Nutrition Basics: Salt

How will understanding salt help me lose weight in 30 days?

Salt (aka Sodium on nutrition labels) doesn’t have calories, but it can sure help make you “fat” and managing your salt intake is essential if you want to lose as much weight as possible in one month. In fact, for the first 30 days of any weight loss program, managing your salt will probably be THE biggest contributor to your initial weight loss! Why?

Salt helps your body perform a bunch of essential functions, but the one that is most important for losing weight in a month is that salt helps your body retain water. Salt is “hydrophilic” which means that salt LOVES water and will happily slurp up and hold onto water until it has become saturated. If you don’t have enough salt in your diet, your body will not hold onto water well, and you will have problems becoming dehydrated. If you have too much salt in your diet – and that is almost always the case if you’re overweight – your body will hold on to too much water. This is part of why too much salt can lead to high blood pressure.

A gallon of water weighs a bit over 8 lbs. (or just under 4 kilograms). The amount of excess water you’re carrying is going to depend on your excess salt intake but also on your size: A 110 lb. woman is going to probably be carrying less water weight than a 180 lb. woman, all other things being equal. When you hear about people losing weight FAST, almost always they are losing that weight as water weight, and they’re losing that weight because they have managed their salt intake as part of their weight loss plan.

The really tricky thing about salt is that many foods that have a lot of it don’t actually taste salty at all – look, for example, at the nutrition ingredients on cookies or cake and you will see that they contain a fair amount of salt. A serving of Oreo cookies, for example, has 7% of your recommended daily salt intake – yet you wouldn’t know it when you eat them. Prepared foods (microwave dinners, soups, anything you aren’t making from scratch really) have TONS of salt. Why? Because salt is a very cheap way to make things taste good.

What this means for you, when you want to figure out how much weight you can lose in a month, is that managing your salt intake is absolutely essential! For weight loss in the first month, most of your loss will be water weight.

So how do I manage my salt?

The biggest way to reduce your salt intake is to stop eating things that are packaged and prepared – this means eating more simple and fresher foods (fruits and raw veggies are fantastic!). Fortunately, this is pretty easy to do while still making meals that are as convenient as any prepared meal. (insert link to veggie salad recipe thing)

Another great way to reduce salt intake – and thus water retention – is to reduce the amount of “extras” you put on food. Ketchup and mustard have a fair amount of salt, so a burger with lots of those condiments on it will definitely add a ton of salt to your diet. Use less, or switch to a low-sodium version, or switch to non-sodium alternatives (I like to sprinkle a bit of black pepper onto my burgers).

And, the last easy suggestion for reducing sodium: Stop drinking soda pop and sports drinks. Soda pop in and of itself is awful for you – it’s got tons of sugar and doesn’t really have any nutritional value at all – but it also contains a bit of sugar. Sports drinks – like Gatorade – are made to replace things you lose when sweating, and one of the things you lose when sweating is SALT! A single bottle of Gatorade contains approximately 25% of your recommended daily sodium.

But don’t I need salt to live?

Your body does require salt – too little salt and you can have some extremely dangerous health problems, and even die. However, as I’ve explained above, there is a ton of salt in almost everything you might eat, and you aren’t in much danger of not having enough salt. Unless you are extremely active – by which I mean you go running for 10 miles in hot weather regularly, say – or you make virtually everything you eat from scratch and avoid all salt – you will probably be just fine. And lets be honest – if you’re reading this blog, you probably don’t run 10 miles and you probably don’t avoid salt at all costs in your food.

By following the general guidelines I suggest here, you’ll definitely lose a substantial bit of water weight while you lose weight in a month! In other nutrition posts (insert links) I have some more specific suggestions for how to eat to lose weight and reduce salt.


Weight Loss Basics: What is excess weight, really?

I’m 30 lbs. over weight, but what is that 30 lbs. made of?

A lot of people imagine that when they want to lose weight, all of what they want to lose is fat. As in, if you are 30 lbs. over weight, that’s 30 lbs. of fat you want to lose.

It turns out, that’s not true at all! But if it isn’t fat, what is this excess weight? In the most general terms, the weight we want to lose comes in 3 areas: Water, Waste, and Fat.

Water!

A lot of our excess weight is actually from too much water. Ever watch a TV show like “The Biggest Loser” and see these STUNNING weight losses in the first week of competition that get much smaller as they go on? That’s mostly because that first week is a loss of water weight.

Water weight is, basically, excess water carried by your body – water that your body doesn’t really need and can’t particularly do much with. A typical adult needs to drink between 2 and 3 liters of water a day – more for men, less for women – if they live in a normal climate (not a desert) and are reasonably healthy and active. A lot of people say “drink 8 eight ounce glasses of water a day” (which is almost 2 liters) but what they should really say is “drink about 8 eight ounce glasses of FLUID a day” since most fluids will count. That means if you mix in water, juice, anything fluid without caffeine or alcohol in it, you’ll generally be in pretty good shape. And don’t forget that most foods have plenty of water in them, too! It all counts.

But when I say excess water, what I really mean is water that gets trapped in your body by salt. Salt basically LOVES water and water LOVES salt – if you eat a diet that has a lot of salt in it, your system will retain more water. Too little salt in your diet and your body can’t hold enough water – you can get pretty easily dehydrated. Too much salt and you have way more water in your system than you need, and this causes problems like high blood pressure and also, of course, water retention, which makes you weigh more.

So what does this all mean? Well, in the most basic terms, it means that if you want to figure out how much weight you can lose in a month you will need to think BEYOND just losing fat. You will need to think – just a little – about the salt in what you eat. I will talk about that in another blog post about┬ánutrition (put a link in here).

Depending on how much extra salt you’re eating in your diet, as much as 5-15 lbs. (or more if you’re seriously overweight) could be just excess water. The good news here is that water weight is the easiest to lose! But, water weight is also very easy to gain back – a couple of days of high salt meals and you can quickly put it all back on.

Waste!

Waste is, well, waste – it’s the stuff left over from food that we eat that our body can’t process. Basically, poop, if you want to be indelicate about it.

Many of you reading this might have heard that the average adult has 5-10 lbs. of undigested meat in their system at any given time. While that isn’t, strictly speaking, true, the average adult (especially ones who are overweight and don’t have an ideal diet) has a LOT of food residue in their system and yes, it can be as much as 5-10 lbs.!

As with water weight, the best way to reduce waste weight is going to be better nutrition. In this case, “better nutrition” means eating more foods that our bodies can use efficiently and that have less filler stuff that our body simply doesn’t use. Think about it like this – if you eat a pound of food that is extremely nutrient rich and that your body can use very efficiently, there will be less waste than if you eat a pound of food that isn’t as nutrient rich or that your body simply doesn’t know how to process.

I will talk more about nutrition in other blog posts (insert link), but the good news here is that waste weight is also relatively easy to lose, and quickly, just like water weight! Of course, it’s also very easy to gain back, just like water weight, too.

FAT!

Now, let’s talk about FAT – which you will want to be losing IN ADDITION to your excess water weight and waste weight, while you lose weight in your first month. I’m going to go into more detail here with fat since it’s seen as so important to losing weight and there are a LOT of misconceptions about it.

What is fat? Fat is pretty much just stored energy – in the simplest terms, when we eat, some of the calories from the food we eat beyond the calories we use up during the day, are converted into fat which is stored for later in case we find ourselves needing energy when we don’t have enough food. In the olden days when people routinely went hungry due to food shortages, this was a great thing – pig out when there’s plenty of food, and then in the lean times (usually winter) your body uses the fat it has stored up in order to supplement your reduced food.

The problem now, though, is most people don’t usually run out of food these days or have that hard a time getting more when they do. Certainly if you’re reading this on the Internet you’re probably able to get enough food whenever you want it – and, in fact, probably TOO MUCH food – so your body is building up these fat stores from the excess food you eat but never needing to burn it off.

By and large, the way you lose fat is by reducing the amount of calories you take in from food and increasing the amount of calories you expend through being active. I will talk a lot more about what it means to burn calories from activity – there are LOTS of ways to do that – but for right now, let’s use the simple rule of thumb that as long as you take in fewer calories than you use for activities, you will lose weight.

Fat is stored energy which, when talking about food and weight loss, is usually measured in calories. A pound of fat has, roughly, 3500 calories. This means that, for every pound of fat you have in your body that you want to lose, you will need to take in 3500 fewer calories than you burn through being active. If you have a goal of 1 pound of fat loss per week, that would mean that each day you take in 500 calories fewer than you burn.

The average adult woman burns anywhere between 1600 to 2200 calories per day – less if she’s smaller bodied (shorter, less weight) and less active, more if she is larger bodied (taller, more weight) and more active. For a man it’s about 2000 to 3000 calories per day, with the same rules about body size and activity. Just remember – the bigger you are and the more active you are, the more calories you will burn. This means, if a person wants to maintain their weight, the typical person will need to eat as many calories per day as they are burning. If you want to gain weight, you would need to eat more calories than you burn. And to lose weight – you guessed it! – you want to take in fewer calories than you burn.

Most of us reading this probably take in many more calories each day than we burn, and when that is combined with nutrition leading to water weight and waste weight, that’s why we got fat!

So, if you want to see how much weight you can lose in a month, what does this information about fat mean? It means that in addition to the tip about watching your salt and to eating more nutritious foods, you will also need to keep in mind how much you’re eating. Don’t worry about counting calories or any of that – just be mindful of what you’re eating.

What is different about fat weight loss from water and waste weight loss is that fat loss takes a much longer time. I can put on or take off a pound of water weight in a day, but in order to put on or take off a pound of fat weight it would usually take at LEAST a week. This is good news because it means that fat weight loss is more “fundamental” than the other kinds – if you genuinely lose a pound of fat weight, you will have a harder time putting it back on. Of course, it also means that you will have to work harder, for longer, to lose fat weight.

IMPORTANT!!!!

One very, very important note about fat is this: A lot of people think that they can just starve themselves to lose weight. After all, they think – if I burn 2000 calories a day, if I don’t eat anything, that’s 2000 calories of fat I lose a day, and that means I can lose 3-4 lbs. of fat a week!

Nothing could be further from the truth – in fact, starving yourself is, in addition to being INCREDIBLY DANGEROUS, a great way to gain MORE weight. Why? Because, when our bodies think they are starving, they slow our metabolism down in order to burn fewer calories. A daily deficit of 500 calories isn’t likely to make your body think it’s starving, but a daily deficit of 1000 or more calories almost certainly will. What does this mean? You have to keep eating if you want to lose weight – you just need to make sure that what you eat is good for you.

What this means for losing fat is that in an ideal circumstance you will be slightly reducing your caloric intake (what you eat) and slightly increasing your caloric burn (being more active). In this way you don’t have to starve yourself or workout like a maniac in order to lose weight quickly, and you can find a more balanced approach that works for you, while still letting you lose weight fast in a month.

What Does It All Mean?

All of the above is really good stuff for people like us who want to lose weight in a month. Why? Because of a few things:

  • Water weight is the easiest weight to lose, and you can lose it very quickly
  • Waste weight is also pretty easy to lose, and you can lose it quickly too

This means that if we have modest weight loss goals for our first month, it’s pretty easy to meet them with some very simple changes to what we eat because the “low hanging fruit” of weight loss is the stuff that comes off first. If you are 30 lbs. over weight and want to lose 10 lbs. in a month, greatly reducing the salt you eat and adding more fiber to your diet, even if you don’t eat that much less or you don’t work out much, will *probably* get you a fair part of the way to that 10 lb. weight loss goal!

We can also take away these other points:

  • Improving your nutrition is the key to losing water and waste weight
  • Fat weight is harder to lose, and you must be more thoughtful in how you lose it, but it stays off longer
  • Being more active AND improving your nutrition are necessary to lose fat AND to keeping your weight loss from coming back