Over the course of this past week, I lost eight pounds according to my scale. Pretty awesome, right? To put that into perspective, that’s about 5% of my total body mass. Was my caloric deficit for the week really twenty eight THOUSAND calories? Did I actually drop 8 pounds of fat in seven days? Not a chance. My actual caloric deficit for the week when accounting for diet and exercise was somewhere around 5000 calories, because I’m targeting about a pound and a half per week of fat loss. So where did that extra six and a half pounds come from and go?
Welcome to the world of water balance shenanigans. If you go on a very low carb diet, you will see an immediate scale drop of 5+ pounds. If you then go out and have a massive pasta dinner, the next day the scale will be up at least that much the next morning. Is this an actual fat or muscle mass gain or loss? Basically, no. A tiny bit of it maybe, but the vast majority is going to be water weight.
The reason you see that big shift when removing carbs or binging, especially with low carb dieting, is because dieting generally depletes your muscle glycogen, which is an intra-muscular energy source, used to fuel your daily activities. And for every gram of glycogen you have in your muscles, you also store 2.7 grams of water. This whole storage system amounts to about 5-10% of your total body mass, which means that you can possibly see shifts of up to this much on an almost daily basis, according to the scale.
In addition to muscle glycogen and the associated water storage, your body also (obviously) uses water for a ton of other things. Stress and cortisol levels are one of the things that can have a big individual effect on water balance, and is also why you will occasionally see no progress at all for a week or more, then the morning after you go out for a big celebration or “fuck this dieting shit” meal, you will magically be five pounds lighter.
For the ladies in the crowd, the water balance bullshit you have to deal with is even worse. Because of the way your hormones do crazy shit with your water balance, you could possibly see absolutely zero progress on the scale for a full month or more, even if you are doing everything right. This doesn’t mean that you have actually stalled, but rather that your body just hates you. Or loves you so much just like you are that it wants to pretend that you will never change.
I’ve said a number of times that if I could ever manage to make fat loss completely linear without having to worry about water balance shenanigans, I could retire tomorrow. Without even speeding it up at all.
This is one reason I am a big fan of not only using the scale weight to track progress when dieting. I also use weekly circumference and skinfold measurements to track my progress. So long as you are seeing improvements on one of these, you know you are still making progress, and shouldn’t freak out. I recently had one week of really slow scale progress, then a two week period where the scale didn’t budge at all. Not even 0.1 of a lb loss over two weeks. But my skinfolds kept going down, and my other measurements went down as well. So I trusted that it was all working and that I should just keep going, even though it was really really hard to not just rage-quit and answer the siren call of the peanut M&M’s. Then this past week I dropped 8lb.
Even knowing all of the facts about water balance and whatnot, it can be really difficult to ignore the day to day scale weight. When I am dieting, nothing starts my day off worse than having the scale spike by a few pounds for no apparent reason. I know it’s just water balance or extra food mass or an increased sodium intake. I know that it will be gone in a day or two. I know that no single weigh in really matters, so long as I am doing everything right. I know that the thing that really matters is the trendline in my weight tracker, not the daily.
It still sucks. I don’t have a good answer for this one, I’m afraid. Just trust the program. Trust that you are doing things right. Know that in a month you probably won’t even remember the specifics of today. But don’t let a shitty morning weigh-in drive you to go on a food bender and actually destroy whatever progress you’ve made. “The scale went up this morning so I’m going to make myself really fat by eating an entire buffet including the hostess and server!” Is not a healthy choice.
The only person who can make good choices for you is you. So go forth, make good choices, and be awesome.