You may have heard about water weight, wondered what it is, and maybe you’ve even got a class reunion coming up and wondered whether trying to lose water weight may be a quick way to lose a few pounds.
“It is important to recognize that most quick weight loss is at least partially due to a decrease in water weight that does not reflect a true body-fat weight loss,” says Jennifer L. Barnes, Ph.D., R.D., L.D.N., an assistant professor of family and consumer sciences at Illinois State University. Meaning, water-weight loss is temporary, and is not a good long-term solution for healthy weight loss.
But what is water weight? How would you lose it if you could? Are there times when it’s okay to focus on losing water weight? Read on.
What Is Water Weight?
Every tissue in your body is somewhere between 55 and 60 percent water, with your muscles packing in even more fluid, explains Barnes.
“This fluid is separated into different compartments both within and outside the cells,” she says. Water outside of cells includes blood plasma, lymphatic fluid, and water in between cells, which is critical to healthy cell signaling and function.
Long story short: Your body doesn’t function well without a significant amount of H2O floating through your bloodstream at any given time. Drinking water and staying hydrated is very important.
You can also get water from the foods you eat: According to the National Academy of Sciences, foods (like fruits and vegetables, which have high water content) can meet approximately 28 percent of your daily water intake.
How to Lose Water Weight
So let’s get one thing straight — generally speaking, when people talk about the kind of water weight they can manipulate, they’re usually talking about one of two things:
• There’s water retention, which comes from indulging in too much sodium, or from hormonal shifts that can occur naturally (as during menstruation) or because of lifestyle changes like a new exercise regime.
• There’s water weight, which is associated with the bodily fuel source glycogen that’s important to staying healthy.
Neither is bad. Neither hurts you. And again, targeting water weight is not a good permanent strategy for weight loss. But if, say, you just want to look extra svelte for that class reunion, there are a few things you do.
Minimize Water Retention
• Focus on Eating Whole Foods
More often than not, when it comes to minimizing water retention, it’s as simple as adopting a whole-foods eating strategy, says Kimberly Gomer, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., and director of nutrition at Pritikin Longevity Center + Spa in Miami.
She says it can be beneficial to integrate potassium-rich fruits and vegetables like bananas, avocados, and sweet potatoes into your eating plan, because potassium counters excess sodium in your body and leads to it being excreted through your urine.
But don’t sweat your potassium levels too much. Instead, just prioritize a balanced, varied diet rich in clean, whole foods to combat extra water weight.
• Curb Excess Sodium
“We don’t realize how much salt we consume as a nation, with most of it coming from restaurant and packaged foods,” says Gomer.
While sodium is an important electrolyte needed for cell signaling, if you consume it in excess, your body must retain water to keep blood level concentrations from soaring too high. “Once you get rid of added salt from your diet, you will notice you are constantly peeing,” Gomer adds.
• Don’t Stop Eating Carbs
Beyond salt, your carbohydrate intake has a huge impact on whether and how you store water — but that doesn’t mean it causes water retention.
When you consume carbs, your body stores them in the liver and skeletal muscles as glycogen, a preferred form of energy. “Glycogen is a hydrophilic, or water-loving, molecule, meaning that water is stored in conjunction with glycogen,” Barnes says. For every gram of glycogen you store away in your liver and muscles, you store three grams of water.
But that’s not water retention. Rather, it’s just part of that healthy 55 to 60 percent of you that should be water.
“The glycogen stored in the liver and muscles is the fuel we need for exercise — a good thing,” says Gomer.
• Don’t Stop Exercising
The stress of a new exercise regimen can cause water retention thanks to the hormone cortisol. While this can be frustrating when you step on the scale, it should pass as you adapt to your new fitness regimen.
• Stay Hydrated
Most importantly: Do not stop drinking water.
Chronic dehydration may contribute to fatigue, headaches, and overeating, among other issues.
And when you’re dehydrated, your body actually tends to retain more water — at least, it holds on to whatever water you do eat and drink — compared to when you’re adequately hydrated. You can thank your kidneys and hormones for that. “Fluid balance is tightly controlled in order to maintain adequate blood pressure,” says Barnes.
For premenstrual women, “Staying well-hydrated and not succumbing to the cravings for salt and carbs during this time can help reduce the visible swelling and discomfort,” says Julie Ellner, M.D., a San Diego-based bariatric surgeon.
2: What About Losing Additional Water Weight?
And what about that second kind of water weight? Is it possible to take water weight loss even further in a healthy way? Pro athletes and bodybuilders do — but with caveats.
Perhaps the most obvious example of quickly dropping water weight is seen in athletes who need to weigh in at a certain class before a big competition. Boxers, wrestlers, and MMA fighters have been known to dehydrate themselves to ensure they are within the acceptable weight range — and then, as soon as they step off the scale, they start rehydrating, gaining 10, 15, even 20 pounds in as little as 24 hours.
Figure and bodybuilding competitors go to similar extremes to “dry” their muscles prior to taking the stage. Forcing depleted glycogen levels enable their six-packs to pop and their muscles to look extra cut.
For professional athletes, these plans are conducted under the supervision of a team of physicians, dietitians, and trainers to help mediate any adverse health effects, Gomer says.
The Bottom Line
“Water weight is completely normal and fluctuates constantly,” says Elana Natker, M.S., R.D. As long as you follow a balanced diet focused on whole, healthy foods, drink plenty of H2O, and exercise regularly, your water weight will be where it needs to be.
To burn fat, lose weight, and keep that weight off requires the combination of proper nutrition, an exercise program that includes cardio and strength training, and patience. You didn’t gain that weight overnight, so you’re not going to lose it overnight.