November 09, 2020 10 min read
“Fat whoosh.” Sounds pretty nice, right? Also sounds like something you’d hear on a late-night infomercial for a diet pill you can get for three easy payments of $29.99.
This is, however, a real thing—even if we still don’t completely understand how it happens. But not knowing the exact mechanics behind it won’t stop us from trying to trigger it.
It comes down to something significantly more complex than the oft-repeated claim that the fat whoosh is your fat cells “collapsing”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Read on as we explore what we know, how we know it, and why you might want to consider experimenting around with this phenomenon.
If you’ve been following a weight loss program for a while now—maybe even sticking to plans such as keto, intermittent fasting, or low carb—you’ve probably noticed some plateaus along the way.
You never know when they’re going to last, and it quickly becomes annoying trying to figure out what’s going on. You double-check what you’re eating, you’re making sure that training’s going to plan, and you get enough sleep. So, what gives?
You may have already experienced this, but one day you get on the scale after days or weeks of feeling dejected about your weight—and voila! There it is. Not only has the scale shifted, but it’s shifted by a large margin, seemingly overnight. You might even say this rapid weight loss happened in a whoosh.
While some still argue that no such mechanic exists in the body, it’s hard to argue with something that so many have experienced, and others have noted. This all lends itself to the mystique surrounding the fat whoosh.
There’s a common misconception that we mentioned above, how supposedly fat cells fill up with water and then collapse—slimming you down in the process. This is mostly misleading.
For one, fat cells don’t necessarily just “go away”. It’s the size of each individual fat cell that changes, and that’s what gives people either the chub or the toned physique. Fat cells tend to be filled with triglycerides—a form of energy for the rest of your boy. Working out expends calories and stored energy, and these triglyceride levels begin to shrink, bringing the fat cell along with it. So, knowing that, what exactly (supposedly) happens when the fat whoosh effect decides to hit?
The plateau you see before the whoosh is your fat calls attempting to try to maintain your current weight—more or less. Your body doesn’t want to let your fat go. In hunter-gatherer times (the majority of human existence), our bodies had to adapt to a world that didn’t have a McDonalds around every corner. So, the theory goes that your fat cells fill up with water to anticipate more fat to fill them up soon.
So, your weight plateaus with water. This can actually be seen with what some call, “squishy fat.” Fat (usually found around your midsection and thighs) that’s more squishy than usual. And then all of a sudden, your body lets go of all the stored water. You wake up in the morning, look at the scale, and you’re not sure if your eyes are playing tricks on you.
The 40s—it was a different time. A time that allowed for, as you may have guessed, the starvation of test subjects in the name of science.
While the credibility of this study is now spotty at best, it’s still widely cited whenever the whoosh effect is discussed. A team of researchers put volunteers on a severely restricted diet, and they were made to do manual labor for six months. Six.
The point of the study was to find out what happened to prisoners of war, in terms of their bodies. The subjects of the study were given 1,500 calories per day for each of these days during the 6 months—and don’t forget about the hard labor.
It was found that the men lost 2 pounds every week, pretty much consistently. However, while the experiment went on, the weight loss began to flatline and became sporadic. The men would hit plateaus, and then all of a sudden, they would lose several pounds without there being an explanation at hand.
And this is widely seen as the whoosh effect.
Okay, right. So, we’re supposed to go on a 6-month semi-starvation diet? Luckily, no.
The fat whoosh is most commonly associated with the ketogenic diet. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a diet plan that severely restricts how much carbohydrates you consume. This puts your body into “ketosis”, where it begins to rely on fat for energy rather than carbs.
While this is the common association, the fat whoosh can happen with any diet. As long as you’re on a calorie restriction, but obviously, there are some diets better than others. For example, you can experience fat whoosh with anything from One Meal a Day (OMAD), intermittent fasting, and other low carb diets.
Low carb diets and keto are in a unique position since they tend to make your body hold onto water more, at least towards the beginning of the diet. But when it comes down to it, any caloric restriction and then plateau can put you on the track to the whoosh.
It’s this last point that’s key—the plateau. And more specifically, a plateau that’s happening while you’re doing everything else right. If you’ve got a fantastic routine and clockwork schedule, then this probably won’t be an issue. But for the rest of us, it might be good to first make sure that we’re actually eating what we think we are, and burning what we think we are.
If you’re pretty convinced that your body’s been retaining water for a while—this can be anywhere from a few days to a few weeks—then you might want to try to expel it, somehow.
One finding from the starvation experiment provides some evidence for what to do.
During the mid-point of the experiment, the subjects were given a celebratory high-calorie meal of almost 2,300 calories. And it acted as a sort of 6-month cheat meal. What surprised the researchers, however, was that immediately after this meal, the men lost a significant amount of weight.
We can apply this to ourselves, and it becomes especially important when following a keto diet. Upping your carb intake for one meal actually works as a re-feed and helps your body get out of a plateau-rut. Over the long term, this helps you lose more weight. It’s hypothesized that eating a large meal allows the fat cells to “let go” of the stored water. It’s worth mentioning that this needs to be a cheat “meal” and not a cheat week…not that we’d know anything about that.
This water’s often expelled overnight through a lot of pee since it has to go somewhere. Some have also recorded getting night sweats before losing a significant amount of weight. The point is that this water doesn’t just disappear.
In terms of water intake, the advice goes both ways.
Some say that limiting water around a high-calorie cheat meal is the way to go. This will limit the amount of liquid that your fat cells have to replenish their former size with, and so you’ll be better suited to losing more of the whoosh “fat”.
However, there are also other sources that say to drink more water—at least if you’re not going the cheat meal route. The theory is that excess water will flush out the water in your body’s stores, since your cells become conditioned to the fact that they’ll have constant access to water.
As you can see, the fat whoosh effect isn’t understood very well, leading to some hot takes.
One of these is alcohol. This beverage technically dehydrates your body, so the thinking is that it can possibly push the fat cells in the right direction of losing the stored water. There’s also the benefit of alcohol containing a ton of calories. Beers are infamously full of carbs, and even a shot of supposedly clean liquor will set you back quite a bit of calories. But before we get carried away talking about booze, let’s move on.
Salt is another thing you might want to try. Or rather, reducing your salt intake is something you might want to try since it’ll help when it comes to avoiding bloating. At the same time, more electrolytes and physical activity have also been shown to reduce water weight.
If you think you might be in this position, standing on the cusp of a whoosh, then there are several things to look out for.
The easiest, which we’ve already touched on quite a bit, is if your weight loss has either stagnated or even gone in the opposite direction—up. This is a pretty tell-tale sign that your body is keeping water weight. This is pretty common at the beginning of a calorie restriction or other special diet.
Another way to tell is with how much liquid your body is expelling. That can come in the form of excessive sweating, peeing a lot, or developing diarrhea. This often happens at night but can strike at any time. It’s your body’s way of removing all that stored water in one, final go.
There’s also squishiness in certain areas—particularly fatty areas on the thighs, butt, and stomach. This is a sign that those fat cells are beginning to store more water than glycogen, and that water’s most likely going to leave soon. You might even notice a marble-like or grainy texture around these areas, kind of similar to cellulite.
There’s also some who have reported hunger pangs before losing a significant amount of weight quickly—so hold on tight and don’t throw out your diet just yet.
If you reckon you’ve been a prime target for the fat whoosh, but nothing seems to be happening, there’s a couple of things you can look into.
The first is something we’ve already touched on: not only actually being in a caloric deficit. This might be because we’re not pushing ourselves hard enough in training, or maybe we’ve included a new food in our diet that’s not as healthy as we thought it was. The first step is always making sure that we’re on track with everything.
It’s also quite possible that you have to wait a bit longer. This effect can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks to happen. The point is to not get discouraged and keep working towards your goals. If you’re doing everything right, the gains (or losses, in this case) will follow close behind.
But with an effect that’s so little understood, there remains a lot to be considered.
The body is unbelievably complex, and throw in the fact that we’re all individuals, it becomes pretty difficult to tell what will trigger the whoosh in one person and not in another. Things such as stress, sleeping patterns, lifestyle changes, or even tiny dietary changes can throw you off balance.
Diet and lifestyle play a massive role in how fast you’ll lose weight, and if you’ll even reach the pre-whoosh stage of water retention. That’s why it’s extremely important to listen to your body and know it well enough to tell what it needs and what’s going on.
We’ve been hyping up this dramatic weight loss whoosh for a bunch of paragraphs now, so how much are we actually talking?
It will, of course, depend on how long your body’s fat cells have been retaining water and your body type, but anywhere from 1 pound to 5 is the general range. Five is on the extreme end, and probably not something most of us will see. However, the 1 to 2-pound overnight weight loss is more common, and probably more achievable.
And not to throw a curveball at the end of the article; but does it matter?
Expelling water weight in a whoosh is definitely a morale raiser when you’ve been grinding hard for weeks and nothing’s seemed to be working. Not only will it be a great feeling when you check the number on the scale, but you’ll also feel and look slimmer—which is an absolutely amazing motivator.
However, not to rain on anyone’s parade too much, the phenomenon of “fat whoosh” doesn’t have much to do with the thing you’re trying to lose (fat).
Two pounds of fat per week is the go-to standard for how much most people can possibly lose and keep off—the rest is water weight. At the start of your fitness journey, you may have noticed a wider jump, or maybe even a bump up in weight due to water retention, but it all comes down to water.
And this is on top of the fact that water weight sees a lot of fluctuations every day. It depends on the individual, activity levels, stress, diet, or even the menstrual cycle.
If you’re looking to find the true amount of fat loss, it’s going to come down to measuring your body fat as a percentage of your body weight. There are a few ways to do this—some better than others.
Scales that can measure your body’s composition have become increasingly popular and cheap. They work by sending electrical signals through your body and measuring how long it’ll take for the signal to arrive. More fat means less water and a longer wait for the signal to arrive.
However, these can be incredibly inaccurate—dare we say that most are inaccurate. At best, they’ll offer you a ballpark range to gauge your progress.
Body mass index (BMI) is also a fantastic way to see where you’re at in terms of body fat in relation to your age, sex, and height. However, finding out your body fat percentage from these basic variables can give very wrong results if you’ve got an unusual body type.
A better system is the relative fat mass (RFM) calculation, which takes the same information as above while also taking your waist measurement.
The most important thing to remember is to keep your expectations in check and your eye on the prize. Weight loss is a hurdle, and the scale is only going to provide temporary satisfaction after a fat whoosh.
If there’s one thing to take from this, it’s to not get discouraged if you feel like you’re running in place. Resilience and grit are just as important as a solid workout and diet plan when you’re trying to reach your goals. The plateau is always a big hit on morale—but if things work out and you keep powering through—you’ll reach the end lighter than ever.