Thursday, January 21, 2010

How to Deal With Water Retention: Part One

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.


Andrew said...

Brad Pilon wrote about this, if memory serves he referred to it as dietary edema. Great post. To my mind this is how a lot of so called "Leptin manipulating diets" work, the problem I have with them is the amount of people/clients I have spoken to who have used this as a justification for a huge binge!

Eileen said...

I have found two things work really well for me to relieve water retention. The first is intermittment fasting. The second is swimming.

Anonymous said...

Great article. Very interesting. Looking Forward to part two!

Tan Yew Wei said...

I do find avoiding certain kinds of foods to be key. On of top that, high carb refeeds do wonders with me.

It seems like people get water retention when they consume some specific types of foods, often with no discernible pattern. Eg: I get bloat from pickles and not from soy sauce.

Sorta like why some people seem to gravitate to certain food choices with high carb refeeding; we don't know enough.

Perhaps I'm wrong, and you can correct me. Or perhaps I spoke to soon, and you'll write about this in part 2, so I'll look forward to that.

Jon Fernandes said...

I agree with Eileen, IFing seems to always keep me on the dryer side. It is really cool because i am bulking right now.

Anonymous said...

My first experience with severe water retention occurred a few years ago. After weight loss began to stall at sub-1,000 kcal/day, I began to get frustrated and incorporated HIIT three times per week. Virtually no weight loss during this time. I got injured and was forced to rest. During my two weeks off, I lost more weight than I had than when I was training like a maniac. Lesson learned.

Looking forward to part II.

Martin Berkhan said...


That's interesting. I've experienced similar things, i.e specific foods being the issue and not sodium content per se. Might be some slight food intolerance issue at play or the preservatives used for the pickles.

Martin Berkhan said...


I know what you mean. Refeeds are problematic for some.

soultransfer said...

great article martin!
starting a diet at a calorie intake of 2000kcal and less than 50g carbs, i look best after 3 days into that. people say i would look amazing, my eyes are much difference in my appearance.
if i hold onto that diet pattern on day 4-5 the squishy look comes back. once i thought i'd have to cut carbs further but that made the situation even worse.

so i ve learned to place a increased carb intakte on day 4 or 5.
this effects that i look amazing on day 6. (maybe cortisol goes back and carbs are pulling water into the cell).

but from this point on i got problems. on day 7 the squishy look usually comes back. and i dont know what to do then. actually i'm carb loaded, but on the other a hand carb restriction doesnt get results either.

remember: what i'm talking about is just appearance. my goal is not weight loss in the first place. it's more like looking great every day

you talk about the Na-K-AtPase in your article, right?
would be interesting to know, what parameters keeps it running.

joakim said...

Hey martin, thanks for another great post.

My question has to do with cortisol and in particular the caloric level at which you can do more bad than good when cutting down calories.

Right now, I am on a 16/8 IF regimen as you suggest with my daily caloric intake in the range of 1200 - 1600.

Is this too low in terms of cortisol secretion?

Even if it does, will a 2000 - 2500 meal "refeed" meal help to make things even in terms of cortisol?

note: I am currently at 12% BF on a cut to 8%.

Thanks a bunch man.

Martin Berkhan said...

It would depend on your regular maintenance, i.e how much of a weekly calorie deficit does 1200-1600 kcal/day yield, and if you have the problems described in the article (and if you consider it a problem).

Fitto13 said...

thanks for the twitter comment mate... i don't have an account on that thing so i couldn't post anything there. funny read though.

great article once again. they just keep on coming!

it's just plain and simple, IF is the only recommendation i'd give for dieting and the only one i'll do.

any rough idea on what month or something the book may come out?
be veyr keen to hear back on the higher frequency articles too.
after pt2 of course

Manveet said...

I seldom experience linear weight loss on a diet.

The fat always comes off in bunches.

Doesn't really matter what type of approach I follow.

The key has always been patience. I usually give myself 2 weeks if I think I have stalled before cutting cals again or adding more activity.

Martin Berkhan said...


'any rough idea on what month or something the book may come out?'

Nope. Seeing how bad I've done with past deadlines, I'm not saying anything until basically a few days before it's available. It ain't gonna be in Feb, that much I can tell you.

'be veyr keen to hear back on the higher frequency articles too.
after pt2 of course'

Yeah, I'll see when I can fit it in.

Martin Berkhan said...


Two weeks is a good time to give a new setup before making any alterations to it whatsoever. Problem is most people aren't that patient. They cut calories on impulse, not reason.

Justin said...

Whenever water retention is bothering me the only methods I've seen work is cutting carbs for a day or 2 or IF. IF seems to be easier and actually makes me feel "cleansed" Low carb seems to upset my stomach and sleep patterns. Both work however.

Eileen said...

Can't wait to read part 2!! I am curious how general an observation it is that IF keeps people on the dryer side. I low carb too, but without IF still puff up pretty easily and unpredictably. To me, the most striking change I noticed when I incorporated Martin's 16/8 IF was how dry I've been, even on a day I did a carb up. Thanks for writing this blog Martin!!! In addition to all the obvious other benefits of IF (reduced hunger on a calorie deficit, ability to eat satisfying meals, etc.) I really think IF works well psychologically because by controlling water fluctuations, one can see results, and therefore better tolerate a caloric deficit.

Martin Berkhan said...

Eileen, I've heard it quite a few times (how IF keeps you dry). I suspect it might have something to do with the fact that the fast gives you a chance to dry out vs walking around semi-bloated all the time like some experience with higher meal frequency plans. I'm definitely my driest at the end of the fast and the difference can be quite pronounced vs 1-2 hrs after feeding.

Part two will be up soon, just been very busy lately.

Jon Fernandes said...


I notice the same thing in regards to being the driest towards the end of the fast.

Being mainly dry most of the time is always a plus. Especially when you go to the beach LOL.

polarbear said...

Very interesting article and several nice comments.

The refeeding of carbs and this article has some things in common.

Frank Dobner said...

Hey this is some great content here. I am still getting my arms around water retention and want to get my hands on the Minnesota stud to read the facts.


Martin Berkhan said...

Thanks, Frank. But this isn't a study you can pull of PubMed. The experiment was covered in full in Keys book The Biology of Human Starvation and in a more narrative sense in Tucker's book The Great Starvation Experiment.

Have a look at this

for more on the experiment.

Frank Dobner said...

Thanks Martin. I order the second book already last evening. I have heard about this study in many places, including your blog.

Jo said...

Apologies if this is blindingly obvious and I can't see it, but perhaps you could link to part 2 from this page.


Martin Berkhan said...

Anonymous said...

Yep, I was in the last week of a 30 day juice fast and lost zero pounds. Then I ate and dropped 4 pounds overnight. I'm just starting IF and it seems I have mini episodes of water retention on my fasting days. But then I eat and it goes away.

J. M. Keynes said...

Often I will go long stints with eating very clean, and then get extremely frustrated with the way I look.

Then one night, typically a weekend, I wil end up eating way more than I normally do.

Almost always, the next day, I am down a couple pounds and looking much trimmer. This possibly explains a lot.

1) Do you think this would explain the idea of a "cheat day"?

2) Are there any methods to get the "whoosh" affect without consuming more? P
reventing the water retention in the first place? Or is this something you just have to deal with and wait to pass?

US RENTALS said...

oh get to the fucking point

Tez said...

At the risk of sounding like captain obvious, I'd suggest ignoring the weight number entirely and focus solely on body composition—what you see in the mirror and what your BF measurements tell you.

I bought a bathroom scale a few years back that measures body fat percentage as well as weight. I can't imagine it being 100% accurate but it seems to get close enough that it definitely detects the changes I see in the mirror. Last Sunday I weighed myself and measured body fat and took note of both figures in my fitness journal. Yesterday I weighed myself just to see how much water weight I had gained after a hedonistic cheat day full of sodium filled goodness. And lo, I had gained seemingly 7 lb.s in a day! But the body fat percentage number was actually slightly lower, which is all I care about.

Unknown said...

Great, informative post thank you! I had vaguely heard about this, but I didn't realize to what extent it could occur. And it's really good to find a post that actually explains something and backs it up, as opposed to the usual banalities most dieting articles copy from one another.

Kumat Mebro said...

This explains a LOT for me. Trying to cut for uni, I gave myself the target of 83kg (started at 92kg around easter). So I lost about 1-2lbs per week at first, as expected, but I plateaued at about 87kg for about a MONTH and I couldn't understand why. So I got pretty pissed that it was almost time for uni and I hadn't reached my goal.

Literally a day before I went back to uni, I had a large nandos (probably ate just over maintainence). The next day, I was unpacking in my new room and noticed that I was a shit load slimmer (I think I pissed loads the night before too). Didn't quite reach my goal of 83kg in time, but down to 84kg now.

Haven't got any scales at uni, but I think I'm down to 83kg, or at the very least 83.5kg! Cheers for clearing my confusion up Martin!

M. Ryan said...

Interesting, on the flip side when I train the hardest for example during marathon run training, I tend to put on a fair amount of weight and retain water like crazy. It also seems to correlate with an increase in mileage. Even happens if I cut back slightly on food intake. Drives me nuts.

My name is Martin Berkhan and I work as a nutritional consultant, magazine writer and personal trainer.

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