and anxiety can also be a factor.
“Physical and mental stress cause the body to produce cortisol, which signals another hormone called ‘anti-diuretic’ hormone,” Thompson says. “This cascade leads to less water loss, more retention and feelings of puffiness and bloating.”
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How to Get Rid of Water Weight
There are certain lifestyle and dietary changes you can make to decrease water weight. These include:
- Reduce your salt intake. Since your body retains extra water to balance out the extra sodium in your diet, reducing your sodium intake will reduce the amount of water your body needs to preserve. Avoid processed or packaged foods, as they often contain more salt than you’d think.
- Drink more water. The same logic applies to your water intake – with an increased intake of water, your body will need to hold on less of the water it already has to maintain hydration.
- Limit the amount of carbs you consume. “Each gram of carbohydrate held in our liver and muscle cells holds onto 4 grams of water,” Thompson explains. “If you cut out the carbs and deplete your glycogen stores, all that water will be released.” This is why you may initially lose weight rapidly on a low-carb diet: Most of this weight you’re losing is water weight.
- Avoid inflammatory foods. Thompson also advises reducing or eliminating things like sugar, alcohol, dairy and oils considered inflammatory, like soybean, corn, vegetable, cottonseed and canola oil, and seeing if you notice any changes.
- Reduce stress. Activities like meditation and mindful breathing have been proven to reduce stress, and therefore reduce cortisol production.
“If you return to healthy dietary habits,” says Dr. Pri Hennis, a family medicine physician with a private practice in Phoenix, Arizona. “You will notice water weight go away in one to two days.”
How to Tell If Your Weight Loss Is Water Weight
Since water weight will fluctuate daily, how quickly you’re losing weight is a big indicator of whether it’s fat or water that you’re losing.
If you lose, say, two pounds overnight, that was probably water weight. But if you’re losing weight slowly and consistently over a steady period of weeks or months, then what you’re losing is fat. This is why many diets that promise fast weight loss often target water weight, not fat.
“The same is true for weight gain,” Landry adds. “If you step on a scale and notice that you’re 2 pounds heavier than you were the day before, you’re probably holding onto excess water.”
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Bloating vs. Water Weight
Though both bloating and water weight can make you temporarily look or feel like you’ve gained weight, bloating is not the same as water weight.
There’s an easy way to tell the difference: location.
“You can tell if you are having bloating if you notice that your usually soft belly becomes firm for a day or two and goes back to its soft self in one to two days,” says Hennis.
Water weight, on the other hand, is not centrally located in the abdomen region. The excess may appear anywhere throughout the body, including the face, legs and, particularly, the ankles.
Also, water weight may be accompanied by mental signifiers that bloating does not have, like feeling “tired, heavier and uneasy,” according to Hennis.
Chronic Water Retention
While mild water-related fluctuations in your weight are normal, if you’re noticing extreme fluctuations that either begin unprompted or are not improved by diet and lifestyle changes, this could be a symptom of something more serious.
“Chronic fluid retention may be a symptom of heart, kidney, liver or lung disease or other underlying conditions and should be diagnosed by a medical doctor,” Landry says. If you’re experiencing the symptoms of water weight for more than a week, it’s a good idea to bring it up with your physician.