Maybe I’m a weirdo, but I think starting a diet can be fun. I know, I know, if you’re trying to lose weight you can’t wolf down pastries with your previous level of gay abandon. You certainly can’t quaff quite the same number of pornstar martinis on a Friday, and the second bacon sandwich of the day might have to be curtailed if you want to finally squeeze into the jeans you haven’t worn for the last year. Despite this, I still set about every new diet like a spaniel after a tennis ball. However, the fun doesn’t last for long.
My falling out of love with a diet doesn’t come from hunger, restriction, or the chore of counting calories. It’s frustration. However well things are going at first, at some point, I’ll stop losing weight. I might try moving the scales to a different spot on the floor, changing the batteries, or wagging my finger angrily in their general direction; but it’s no use. Weeks can go by without a change, and after a while, all I want to do is throw in the towel.
If you’ve dieted for any period of time, you’ve likely experienced the same thing. Everything is going swimmingly until it all grinds to a halt. The normal reaction would be to push harder, to drop calories further, increase cardio, and tough it out. Sometimes, though, to get things moving again, you need to do the opposite.
If you’re consuming fewer calories than you burn but your weight isn’t changing, the culprit is water retention.
There can be several reasons that your body retains water, but we’re only interested in one right now; stress. This isn’t the type of stress that you feel when you have a job interview the next day and you haven’t prepared or it yet, it’s something much more subtle.
Your body sees lots of things as stressors. Exercise for example. While exercise is certainly good for us, it’s still stress for the body and the harder you exercise, the more “stressful” it is. You see the same thing with dieting. Going on a diet increases the stress your body perceives, with fewer calories and harder cuts resulting in a greater amount. Stress, in this sense, is measured by an increase in cortisol, otherwise known as “the stress hormone”. When cortisol is high, you retain water.
While dieting and exercise are natural stressors, cortisol is also elevated by other regular stressful events like work deadlines or a nightmare commute. The more stress you feel, the higher the cortisol, the greater the water retention.
It’s important to point out that elevated levels of cortisol won’t affect fat loss in any way. If you’re in a calorie deficit, you’re losing fat; full stop. The hard part is not seeing the scale move down. A diet set up to drop 300g to 500g of fat each week can still be going on in the background, but carrying an extra 2 to 4kg of water weight will make it look like there’s nothing going on. All of this leads to greater frustration and stress, which compounds the problem further. It’s at times like this that action should be taken, even if that action is the opposite of what you’d think.
When weight loss grinds to a halt, the natural inclination is to push harder, cutting calories and upping cardio in the bid to get things moving again. Where water retention is concerned, the best way to get rid of it is to ditch that approach and take a diet break.
Diet breaks are usually met with some level of scepticism. The biggest objection by far being that it’s just a waste of time. I get that. If you’ve only got 6 weeks left to hit your goal weight, it might seem like taking a break now is only going to impact the amount of fat you could lose. Thinking like that is, however, a mistake. In fact, the leaner you are, the more often you should take a break.
The goal of a diet break is to get out of a deficit for one to two weeks in order to give you a psychological and physiological rest from constant dieting. You do this by raising calories to maintenance levels.
- As a ballpark to estimating our maintenance calories, take your current weight in kilograms and multiply it by 30.
- So, 65kg x 30 = 1670
In this period, take advantage of eating some of the foods you might have liked to eat a bit more of in the last few weeks, but keep things fairly tight. Stuffing yourself and going way over your calculated maintenance will only result in gaining fat back and that’s not what we want. You might gain weight initially, but this is just due to more stomach contents and greater storage of carbs in your muscles and liver.
What usually happens is that after the diet break, all of a sudden the weight starts to drop. Sometimes it can happen overnight. Many of my clients have gone to bed only to wake up 2kg, or more, lighter. This isn’t fat loss, this is stress relief. As the chronically high levels of cortisol drop, their effect on water retention dissipates, resulting in rapid weight loss.
After the break is over, you go straight back into a deficit again. What you should find is that your weight moves down at a steady pace again, just like when you started. For people on long-term diets, throwing a week’s worth of break in every 6 to 8 weeks is a good bet, or you can use a break whenever your weight has plateaued for longer than 3 weeks.
- If you’re consuming fewer calories than you burn but your weight is going down, you are retaining water.
- You are still losing fat in the background, but this is being masked by the water retention.
- When this happens for 3 to 4 weeks, take a diet break by raising calories to maintenance levels for a week or two and say bye bye to water retention.
Just because the scales aren’t moving doesn’t mean you aren’t losing fat. If you’re doing everything right and still not seeing results, water retention is likely the culprit. In times like these, taking a break rather than cutting calories and upping your cardio is the best way to get things moving again.
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