Did a witch put a curse on me?

If weight loss is just calories in, calories out then why did I gain 5lb since yesterday?

Not fair. Some people eat like a conquering army advancing one drive-thru window at a time, while others get fat on half rations of rice paper and boiled air.

It isn’t true, of course. None of us are exempt from the laws of physics, or else we’d get sent to space jail.

But almost every person who has struggled to lose weight has had moments when they feel like a sort of rubbish alchemist, who never figured out how to make lead into gold but somehow got stuck with the type of metabolism that can turn cabbage soup into molten lard.

We’ve written elsewhere about how to better understand your personal energy needs and how this relates to weight loss, but it still doesn’t explain why you sometimes see a jump on the scale even though you’re 100% certain that the only way you could have gained weight is if you’d been entering professional eating contests in your sleep.

So where did that 5lbs come from? (TL:DR It’s water weight.)

Your Period Is Due

Why Did I Gain Weight When I've Been So Careful With My Calories water retention
Magic yogurt! No more bloating. Now I can play tennis in my white shorts and after go jump in a field for some reason.

Many women retain water in the week before their period starts. It’s how they sell you yogurt.

Some women see their weight fluctuate by as much as 5-6lbs (2.3-2.7kg) in the week before bleeding starts, usually peaking by the first day of the period.

There is also evidence that very active women actually retain more water during this phase of their menstrual cycle, than normally active women.

So if you’ve been hitting the gym regularly, you pre-menstrual water retention may be having an even greater effect on the weight you see on the scales.

Pre-menstrual water retention is pretty well known about, but a lot of women don’t realize that ovulation can also be a cause of water retention. So if you see an expected jump in your weight around the middle of your cycle, this could be why.

In either case, you haven’t gained 5lbs of fat (or muscle, sorry!) and once you move into the next stage of your cycle your weight will return to whatever is was before your body decided to try out a part-time gig as a cactus.

Hormonal birth control, pregnancy and menopause can also all cause water retention. Water retention caused by hormonal fluctuations is completely normal. But it can feel very demotivating, to see all your progress undone overnight even if you know it’s only temporary.

This is one of the reasons why graphing your weight can be a useful tool in weight management. It will give you a more accurate idea of what your weight is doing over time, and you will be able to see that occasional jumps are evened out when you look at the overall trend.

If you don’t already, it’s also a good idea to get into the habit of tracking your menstrual cycle. Not only will this help you give some context to any unexpected changes in your weight, it’s a useful tool for managing your health more generally.

You’ve Become More Physically Active

Why Did I Gain Weight When I've Been So Careful With My Calories water retention
In his case, it’s not water retention. And he’s not due his period.

If you’ve recently started working out or you’ve started a job that requires you to be on your feet all day, you might see a jump on the scale next time you weigh in.

The bad news is that no, it’s probably not all muscle. Tempting as it is to think you’ve turned into He-Man after one session in the gym, strength takes effort to build up and while you might see some fast results initially, there is no such thing as an overnight transformation.

But if you’ve been accurately accounting for your calories in, it’s probably not fat either.

Strength and resistance training causes tiny tears to the muscle tissue. This is part of the process through which more muscle gets built up. As part of the recovery process the muscle tissue swells and often retains fluid. This water retention can show up on the scale.

If you’re following an exercise program as a part of your weight loss, you might want to consider tracking your body measurements as well as tracking your weight.

Logging key measurements like your waist and hip circumference, may give you a more accurate idea if you’re on the right track than the number on the scale. If you’re shedding inches, then you can rest assured that the pounds will follow once your body adapts to your new, more active lifestyle fighting Skeletor.

You’ve Had A Big Weekend

Why Did I Gain Weight When I've Been So Careful With My Calories water retention
We are having so much fun in this well lit nightclub, I don’t even mind the water retention.

You feel cheated and lied to. Tracking calories was supposed to let you manage your weight, while still letting you enjoy the foods you like.

But you were careful all week to leave space in your budget for couple of beers and a plate of nachos, and now the scales are saying you’ve consumed the equivalent of 10,000 kcal?

No-one spiked your drink with butter. And you can count. So where did the weight come from?

You probably guessed it by now, but yes. Alcohol, sodium and caffeine can all cause water retention.

So does dehydration in general, so if you’ve been up all night on a sweaty dance floor, showing off all your progress so far, then it might be better to skip the weigh in until the morning after the morning after. There’s no need to make a hangover any worse by looking to see the damage, especially if it’s only temporary.

That said, alcohol is very calorie dense. If you’re serious about weight loss, it’s important to log calories from alcohol just as you would any other food or drink. It also lowers inhibitions, which makes it that much harder to resist the greasy post-club kebab than when you contemplate a Donner with the eyes of cold sobriety.

However, if you’ve been tracking responsibly and you’re being honest with yourself about the calorie content of your personal poison, then you probably didn’t accidentally consume most of a week’s worth of calories in one evening. Don’t panic. Drink lots of water, wait a couple of days and see if the scale swings back to where it should be.


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