Do Carbs Make You Retain Water?

Please let the answer be no.
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We can all agree that carbs are the best. Pizza, doughnuts, burgers, pasta -- whatever form it takes, carbs are comforting, satisfying and plain delicious.

Be that as it may, eating too many carbs can be a problem (sad, we know). One effect people report when overdoing the carbs is looking 'puffy' or like they're retaining water.

To find out if carb-related water retention is a thing, HuffPost Australia spoke to two health experts.

Do carbs make you retain water?

"Carbohydrate intake can lead to water retention," Jessica Spendlove, accredited practising dietitian and performance dietitian, told HuffPost Australia.

This is all because of the way carbs are stored in our bodies. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as some stored carbs play a role in providing energy between meals.

"Some of the carbs you consume are stored in the form of glycogen. For every one gram of carbohydrate stored in the body (as glycogen) there is approximately 2-3 grams of water retained.


"Glycogen is stored in your liver and muscles where it can quickly turn into glucose to provide energy when you need it. Molecules of glycogen contain water and therefore the more glycogen you store the more water you retain in the process."

This bodily process explains why when people go on diets or restrict carbohydrate intake, they will see initial weight loss as "water weight is lost with the loss of muscle glycogen", nutritionist Steph Lowe of The Natural Nutritionist explained.

"This is why when someone commences a low-carbohydrate diet they appear to lose weight quickly according to the scales, as they deplete their glycogen stores which also results in them losing fluid as well. This is not actual weight loss and will rebound in a few days or weeks at most," Spendlove added.

Does the type of carb have a different effect on water retention?

When it comes to carbs and retaining water, do healthy complex carbs (like whole grains, fruits and vegetables) result in less retention compared to simple, processed carbs (like chips, pizza and doughnuts)?

"In terms of water retention, not necessarily, as it is more about the storage of carbohydrate in the body (as glycogen) which impacts how much water is retained," Spendlove said.

"In saying that, there is more of a chance a processed carbohydrate may have higher sodium amounts as well, which could enhance the water retained."

Salty, carby snacks like chips can be a double whammy for water retention.
Salty, carby snacks like chips can be a double whammy for water retention.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Does salt make you retain water?

Speaking of sodium: as well as carbs, salt can make you retain water and look 'puffy', Spendlove and Lowe explained.

"Sodium intake can definitely play a role in water retention," Spendlove said.

"Sodium helps regulate the levels of water in your body. As a result, the total amount of sodium (salt) you consume has an impact on whether you retain or eliminate water. As you eat more salt, your body holds onto more water. If you have too much sodium in your system, your body retains water."

If you want to know if you are consuming too much sodium or carbohydrate check in with a GP or accredited dietitian or nutritionist.

Is water retention a sign you're consuming too many carbs?

According to Spendlove and Lowe, water retention may be indicative of an excessive carbohydrate intake but there are also other causes of fluid retention, including underlying medical conditions, which is why it's important to check in with your GP.

"There are many other potential explanations for water retention, including too little protein, hormonal imbalance and thyroid dysfunction," Lowe said.

Many medications, menstruation and hot weather can also cause water retention. Another explanation for feeling heavier is weight gain.

"If we eat anything in excess and are in an energy surplus (eating more than what we are burning) it will be stored as fat and we will gain weight," Spendlove said. "If you eat excess carbohydrates and you are in energy surplus you will store the excess as fat."

"Excess carbohydrates spike the fat storage hormone insulin, which leads to poor blood sugar control, imbalanced mood, cravings, 3.30-itis and weight gain," Lowe added.

Carbs aren't 'bad', but it's important to focus on quantity and quality.
Carbs aren't 'bad', but it's important to focus on quantity and quality.
fcafotodigital via Getty Images

To find out how many carbohydrates you should be eating per day, Lowe recommends going by a calculation of 15-20 percent of your total daily energy (calorie) intake if you lead a sedentary lifestyle. Or you can base the amount off your body weight.

"I tend to suggest no more than two grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight [per day], Spendlove said.

"If you are sedentary, I suggest making sure the carbohydrate part of your meal is the smallest (the biggest should be the salad and non-starchy vegetable component)."

A general rule to aim for would be ¼ of your plate protein, less than ¼ of your plate carbohydrate and at least ½ of your plate salad and non-starchy vegetables.

"It is important everyone, but particularly a sedentary person, to choose the best quality, slow-release types of carbohydrates in small quantities such as quinoa, sweet potato, brown rice and oats."


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