If you are dieting or are planning to start a diet, you need to understand the connection between bodyweight and glycogen, that is how carbohydrates get stored in your liver and muscles, so you don’t overestimate your weight loss as you cut carbs—or your weight gain if you add some back. Understand the connection and you’ll have a much better chance of keeping your cool for the long-haul when swings inevitably happen.
So what exactly is going on?
So, What is “Water Weight?”
Your body stores energy as fat and glycogen. Whereas fat stores can vary dramatically from person to person, your body can only store so much energy as glycogen.
Glycogen requires water to be stored. In the initial stages of diet/caloric restriction and exercise, your body depletes these glycogen stores, reducing your bodyweight from the elimination of both the weight of the stored glycogen and the weight of the water. Note that nowhere in this process is the much-desired loss of fat!
Therefore, the Quickest Weight Loss on a Diet is Water Weight
Thus, even as it will feel good to shed 5 – 10 lbs. simply from a few days of exercise mixed with a caloric-restricted diet, the weight loss will be primarily from a reduction in glycogen stores and water. In other words, what you’ll have lost in the beginning is really little more than water weight.
Take heart in understanding the relationship between glycogen stores and bodyweight as an improved understanding will help you set realistic expectations on whatever diet or exercise regiment you are undertaking.
And Make Your Weight Fluctuate on a Day-to-Day Basis While Dieting
I’ve tracked my weight on a day-to-day basis a number of times over the years. Most recently, in 2018, while doing The Leangains Method, so long as I had a scale at hand (e.g. not out of town, on vacation, etc.), I was able to “weigh in.”
Over 18 weeks or so, you can see what that looked like—blue line is daily, red line is a rolling seven day average:
What I want to point out are the spikes. First, look at the initial drop from 193 to 188 in a handful of days. Water weight!
Know that once you resume your diet or even just reduce your carb intake, your weight will drop right back to the average in short order.
From there, you’ll see minor blips but overall a consistent trendline as evidenced by the rolling seven day average. However, all the annotated bits—Mother’s Day, beach vacation, Father’s Day, 4th of July—they all were moments where my carb intake inevitably went up or I went to a more “maintenance mode” for my diet. In no way after any of these spikes did I do anything drastic: I just resumed the diet and boom 💥 the water weight fell right back off.
Yeah, swings on the scale are annoying. It’s hard not to have an emotional response when your weight suddenly jumps a few pounds in short order. Alas, it just comes with the territory when you’re dieting. Know that once you resume your diet or even just reduce your carb intake, your weight will drop right back to the average in short order. You can even sidestep the emotional rollercoaster by waiting a couple days after you know you went “off plan” before stepping back on the scale. Compassion for yourself is a key to diet compliance in the long-term.
Knowledge is power! Use your understanding of your own body—and how it changes due to food consumption and water retention—to your advantage (Note: not covered in this are other factors in water retention—e.g. the monthly cycle if you’re a woman or fluctuations in your sodium/mineral intake. For me, alcohol does whacky things to my water retention.).
A deep dive on the glycogen+water retention connection
I first learned about the relationship between stored carbohydrates and water retention from Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories. The gist is that for every gram of stored carbohydrate (Stored as glycogen) in your body, there is a set amount of additional water storage that is required.
Taubes had pinned the carb/water storage ratio at two grams of water per one gram of carbohydrate. A random Googled source (Vitanet) pins it at 2.7 gram water per gram of glycogen. I found a research paper titled, Glycogen storage: illusions of easy weight loss, excessive weight regain, and distortions in estimates of body composition, which offers the following data on the ratio:
Glycogen is stored in the liver, muscles, and fat cells in hydrated form (three to four parts water) associated with potassium (0.45 mmol K/g glycogen). . . .
Glycogen losses or gains are reported to be associated with an additional three to four parts water, so that as much as 5 kg weight change might not be associated with any fat loss.
Lyle McDonald of Body Recomposition has also weighed in on this subject:
Carbohydrate (stored in your muscles and liver as glycogen) is accompanied by a good bit of water. For every gram of glycogen stored, you store anywhere from 3-4 grams of water with it.
How does this relationship affect bodyweight? In short, diet and exercise will deplete glycogen stores. If your diet is working, the depletion will occur early and have a significant impact on your bodyweight without impacting a permanent change in your body composition.
Do the math
Let’s take me as an example. I estimate that I have around 155 – 160 pounds of lean tissue. Tack on another 12 – 17 pounds of fat. After a week or two of being on a low-carbohydrate diet that involves intermittent fasting and plenty of exercise, my liver and muscle glycogen stores will be depleted. I’ll weigh about 172.
If I go on to eat a bunch of carbohydrates — cookies, pretzels, breads, fruits and other starchy foods (by eating a bunch, I mean consuming something on the order of 1000 grams of carbohydrates over the course of 24 hours, which is about 4000 calories), I will fully replenish my glycogen stores. In the process of replenishment, the 1000 grams of carbohydrates will require anywhere from 3000 to 4000 grams of water for storage! Converting from grams to pounds, the impact on my bodyweight should be an increase of 9 to 11 pounds, taking my weight up to 183*! Of course, the same change would happen in reverse: re-depleting glycogen stores would drop my weigh back to the low 170s.
Mike over at the IF life alluded to this fact in three bullets back on his Trainer Tells All post:
Muscle size is mostly glycogen and water . . . I can go up and down 10lbs in a week easily depending on glycogen and water balance . . . The first big amount of lbs you lose in the first week dieting is mostly water
Mike’s anecdotal experience is explained by the storage ratio between glycogen and water. What it means is that in the early stages of a diet, the magical drop in bodyweight will be mostly water weight.
Another implication of the water/glycogen relationship on bodyweight is that whereas the first 4000 calorie deficit you create will reduce your weight some ten pounds, the next 4000 calorie deficit is likely only going to reduce your bodyweight a paltry two pounds! This is because a pound of fat stores 3500 calories and requires about a pound of water for storage. Thus, the initial weight-loss will seem easy compared to the drudging continued weight-loss when you’re actually burning stored fat.
Failing to understand what is going on with glycogen stores and water retention will set yourself up for a shock when you inevitably “fall off the wagon” — even if the “fall” is only for a day or two of heavy-carb or more “normal” eating.
Understanding the impact of glycogen depletion/repletion on bodyweight is just one more reason why merely weighing yourself on a scale provides a poor indication of your body composition. You’re better served by taking some physical measurements (waist size, for example). Or even better, take some periodic camera phone self-portraits — over time, you should be able to compare them and get a great feel for your progress (or lack thereof).
Last updated August 20, 2018
* I’ve witnessed this fluctuation on numerous occasions over the past year, but I didn’t quite fully understand it until today. You see, I was fully glycogen depleted going into New Year’s Eve. I proceeded to go on a pre-planned “re-feed” (that just happened to coincide with NYE, of course!). The re-feed involved eating plenty of pretzels, chips, breads, fruits, cookies, cereal, donuts, etc. Some incredibly unhealthy, albeit tasty, foods. I also drank a good bit of Pinot Noir NYE, which is the opposite of what you should do if you are re-feeding in that your body will be needing water and alcohol will dehydrate you past certain levels of intake. Anyway, after a 24 hour re-feed, my bodyweight went from 172 to 184. Hard to believe unless you understand what is going on. And this kind of fluctuation would be entirely disheartening to the ignorant dieter who might feel they just blew their diet in one day! As it is, I expect I’ll be back in the low 170s within five days after I do a fast and get two or three workouts in.