I am a lifelong diet and fitness student. I have been writing fitness and nutrition articles and coaching for over 15 years.
If you’ve ever been on a serious diet for more than a couple weeks, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that the road to a leaner body does not go in a straight line. Despite the fact that you have followed your prescribed diet exactly, made all your workouts and done everything right, after a week or so, you stopped losing weight, or even gained weight. But you persevered and miraculously after a few more days, off went two or three pounds in what seemed like an instant. This has been the experience of everyone who has ever dieted, yet it can be mentally crushing and demoralizing to achieving your goals when progress stops or reverses for seemingly no reason. Once we stop losing weight, we think we are doing something wrong and make a big change, or even more often, we quit. “I tried dieting; it didn’t work despite my best effort” we think to ourselves.
So why does this happen? The short answer is that there is no short answer. Weight loss is complicated, the human body is more complicated, the human brain is even more complicated, and there’s enough variables that I couldn’t possibly touch on them all, but I’ll give it a shot. Here goes.
Let’s first understand what fat is. A fat cell is essentially a shell, filled with a mixture of water and triglycerides. Triglycerides are the actual fat energy, and what is important. These fat cells have the ability to expand and contract, and do so quite regularly, either when we fill them with more triglycerides (we get fatter) or we retain more water (which could be hormonal, a function of electrolytes or overall body hydration). There is no set ratio of triglycerides to water within these fat cells. It is not like a 1:1 mixture, its not even close. We can have very dry fat cells high in triglycerides and very waterlogged fat cells, low in triglycerides. The bad part is, a fat cell filled with 10 parts water and 1 part triglycerides is the same size and looks exactly like a fat cell with 10 parts triglycerides to 1 part water, there is no difference, not even in body fat tests can a difference be deciphered to any degree of accuracy. This is what makes fat such a tricky thing. All we can really measure is the total volume of our fat cells, but have very little ability (outside of dissection) to determine how much of those fat cells are water and how much are triglycerides (actual fat energy). So, let’s say two people, both have the exact same volume of fat cells, and will thus measure the same amount of body fat. However, one is dehydrated and very triglyceride heavy, while the other is bloated with water but has much lower triglyceride content, the former has far more functional fat, or overall fat energy….So fast forward a week and there’s an overwhelming chance the high triglyceride person will show much more fat once the water balances out between the two, as one is bound to end up holding more water in heir fat and the other less, based on where they were in the first measurement.
So now let’s understand what happens within fat cells as we lose weight/fat. Let’s say we sufficiently reduce our energy intake to the point we are using our bodyfat (triglyceride stores) for energy. (In other words, we are burning fat) Here is the tricky part. As we burn triglycerides, our fat cells tend to quickly replenish the burnt triglycerides within the fat cells with more water to remain the same size. So, let’s say you just ran 20 miles and burned 2000 calories worth of stored bodyfat/triglycerides, but then to rehydrate after your run, you pound a half gallon of water. The body will invariably fill these fat cells with that water to about the same size (or even bigger) than they were before the run. So, from a “fat volume” standpoint, you have lost zero fat. However, these fat cells now have less energy (triglycerides) and more water, so functionally are less fat energy stores (call it less fatty fat). Further, after a few hours or a few days (depending on more factors I can mention, primarily hormones and diet) and the body will adapt and the fat cells will surrender their water stores to a pre-running ratio of triglycerides to water within the fat cells. So, while you burned the fat energy during your run on Sunday, because of water retention, you may not realize that fat loss until Friday when the body relinquishes the intracellular water.
The net result of this is total confusion for the dieter. The ran like hell on Sunday, but lost no weight and look the same. Then they sat on the couch for three days and three pounds fell off in one day. This makes no sense, but that’s reality. Unfortunately, this often causes many to quit dieting or make some ill-advised changes based on this screwy feedback that can often sabotage the results going forward.
There are a few things you can do to keep your sanity and keep on track with the diet though. First, keeping this information in mind should be a huge help. As even though it might not LOOK like you are making progress, you actually are, and you can rest assured in this. Secondly, don’t weigh and measure yourself so often. Weighing yourself daily or every other day is a recipe for bad decisions. Create a logical plan, follow it, and review it about once per week. Take your time to fully assess what’s going on. Lastly, as to not exacerbate the water retention situation, not only should you drink plenty of water, but you should drink a steady, consistent amount of water on a day to day and hour to hour basis. That is, drinking a total of 16 ounces of water from morning until 7pm then pounding a gallon of water from 7-10pm to “get all your water in” is not anything remotely similar to drinking even proportions of water every hour throughout the day. So, keep it steady. Your water will still fluctuate (a lot) but you’ll be better off doing it this way.