Fluid retention, fat or swelling? How to distinguish each of them (and how to act accordingly to eliminate them)

One day we get up with an annoying feeling of swelling. It seems that we have gained weight, it bothers us and we do not finish understanding its origin. However, there it is: the pants are tighter than yesterday and the scale does not seem to change.

What’s going on? Have we gained weight again? Are we retaining liquids? Could it be due to something else? The swelling, the retention and the accumulated fat, sometimes, can be confusing , very similar to each other. Today we tell you how to distinguish each of these manifestations and what to do in case of running into one of them.

The fluid retention

The fluid retention , also known as dropsy or edema, is seen in a bloated feeling, especially in the limbs (arms and legs), but may also occur in the abdomen. A normal retention is not dangerous, although it could indicate a more serious pathology.


In cases of severe dropsy, when they become clinical pictures, we are before a manifestation of a disease that could have its origin in the heart, in the liver or in the kidneys. It can also appear because of an immune problem. The more colloquial “fluid retention” refers to that very thing: a slight accumulation of interstitial fluid that manifests with swelling and temporary weight gain.

Why does fluid retention appear?

The human body is composed between 80 and 60% of water. Part of this water is inside the cells. Another part is outside, as part of the interstitial fluid (from Latin, between cells). The amount of interstitial fluid is controlled by homeostasis. Body water corresponds to 65% intracellular and 35% is extracellular , approximately. This balance occurs naturally thanks to cellular mechanisms.


However, when these break down, fluid can be retained outside the cells, accumulating in the tissues. This usually occurs in the tissues of the abdomen and extremities, although it can pass through the entire body. The reasons for breaking this balance, grosso modo are: kidney problems, which prevent the water management of the body; liver problems, which cause a decompensation in the oncotic pressure (of the proteins); heart problems, which reduce the blood pressure in the tissues; obstruction of the lymphatic system.

How do we identify fluid retention?

This is a manifestation of other possible problems. However, it can occur lightly, due to sedentary lifestyle and an unbalanced diet, with excess sodium, sugars and alcohol . We will notice it in swollen limbs and sudden changes in body volume (and that disappear as fast as they arrive). A classic test for fluid retention, consists of pressing one of the swollen limbs. If the skin takes too long to return to its place, leaving a mark known as fovea, we will be facing a signal of fluid retention

What to do to solve fluid retention?

First of all, if this is serious, we should consult with a doctor to ensure a correct diagnosis . In case there is no more inconvenience than a normal liquid retention , without any associated problem (in which case, we will almost certainly not notice the fovea), it will be enough for us to limit ourselves to an adequate diet and do some activity physical.

The sugar free , alcohol and excess sodium increase the imbalance in interstitial cellular fluids, and directly affecting the mechanisms of cell exchange. We must reduce all these substances in our day to day, increasing fresh products and avoiding ultra-processed ones.

Drinking enough water, although it seems paradoxical, is also important because it helps regulate the dissolved amount of salts and keeps the kidneys active. Exercise has also been proven to be effective in preventing fluid retention , probably due to its positive metabolic impact.


The excessive accumulation of fat is the worst of the enemies when it comes to losing weight. It is not a secret Quite the opposite. The accumulation of fat is relatively fast , persistent and is associated with all kinds of diseases. In fact, fat is behind the biggest epidemic on the planet: obesity.


Why does excess fat appear?

In a single expression: caloric excess. Leaving aside the pathologies, guilty of a metabolic disorder that can cause excessive accumulation of fat, this usually occurs because we take too much energy or because we burn too little . Our body is expert in accumulating reserve substances (lipids and glycogen, basically) and it is bad enough to spend them .

With this in mind, we only have two options: we are burning fewer calories or we are consuming too many. This causes our metabolism to store them, gaining weight. Some complex processes, all related to the metabolism of sugars and fats , make this accumulation (and weight gain) more efficient and faster.

How do we identify excess fat?

The weight gained with fat is more persistent, it takes a long time to be eliminated. In addition, it is accompanied by … well, the layer of body fat that bothers us so much and that covers the musculature. The flabby tissues are typical of an excess of fat. We can also measure the accumulated fat with a lipocalibre or with an impedance scale .

What to do to solve excess fat?

If the origin of this excess is the deficit of caloric expenditure, the answer is simple: increase that expense, or reduce the energy we consume. How? We have already told you a million times that the only thing we can do is eat better, reduce sugars and fats, increase the amount of fiber and water, get away from ultra-processed products and increase physical activity.


Regarding the latter, we can also intensify the exercise by doing some sport and with a strategy in mind . In the end, as we have said, the only secret is to reach the caloric deficit. Of course, we must do it with a head, looking for a change of healthier habits and not falling into bad habits or poor nutrition with the sole objective of reducing calories.

The inflamation

There is another reason why we may feel uncomfortable at the time of dressing. It is not always noticeable on the scale, but it is possible that it is in the volume: the swelling . If not due to fluid retention or fat accumulation, much more common, we may be facing another problem that we identify colloquially as swelling : a bulge of the abdominal area.


Why does the swelling appear?

The causes of swelling can be many and varied. Among them are gas retention, constipation, some food intolerance … but it can also be due to abdominal distension. This, also known as abdominal sarcopenia, appears with sedentary lifestyle and age. It consists of a loss of strength of the musculature and, with it, the loss of metabolic activity. The consequence is a greater abdominal bulge.

How do we identify the swelling?

This generic set of problems is identified by a swollen belly, usually flabby, although it may be hard against pressure (a sign that it is not a muscle problem). In the case of abdominal distension, it is as simple as checking the lack of strength in the muscles of the area, pressing with your fingers and “kneading” the adipose tissue.


Abdominal distension is usually associated with the accumulation of fat, both in origin and consequences, so we can not separate these two facets of the same problem: sedentary lifestyle. In the case of gas or constipation, as we said, we will notice another type of discomfort, abdominal pain or inability to go to the bathroom.

What to do to solve the swelling?

To avoid the retention of gases, we can vary our food by looking for fruits, seeds, cooked vegetables, and other products that help us. The same goes for constipation. The habits when eating are also important: eat slowly, drink plenty of water, performing some physical activity, avoid soft drinks and a moderate amount of salt will help us.

In the case of abdominal distension, the only solution is to exercise. Physical activity will help us burn fat and release the signals necessary for our body to generate muscle. However, the abdominals can only catch tone through their training . With some exercise, the feeling of swelling will disappear.

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