We’ve all been there. Whether it’s one cocktail too many that lead to a midnight pizza binge, or perhaps you just wanted a taste of something sweet and ended up eating a family-size bag of candy. Or maybe you're just coming out of the holiday season feeling utterly defeated. It happens. But how much damage have you really done? And will you survive the guilt and the food baby?
Here's how much fat you could potentially gain from a day of binging or overeating, and what to do about it.
When a Cheat Meal Gets Out of Hand
The thing to remember is, no one food item can make or break your diet, just as it is pretty difficult to undo a month’s worth of hard work in a day or two. You may end up doing a little damage if you push it too far, but it’s probably not anything that will derail you completely or that can’t be fixed. Plus it’s alright to let your diet get a little off track every now and then. Heck, research suggests it might even help your progress in the long run (1).
Traditional wisdom claims it takes 3,500 calories extra to gain a pound of fat, but you won’t necessarily gain one pound of fat in a day, it usually takes multiple days of excessive intake to increase body fat storage. You will, however, likely see the numbers on the scale go up and feel more bloated due to water weight.
Water Weight vs. Fat Weight
Fat gain or muscle gain happens slowly over time, whereas water weight gain can be rapid and more drastic. When you gain fat or muscle, your body has to capture, store and utilize nutrients accordingly - it is not always a simple process and can take days or even weeks. But with water weight, your cells are able to absorb excess water under a variety of circumstances including lack of sleep, high sugar or salt intake, hormones, and even the weather (2,3)
If you've found you've gained a few pounds overnight or even in a week, it could be that a lot of this weight is coming from changes in fluids (aka water weight or bloating). So take a deep breath and don't freak out. Just as water weight can be gained quickly, you can lose it quickly too. So get back on track and give your body time to flush it out, the damage may not be as bad as you think. Will One Cheat Day Ruin Your Diet?
While the benefits of cheat days are widely debated, most of the research on overfeeding involves small sample sizes over a week or more and only looks at sedentary individuals – currently, there is no research looking at effects from one day’s worth of overeating (4). But, here is what we do know: Excess Calories Leads to Weight Gain
However, the calorie equation is not a perfect science. The total amount of fat you could potentially gain in a day depends on many factors like your level of activity, metabolism, current body fat percentage, glycogen stores, the types of food you are consuming, and even your genetic make-up (4). One study showed that a higher starting weight could result in more fat accumulation than lean mass, regardless of how quickly weight is gained (5). And one study looking at overfeeding in twins suggested genetic make-up can significantly impact total body fat percentage gain (6).
What to Do When You Binge or Overeat
While the potential fat gain is one thing, going way overboard on your cheats can also drain your energy, dampen your mood and make you feel pretty bloated/icky. Luckily with a little time and patience, most of this will subside. But if you are looking for a few quick tips to soften the blow and getting you feeling back to normal sooner, here are some easy ways to bounce back.
1. Drink Plenty of Water Even though you are probably retaining water, it still helps to keep flushing your system. Staying hydrated will prevent you from storing any more water weight and may help balance your mood and your appetite (14,15).
2. Get Some Sleep Clock in a little earlier each night to get some additional rest. Sleep is not only important for maintaining energy levels, a better mood, and overall recovery, it might also impact your fluid balance (16). Not to mention poor sleep is associated with weight gain in some people (17).
3. Eat Foods That Decrease Bloating Just like water, fiber is a great way to flush the system and... ahem, get things moving again. But it is possible to get too much of a good thing and if you overdo, especially on insoluble fiber foods, you might end up making yourself more bloated and gassy. Instead opt for foods that help combat your bloats like spinach, parsley, celery, or lemon. You can also try omega-rich fish, like salmon, or probiotics. You can also cut out artificial sweeteners, carbonated beverages, stop chewing gum and remember to eat and drink your food slowly to prevent sucking in any more excess air.
4. Exercise No better way to drop some guilt and excess water than with a good sweat sesh. Not to mention, exercise can help improve your mood and energy levels. For bonus relief, add a short stint in the sauna after your workout.
5. Balance Your Electrolytes By cutting your salt and sugar intake and increasing your intake of potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Salt and sugar cause you to store more water, whereas other electrolytes help balance you out. For potassium try fruits and veggies, for calcium try low-fat yogurt, and for magnesium try pumpkin seeds or spinach.