I got a question on my members’ Facebook page a couple of weeks ago regarding water retention. There is nothing worse than a bloated tummy – it can not only make you feel physically uncomfortable, but can also wreak havoc on your psychological state (as many people equate the bloating to ‘feeling fat’, despite there being no relationship between the two). Further, a bloated stomach impacts on your ability to move properly. We can’t engage our core muscles, so aren’t able to move, lift, push or pull in a way that is functionally optimal. This has important implications for our core strength and injury prevention. Of course water rentention affects more than just our stomach – a long haul flight to somewhere warm can turn anyone’s lean calves into kankles due to changes in the pressure in the capillaries, causing fluid to leak out into the body tissues. There can be many reasons for this, so I thought I would investigate the most common causes and possible solutions.
Minimize your sodium intake. Although sodium (aka salt) is an essential mineral because it’s used to regulate the fluid levels in body tissues, bringing water into the cells. Excess intake of sodium may cause excessive fluid retention in the body tissues. While the evidence behind this recommendation suggests it isn’t something that affects everyone, this may help some people, particularly those who are salt sensitive or hypertensive. Do note, though, that if you follow the types of principles that I suggest, your diet is probably quite low in salt anyway, as most salt comes from processed foods (around 70%). However, there are whole foods that are high in sodium, such as cheese, miso, cured meats and biltong, so you could reduce these, and avoid adding salt to your food to see if this makes a difference.
I probably don’t need to tell you to avoid eating too many refined carbohydrates – these tend to spike insulin, which causes sodium (often found in these foods) to be re-absorbed back into the kidneys, thus increasing water retention. Your best bet for carbohydrate foods are those whole-food, minimally refined varieties that have negligible sodium for a start, and that you eat in a mixed meal with good fats and proteins to help slow down the release of carbohydrate into your bloodstream, minimising insulin response.
Any form of dehydration can cause your body to hold onto water. Therefore, ensure that if you drink alcohol, do extended exercise training sessions, or are in a hotter environment that you remain well hydrated to offset any potential for dehydration. The fluid you lose during exercise should be replaced in the three hours after training, and at 1.5 times the amount lost – you can work out how much this is by weighing yourself before and after an exercise session. The amount of weight lost roughly equates to the amount of fluid lost. Prior to drinking alcohol, have a couple of glasses of water (this will also help slow down your drinking). And be an adult about how you drink: is it necessary to drink more than a few in any one sitting?
Take adequate amounts of vitamin B6 combined with magnesium. For women, prior to your period you can feel a little bloated and that you are retaining water. Interestingly, however, some research investigating the timing of this around the menstrual cycle has found bloating occurs more in the onset of your cycle (day 1) after which is rapidly declines, despite the perception of puffiness or bloating in the week prior to menstruation. This puffiness, however, could well be related to food choices in that week, as the intake of higher sugar choices can increase for some.
If you have water retention before your period, you may, however, benefit from taking both a magnesium supplement (at 250mg per day) combined with a vitamin B6 supplement (40mg) daily – a study found this combination the most effective for decreasing premenstrual symptoms when administered for two months by balancing your hormone levels.
Potassium works in conjunction with sodium, pumping fluid out of the body cells. Therefore, if you aren’t consuming enough then it could cause problems with water retention. The reality is, though, that you are following the meal plan and including plenty of vegetables, your potassium intake is likely fine. However, if you don’t have a good intake of vegetables (at least 7 serves per day) then increasing these is a good idea. This will also bump up your fibre intake, which can further help reduce fluid retention.
Take natural diuretics. Dandelion root has long been used to help flush water out of the body – therefore investing in a good tea such as this Golden Fields one is not only delicious (often used as a substitute to coffee), it will also be beneficial. In addition, this kidney cleanse tea from Artemis has other natural diuretics to help flush water out.
Exercise regularly. Exercise can help reduce water retention, not just by increasing sweating, but by moving water from the intercellular compartments to the muscles.
Increase your caloric intake, if only for a day. I know – this one sounds weird, but a ground-breaking study in the 1950s called the Minnesota Experiment found something interesting mid-way through their study. The study followed men on a 1500 Calorie diet for 6 months, and subjected to hours of hard labour per day. Half way through the trial the men were allowed a celebration meal, effectively increasing their caloric intake to 2300 Calories. Following a night of getting up to go to the bathroom several times, the men were a few pounds lighter the following morning. Obviously, the weight lost was water weight – but why would this be the case? Potentially the long-term calorie deficit caused an increase in cortisol levels, and this increases water retention in the body. By increasing caloric load, the body reduced cortisol levels and this reduced water retention.
Reduce overall stress load. As we have just discovered, higher cortisol levels will increase water retention, therefore anything you can do to reduce stress is going to impact favourably on water loss. Let’s not forget the impact that high stress levels have on blood sugar levels, inflammation and fat gain (to name just three areas it impacts). While stress is a perception of a situation, and changing your mind-set is one of the best things you can do to lower stress levels, ensure you are getting adequate sleep, time in nature, time with loved ones and taking time just for yourself. These are going to help lower your cortisol levels and combat any stress-related water retention.
So… not a definitive list, but hopefully a few pointers to help you get to the bottom of your fluid retention issues and make some improvements. For more individual advice, don’t hesitate to contact me for a consultation or for online nutrition coaching. Further, if you’re in the Bay of Plenty, Queenstown, Nelson or Wellington regions, then I’m headed your way for an evening of ‘real food’ talk – click here to find out more information and to book tickets!
Fat doesn’t fill you up. For some people, they don’t feel satisfied when swapping out their carbohydrate for more fat. If it takes a few handfuls of nuts or half a block of cheese to feel satisfied, then there can be some serious increase in calories that isn’t compensated for by an appropriate increase in satiety from the meal. Yes, cheese and nuts contain protein, but to be honest I treat them more as sources of fat than I do protein. If this is you, then.
Increase the portion of protein you are consuming with your meals. I know many people are scared to consume more protein because protein can be broken down into glucose in the absence of carbohydrate, therefore pushing up their blood sugar levels. For people on a ketogenic diet (where 80% of their calories should come from fat), or those metabolically damaged (whereby there is a dramatic change in blood glucose response from a protein-rich meal), this may be a problem. For most people though? upping protein by 1/3 of a serve is no biggie. Still hungry? Up the protein some more.
Drop out some fat –make room for the added protein by dropping out some of the fat – you could start with ½ – 1 serve and see how satisfied you feel when you do that. A serve of fat is typically 1 tablespoon of oil or butter, or ¼ avocado.
You’re eating too much in one meal. A lot of people move from three meals a day, to two a day, to a ‘minimal food during the day’ approach, to sit down to a large meal at night, especially if they’ve been in the LCHF way of eating for a while and are further tweaking it. This may be awesome for some people, but not all. Eating most of your calories in one meal can, though, wreak havoc on your metabolic blood markers (such as blood glucose levels and insulin), increase fat gain, inflammation and reduce your day-to-day energy if this eating pattern doesn’t suit you. You’ll know if this is you, and if it is then:
Spread your food intake out across 2-3 meals to lighten the caloric load and see if this makes a difference to your energy or other more objective markers mentioned above.
Remember you’re still a rockstar even if you have to eat more often.
You’ve got a high intake of dairy or nuts. Some, especially women, are not suited to high amounts of dairy or nuts, and when the begin to include more of these foods – ones they’ve avoided for years due to their fat content – they have a weight loss stall they can’t move past or, worse, they begin to store fat around their middle. While some suggest cheese is a food akin to crack, research investigating the addictive properties of the protein in cheese have not found this to be the case. Of course, if you personally can’t stop at one slice and find you’re eating the block, then perhaps it is for you. Nuts can also be trigger foods for some people, and they find it difficult to stop once they’ve started eating them. Ditto with a jar of peanut butter. What to do?
Omit dairy for 30 days – sometimes it’s not the dairy per se, it’s the amounts that you’re eating it in that need to change. Removing it entirely will allow you to change your habits and then reintroduce it.
Omit nuts and/or nut butter as per above in #6a.
Swap snacks to those that are predominantly protein-based rather than fat based – despite the satiating effects of fat, for some, it’s just not like having protein. A hardboiled egg or some leftover chicken wrapped in lettuce or nori sheets (my current obsession) may satisfy you more.
Genetically this isn’t the diet for you. If metabolic markers such as cholesterol, blood sugar or inflammatory factors go skewiff then it could be the LCHF approach doesn’t suit you. Genetic variation in the ApoE gene (ApoE4) is associated with LDL cholesterol not being recycled very well, and therefore it’s more likely to hang around the bloodstream and increase the chances of it becoming either oxidised or being transformed into smaller LDL particles, both highly atherogenic. Variants in the gene FTO can increase risk of obesity in the context of a high saturated fat and low polyunsaturated fat intake and may increase risk of high blood sugar and diabetes in individuals already overfat. The PPAR genes plays a role in ketogenesis (the oxidation of fat for energy) and storage of fat by activating genes associated with fatty acid transport and metabolism. Variants of this gene (particularly PPARa and PPARg ) are associated with increased risk of high triglycerides, total small dense LDL cholesterol and type 2 diabetes in the context of high saturated fat to polyunsaturated fat intake. Further, individual glycemic (blood sugar responses) vary considerably for the same amount of carbohydrate in food, suggesting there are a lot of factors to consider when determining the best diet for you (such as genetics, gut microbiome, activity level, stress etc), not just its macronutrient content. How to figure out if LCHF is not the diet for you? A few things to consider:
Are you losing weight? If so, then wait until your weight stabilises and then retest your numbers – your body recycles triglycerides that are released from adipose (fat) tissue, therefore your triglyceride levels can appear high, but it is transient.
Don’t get your cholesterol levels measured if injured, if you haven’t slept properly or you’ve been under significant stress. Cholesterol levels can change easily based on environmental triggers.
Some people notice their cholesterol increases specifically in response to dairy fat, others to coconut fat – experiment for 6-12 weeks by dropping these out of your diet and get your cholesterol levels retested to see if this brings a drop in your numbers. Replace it with foods that have a more balanced fatty acid profile (such as lard or beef tallow) and foods high in monounsaturated fat or omega 3 fats, such as avocadoes, olive oil, nuts, seeds, salmon, mackerel, sardines.
Get more in-depth testing of your cardiovascular disease risk profile – cholesterol is one measure and possibly not the most important one. CRP, fibrinogen, LDL particle size, number, oxidation and patterning can all give you more information than the run-of-the-mill lab test can. Contact me as I can help you arrange this testing which, for the most part, your doc might not even be aware of.
Consider getting tested to find out your genetic predisposition (either through your doctor, or I can assist via Fitgenes gene testing).
Consider dropping your fat intake, upping your protein intake and perhaps your carbohydrate intake too – ala the Zone diet approach. Despite its gimmicky name, it’s proven itself to be very effective for blood sugar stabilisation and blood cholesterol management. Some people just aren’t meant to eat a higher fat diet.
You’ve got an intolerance you didn’t realise you had. Going LCHF means, for many, significantly increasing fat content in the diet from the obvious choices: cheese, nuts, seeds, avocados and coconut products. However, while these are awesome in terms of the nutrients they deliver, they can cause digestive issues in a number of people. Avocado, coconut, nuts and seeds are moderate-high in FODMAPs – a type of carbohydrate that can cause bloating, abdominal pain and other irritable bowel symptoms in many people. Further, the inclusion of larger amounts of cream, cheese or full fat yoghurt can be problematic due to an intolerance to the dairy protein or fat which can result in similar IBS in susceptible people. If you’ve been following a low-fat diet for many years, enzymes that help digest the fat and protein may be downregulated, so your body might not cope with the additional amounts. Sometimes it is a matter of backing down and building up, and sometimes it is that these foods just don’t agree with you. What to do? One of these tips may help:
Follow a lower FODMAP approach to see if removing these foods settles down your discomfort. Doing this for at least 21 days and reintroducing a different food one at a time can pinpoint which one in particular might not agree with you.
Introduce fermented foods as per #3e above to re-establish healthy bacteria in your gut.
Replace dairy fat for alternative fat choices: nuts, seeds, avocado, coconut oil, beef tallow, lard.
Ensure you chew your food properly at each meal to break it down, include lemon juice in water in the morning, and apple cider vinegar with meals to stimulate your digestive system, and consider ox bile supplement or a digestive enzyme that has lipase and/or pepsin enzymes to help you break down the fats and proteins.
You’ve upped your alcohol intake because red wine and white spirits are “allowed” on LCHF. This might not even be intentional, but dropping your carbohydrate intake can lead to increased alcohol cravings, especially if your fat intake is too low, or your food intake is too low, or your stress levels are chronically too high. Or perhaps, you enjoy a moderate amount of alcohol but are continuing to gain weight on the LCHF diet.
Be honest about how much you are drinking. Regularly consuming a ‘large’ as opposed to a ‘standard’ pour at the pub? Cracking open a bottle one night and then drinking to finish it off? Your plan to be alcohol free during the week has reduced to being alcohol free Monday – Wednesday? Evaluate if this is a problem for you … or not!
Go alcohol free 5 nights a week, and enjoy a glass of whatever you fancy on the other nights. Ideally not those lolly water vodka mixes, but if you don’t like red wine, then choose something else. It’s not a deal breaker.
Eat enough during the day so you’re not craving alcohol in the evening. This may mean including some additional starchy carbohydrate in your lunch meal – it doesn’t mean you’re not ‘low carb’ – as that in itself is a spectrum. This can really offset your cravings. Try it for 14 days to see if there is an effect.
Lighten the load by choosing to have a low-fat meal if you drink. Old Skool 90s ‘dieting’ approach – those fat calories will only be missed by your adipose tissue, which is where they will be directed to when consumed with alcohol (which is processed first and foremost).
Drink to ensure you are hydrated before you have your first alcoholic drink. This is like 101 really – we always drink more when we are thirsty, and then when we drink more, we become uninhibited and then all hell can break loose, right?
Food timing: If you’re beginning your day with breakfast at 7am and winding down with a cup of tea and some dark chocolate at 10pm, you may be doing yourself a disservice. Eating over a time period of more than 12 hours can be deleterious to health. Recent research has found that restricting the eating period to 12 hours or less can improve insulin resistance and glucose tolerance, and reduce breast cancer risk even when the calories remain the same. Anything you consume that requires processing of any sort by the liver – including black coffee or herbal teas – will begin the metabolic process. When we eat is also important as our appetite hormones are on a circadian rhythm (food being an important signalling molecule for hormones), and eating late at night – even if overall eating window is short – can be problematic for your liver. The benefits derived from intermittent fasting (such as these) can still be realised if your version of fasting includes coffee in the morning, however it appears actual fasting (nothing but water) for at least 12 hours is most beneficial for metabolic health.
Try to keep within a 12 hour window for consuming anything other than water. If you struggle with remembering to do this, there are apps that can help. It’s not as hard as it might seem – if you have breakfast at 7.30am and are done eating by 7.30pm then you’ve nailed it.
You’ve focused entirely on diet without giving pause to consider other aspects of your lifestyle that contribute to your wellbeing. Lack of sleep, chronically elevated stress levels, over or under activity can all contribute to some of the common complaints people attribute to diet which have nothing to do with the food.
Evaluate your sleep – are you getting to bed at a reasonable hour? Able to sleep through the night with ease? Feel refreshed waking up?
Evaluate your physical activity – are you doing enough? Are you doing too much?
Evaluate your stress levels – are you trying to do too much? Feeling overwhelmed? Or conversely is there not enough stress to keep you stimulated and motivated?
Of course these factors contribute to how your body responds to the food, but it isn’t the food per se. As I said last week, this isn’t a definitive list, however if any of these resonate with you then try some of the ideas I’ve listed, or enlist the help of someone like me to guide you to the best approach for you.
PS: I have organised a few talks over the next couple of months to talk about making a real food (aka LCHF) approach work for you. At the moment I have:
Takapuna 23 March @ Streetwise Organics, Byron Ave