Weight loss isn’t always linear.
Anyone who’s ever lost weight can tell you, it doesn’t come off consistently and in predictable increments, even if your diet and training are super on point.
In fact, it’s pretty common to hit “weight loss plateaus,” meaning you’re still training and eating in a calorie deficit, but the scale won’t budge.
Then comes the whoosh effect: When all that weight you should have lost suddenly disappears, as if by magic.
The whoosh effect is simply a name given to the alleged phenomenon that when your body burns fat, its fat cells often temporarily fill with water before fully shrinking down. This can cause your scale weight to stall and your body shape stay relatively the same (if not squishier) even though you’re on track for weight loss.
The ‘whoosh’ comes when your body, sometimes suddenly, flushes all the extra water out and you appear leaner almost overnight.
UPDATED: There’s been a lot of new research and conjecture put out there since I originally wrote this article. Lots of health experts and scientists are skeptical of the exact mechanism of the whoosh effect and dispute the idea that fat cells fill with water before collapsing.
However, the important takeaway for the 99% of us who aren’t scientists is that the whoosh effect is REAL, we just may not have a concensus on exactly how and why it happens. It has been experienced and documented by too many people and studies to dismiss.
So read on below but keep in mind the specific workings of the whoosh may be up for debate, though the signs, symptoms, and even the carb-refeed I talk about below are pretty accurate.
The best way to combat the whoosh effect is to track your body fat percentage using a highly calibrated scale (here’s my favorite on Amazon). Ignore minor fluctuations and plateaus in weight and monitor your body fat instead!
What is the Woosh Effect?
Here’s a fun weight loss fact: We often refer to losing weight as “burning fat,” right?
This would imply that diet and exercise help us convert our fat stores into energy we then use for activity, which is kind of true, but that doesn’t mean the fat just “burns up” and disappears.
New research shows most of it actually gets converted into carbon dioxide, which we then breathe out.
But when those fat cells shrink (they never go away for good) it’s actually extremely common for water to swoop in and take their place.
That leads to a couple of key issues for anyone on a weight loss program:
When water retention is high, the scale may not move, making you think progress has stalled
Water retention makes us feel super squishy, so you may actually feel WORSE after burning a few pounds of fat
These water-filled pockets can last for days or weeks at a time.
But eventually, if you stick with your diet and exercise goals, they’ll suddenly release (WHOOSH), almost overnight, and you’ll notice significant weight loss and physical changes to your appearance.
And that’s the Whoosh Effect, or at least, the most common explanation of it.
Regardless of the mechanics of the whoosh, people usually use the term to refer to sudden bursts of weight loss that occur basically overnight.
Is the Whoosh Effect real?
In a word, yes. I wouldn’t be writing this article if it weren’t!
But luckily we don’t just have to go on anecdote to know that the Whoosh Effect — that is, the uneven pattern of weight loss — is as real as can be.
In 1944 and 1945, researchers at the University of Minnesota performed what would go on to be known as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment.
In the study, they put volunteers through a near-starvation level diet and hard labor in order to study the effects of being a prisoner of war.
The men were fed around 1,500 calories per day, every day, for a period of about 6 months. This was coupled with rigorous exercise every day.
At first, most of the men consistently lost 2 pounds of body weight per week, almost like clockwork.
But as the experiment went along, researchers found that the weight loss was no longer predictable. That the men would maintain the same body weight for weeks and then suddenly and inexplicably lose several pounds.
This, friends, is the Whoosh Effect in action.
What do the experts say about the Whoosh Effect?
Again, there’s a lot of debate on the exact mechanics of the phenomenon known as the whoosh effect.
So I reached out to a couple of certified experts to try to paint a clearer picture of the current thinking.
Dr. Aishah Muhammad, a pediatric doctor, personal trainer, and weight loss coach from the UK, says the whoosh is really about glycogen stores and your body’s fluctuating water retention, not so much what’s going on inside each individual fat cell.
“Often weight loss appears to happen in chunks because there is a large component of water weight involved and dramatic changes in diet. When someone initially goes on a diet, they reduce their intake of certain foods which often causes a quick weight loss initally,” she writes.
“This then hits a plateau because a massive change was already made and the body adapts. After some period, when further changes are made more weight loss is seen.”
How to trigger a Whoosh Effect for weight loss
I’ve noticed something kind of funky about my own weight loss and fitness journey lately.
I try to eat in a calorie deficit, and I strength train three days per week (check out the program I’m on and my results, and my favorite women’s workout program, too), along with walking and light cardio, but I’m also a human being who likes fun, food, and alcohol.
So I do have the occasional slip-up or cheat day.
Some nights I’ll have a big meal and go to bed thinking, “Ah crap, I just undid all of my hard work this week.”
Weirdly enough, sometimes I wake up the morning after a big cheat meal feeling leaner than ever.
And I’m not alone. Some research suggests that one way to trigger a Whoosh Effect of weight loss may be to eat a cheat meal.
The researchers behind the Minnesota Starvation Experiment noted this in their own work.
About halfway through the experiment, the men were given a 2,300-or-so calorie meal as something of a “re-feed,” and in many of them, this “cheat meal” triggered significant weight loss the next day.
And after a lot of peeing, no less! (That water has to come out somehow)
So… if you’ve been exercising and dieting but find yourself frustrated by areas of super squishy fat and a scale that won’t budge, try indulging yourself in a (reasonable!) cheat meal.
You might be pleasantly surprised the next day.
Signs of a (coming) Whoosh Effect
The Whoosh Effect will happen naturally and without any effort on your part if you stick with your diet and training, though you may be able to trigger one wish a small cheat meal, as noted above.
But if you’re looking for signs that you may be experiencing (or will be experiencing soon) a Whoosh, keep an eye out for:
Despite solid diet and training, the scale hasn’t moved in weeks
Despite solid diet and training, you feel squishy and jiggly
Despite solid diet and training, you inexplicably gain 1 or 2 pounds
Needing to pee a lot
More hunger cravings than usual on the same diet and exercise plan
Areas of fat feel warmer to the touch
Again, the Whoosh may completely surprise you, or you may be able to trigger it using a reasonable cheat meal.
Just know that if you stick to the plan (calorie deficit, good nutrition, exercise) the weight WILL come off.
Just not as consistently as you might want.
If you’re looking for a great workout program to strip away the fat, check out my review of the Beachbody on Demand workouts. They’re excellent for getting lean in no time while working out and eating at home.
Whoosh Effect FAQ
What is the whoosh effect?
As your body burns fat, your fat cells temporary fill with water before they shrink down.
That’s why you can sometimes feel jiggly, squishy, etc during a diet before a sudden whoosh when a lot of water weight disappears at once.
How do we know it’s real?
There was a famous and now controversial study that observed the effects of an extremely low calorie diet on volunteers.
Weight loss would often plateau for stretches of time before coming off in huge chunks, it was observed, even though calorie consumption was extremely strict.
How can you trigger a whoosh effect?
There is some evidence that a large cheat meal (especially extra carbs) could trigger your body to lose the extra water weight being stored during fat loss.
How do you know a whoosh is coming?
There are lots of signs. But if you know for a fact that your diet and training have been on point and you haven’t lost weight, feel squishy, or maybe have gained weight, there’s a good chance a whoosh is coming.
You may also have to pee a lot when you start to lose the water weight.
People report all different kinds of symptoms. Some folks say that diarrhea can be a sign of a coming whoosh, which makes sense… it is still water leaving the body!
Others will note that they get intense hunger pangs and cravings right before losing a significant amount of weight in a short amount of time (more severe cravings than normal diet hunger).
Finally, you may notice night sweats right before a whoosh, as that’s yet another way your body can rid itself of water weight.
(And some theorize this is a sign of your metabolism speeding up in order to better burn fat… night sweats are a common side effect of weightlifting.)
The evidence is pretty clear, both scientifically and anecdotally, that the whoosh effect is real, but its exact mechanics and warning signs are still under debate.
Do fat cells ever go away?
No. They only shrink when you burn through the fat that occupies them, but they never disappear.
That’s part of why it’s so much easier to maintain a lean state than it is to achieve one once you’re overweight.
Fat cells can also die off, but typically they’re replaced at the same rate by new fat cells.
So, for the most part, the number of fat cells in your body can really only go up. Though you can shrink those cells down substantially through weight loss.
What about alcohol?
It’s possible that alcohol can help trigger a whoosh and rid your body of water weight, since it’s known to dehydrate you. Read more about alcohol and weight loss here.
Is the whoosh effect specific to keto?
No. Anyone on a weight loss diet can experience the whoosh effect. You’ll also see the whoosh effect on intermittent fasting, OMAD, and low carb diets.
How can I tell the difference between fat and water weight?
It’s really hard to say for sure. But water weight may be warmer to the touch and may be a lot jigglier than fat.
Try pinching the area and releasing it… if it bounces around like a waterbed when you let it go, it might just be extra water. Fat is also squishy but a tad harder to the touch.
Can drinking a lot of water trigger a whoosh effect?
There are lots of legitimate ways to lose water weight, and drinking a ton of water is (surprisingly) one of them.
According to Healthline.com, drinking more fluids can encourage your body to hold on to less water retention. Though you don’t want to overdo it, because excessive water intake can also leave you bloated.
Drink enough that your pee remains a light yellow or almost clear color. Dark yellow could mean you’re under consuming water.
You can also try things like reducing your salt intake to help your bloating, exercising more, and getting more electrolytes into your diet. All of these things have been shown to reduce water weight.
And don’t forget, water weight won’t affect your body fat percentage. Track it closely with a highly-calibrated scale at home (like this one on Amazon) and you’ll never have to wonder if you’re still making progress.