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Are You Losing Body Fat Or Water?

By Meri Raffetto

"I tried that diet and lost 8 pounds in the first week!

"I've gained three pounds in one day! It must have been the cookie I ate or maybe the mashed potatoes!

Stepping on the scale can become an anxiety filled event that leaves people wondering where they went wrong when the numbers don't go in the right direction. This leads to panic and usually ends with blaming a particular food item that really wasn't the culprit. Everyone who has been on a journey to lose weight has been there before. Even though you are following your plan and exercising regularly the number may go up 1-2 pounds or even up to 3-4 pounds creating unnecessary guilt that we have failed somehow. If it's not always food that makes our weight creep up then what is it that causes these fluctuations on the scale?

When trying to lose weight the scale often becomes the only measurement of success and this makes it difficult to remember that every time we step on a scale it is measuring every part of our physical being at that moment in time, which means it measures our fat, muscles, organs, tissue and water weight. Body fat is not the only thing being measured. While organs and tissue don't change much; fat, muscle, and water do change which can result in fluctuating numbers on the scale.

Water weight can affect your total weight anywhere from 1-10 pounds and sometimes even more. It is important to understand what kinds of dietary factors can make these fluid shifts happen. To start, many of the high protein, low carbohydrate diets can cause a dramatic shift in your water weight. This is because as you cut back carbohydrate intake your body starts breaking down the stored carbohydrates (glycogen) to use as energy, and this breakdown causes the body to excrete large amounts of water. Once the body begins to use stored fat for energy, weight loss slows. This is the reason why most people lose a significant amount of weight right away on a low carb, high protein diet. Extreme low carb, high protein diets can potentially lead to dehydration because of this significant fluid loss.

When a person following a low carb plan eats a carbohydrate-rich food they can easily gain 1-3 pounds. However, this weight gain can be misleading because it is usually your body replenishing the fluid it lost and not gained fat. This 3 pound fluctuation becomes frustrating for many people and they end up yo-yoing back and forth with fluid weight thinking that it must be the half cup of rice they had the night before that caused them to gain that 3 pounds when in fact eating the rice just allowed them to regain some of the fluid they had lost from following a strict low carb plan. The fact is carbohydrates do not affect your weight quite that simply. Excess carbohydrates can strongly stimulate insulin production, which promotes fat deposition and increases appetite. This kind of weight gain will happen gradually, not dramatically overnight.

Sodium is another dietary component that can lead to fluid gain. Sodium can cause the body to retain fluid, leading to these frustrating daily weight fluctuations. Some people are more sensitive to sodium than others. Watch your diet and see if your weight gain corresponds with a high sodium meal the day before. For example, eating out in restaurants can often increase your sodium intake significantly.

The best way to tell if you are retaining fluid is to pay attention to your body. If you get indentations on your ankles and lower legs from your socks then you are retaining fluid. If you wear rings and they become tight and leave an imprint in your fingers when you take them off then you also retaining fluid. Any kind of puffiness in your skin is a good indication of water weight.

The bottom line is that it takes 3500 calories to gain or lose 1 pound of body fat. This equates to an extra 500 calories a day over 7 days to gain a pound. This means if you gained 3 pounds in one day you can chalk it up to fluid weight otherwise you would have had to consume 10,500 extra calories that day which is not likely! True weight gain happens gradually and likewise we lose it gradually. Check your weight weekly instead of daily and look for overall trends. If you are seeing dramatic daily changes in your weight, it is likely the ever-changing shifts of our body's water weight.

© Meri Raffetto, 2006

About The Author

Meri Raffetto - Owner of Real Living Nutrition Services, Meri Raffetto is a Registered Dietitian and recognized professional in the area of nutrition and wellness. She specializes in weight management and offers online programs to help people reach their weight loss and health goals. For more information visit


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