Eating significantly more calories than you need to maintain your weight will always cause some fat gain, no matter what foods you eat or how “fast” your metabolism is.
You probably won’t gain as much fat as you might expect, though, and how much you gain will depend on whether those calories come from protein, carbs, or fat, and how your body responds to overeating.
Keep reading to learn simple, science-based steps you can take to avoid gaining excessive fat while enjoying large amounts of your favorite foods.
Here’s an inalienable truth about nutrition:
If you eat more calories than you burn, you’ll gain weight.
And the more calories you eat, the more weight you’ll gain.
That begs the question, though.
Is there a limit to how much fat you can gain in, say, a single day?
Can 24 hours of uninhibited gluttony lead to several pounds of fat gain, as some claim?
Well, that’s what you’ll learn in this article.
The long story short is you can gain a large amount of fat after a single day of bingeing, but it’s probably less than you think.
By the end of this article, you’ll know how your body stores fat, how much fat you can really gain in a single day of overeating, and how to minimize fat gain if you have your heart set on engaging in some holiday hoggishness.
Let’s jump right in.
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How Much Fat Can You Gain in a Day?
Here’s the short answer: not as much as you might think.
Now for the long answer.
Let’s start by looking at a study conducted by scientists at the University of Colorado.
To simulate a bout of overeating, the researchers fed 16 people 50% more calories than they needed to maintain their weight every day for two weeks (about 1,400 extra calories per day).
After two weeks they gained 3 pounds of fat. That works out to 1.5 pounds of fat per week or 0.2 pounds per day.
Now, this study wasn’t exactly a perfect representation of a holiday binge. Most of us might overeat for a day or two but not several weeks, as in this study, but we can still use the data to estimate how much fat you can expect to gain when overeating for a day or two.
In this case, they gained ⅕ of a pound of fat when they maintained a 1,400 calorie surplus.
These results are bolstered by another longer study conducted by scientists at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center.
In this study, the researchers had 29 slightly overweight men eat 40% more calories than they needed to maintain their weight every day for 8 weeks, which works out to a calorie surplus of 1,200 to 1,500 calories per day. At the end of the study, they’d gained 9 pounds of fat. That works out to 1.1 pounds per week or 0.16 pounds per day.
Despite stuffing themselves with high-calorie foods on the daily, once again they only gained about ⅕ of a pound of fat per day.
Finally, it’s worth looking at a study conducted by scientists at Loughborough University that looked at the effects of overeating high-fat foods for a single day.
The researchers had 15 healthy, normal weight, physically active (exercising at least 30 minutes three days per week) men and women eat 78% more calories than they needed to maintain their weight over the course of a single day. This worked out to 6,000 calories per day compared to their normal calorie intake of 3,350 calories per day.
Their diet was designed to be extremely high fat, providing 68% of total calories from fat.
The researchers didn’t measure the participants body fat percentage, but they did record their weight before and after the all-day binge.
On average, the participants gained 1.76 pounds.
That’s considerably more than the other two studies you learned about a moment ago, but as you’ll learn in a moment, much of the weight you gain after a one or two day binge isn’t body fat.
Plus, even if all of the weight these people gained was fat, two pounds of weight gain isn’t catastrophic considering how much these people ate.
Now, at this point you may be wondering why the results from these studies don’t line up with your experiences.
Sure, you might think, studies show people don’t gain that much fat when they overeat, but why do I always gain 5 to 10 pounds after I overeat for a few days during the holidays?
The answer more or less boils down to four things: your sodium, carbohydrate, and water intake, and the weight of your stool.
You see, consuming large amounts of sodium, carbohydrate, and water causes a disproportionate increase in body weight despite not significantly increasing body fat.
And when most people eat a lot of food, they inevitably eat a lot more sodium and carbohydrate than normal.
Now, sodium and carbohydrate don’t cause much weight gain on their own.Instead, they increase your body weight by increasing your whole-body water stores.
Sodium brings water into cells, which is why eating large amounts of it can increase your total body water stores. Most people would call this “bloating” or “water retention” and you’ve probably noticed it after eating a large, salty “cheat meal,” like pizza, burritos, or fries.
A single high-sodium meal could increase your whole-body water stores enough to add several pounds to your body weight. This might increase your scale weight for several days before your body disposes of the excess sodium and water retention.
Carbohydrate can have a similar effect on your body weight.
Carbohydrate is stored in the muscles and liver in the form of glycogen. Every gram of glycogen is stored with 3 to 4 grams of water, which means if you consume 400 grams of carbs, that could bring along 1200 to 1600 grams (~3 to 4 pounds) of water into your muscles and liver.
Taken together, the increase in sodium, carbohydrate, and water storage could bump your weight up by 5 to 10 pounds or more overnight.
The good news is your body will excrete most of this extra sodium and water, and your carbohydrate stores will gradually return to normal, but until this occurs you may think you’ve gained several pounds of fat if you go by your scale weight alone.
All of this extra water weight can also give your body a “puffy” appearance, which can reinforce the idea that you’ve gained lots of body fat.
Finally, another reason your body weight will skyrocket after a day or two of overeating is an increase in your stool weight.
Until your body has digested and excreted all of the extra food mass from your feasting, you’ll likely be carrying around several additional pounds of food in your digestive tract, which further bumps up your body weight. This tends to go away after a day or two.
You see these effects in studies, too.
In the first study you learned about a moment ago, the participants gained 7 pounds of scale weight after 2 weeks of overeating, and in the second study, they gained 17 pounds after 8 weeks of overeating. In both cases, though, only about half of this increase in body weight was body fat.
The bottom line is if you eat 1,000 to 1,500 calories more than you need to maintain your weight in a single day, you’ll probably only gain ⅕ to ¼ of a pound of fat, even if your scale weight tells a different story.
Let’s say you really “let go” and eat 2,000 to 3,000 calories more than you need to maintain your weight (fairly common on Thanksgiving). The damage?
Maybe half a pound of fat gain.
Now, the one big caveat here is that this assumes you’re only overeating for a day or two. It’s continuous overeating that leads to weight gain, obesity, diabetes, and the many other health complications associated with overeating.
Summary: If you overeat 1,000 to 3,000 calories per day, you can expect to gain anywhere from ⅕ to ½ a pound of body fat. You’ll likely gain several pounds of body weight, but most of this will be due to sodium, water, carbohydrate, and undigested food—not body fat.
Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.
What If You Eat A Lot More than Normal?
Most of the studies we’ve looked at so far involved people “bingeing” on 1,000 to 1,500 more calories than they needed per day.
But what if you’re the kind of person who likes to really “turn it loose” when you go off the rails?
You know, instead of eating a large bowl of oatmeal and a bar of chocolate (~1,000 calories), you decide to demolish an entire pizza, a milkshake, and a 16-ounce pack of Twizzlers (6,000 calories).
What kind of fallout can you expect?
It’s impossible to say exactly how much more you’ll gain for reasons you’ll learn in a moment, but let’s take a shot at it.
Let’s say you need 3,000 calories to maintain your weight every day.
On the day of your binge, you eat 2,000 calories from your normal meals, and 6,000 calories from your pizza, milkshake, and Twizzlers.
2,000 + 6,000 = 8,000 total calories eaten.
8,000 calories eaten – 3,000 calories burned = a 5,000 calorie surplus.
In the studies you learned about earlier in this article, people gained around 0.2 pounds of fat per 1,000 calories they ate above their maintenance needs.
If you ate five times that amount—5,000 calories more than you need to maintain your weight—you could expect to gain about a pound of fat.
You can get rid of that with about a week of proper dieting.
If we look at real world examples of extreme hedonism, like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years, then we have even less reason to worry. On average, people only gain around one pound of body weight during the holidays.
Talk with people who’ve partaken in binges like this, and you’ll quickly realize they often don’t gain as much fat as you’d expect. After a few days of eating normally and allowing their extra water, sodium, and glycogen stores to decrease, their weight settles back to where it was before the calorie bonanza.
In other words, calorie intake and fat gain don’t go up in lockstep.
Why, might you ask?
Keep reading to find out.
Summary: You can expect to gain about 0.2 pounds of fat for every 1,000 calories you eat above your maintenance needs. Thus, if you eat 5,000 calories more than you need to maintain your weight over the course of a day, you’ll probably gain about a pound of fat.
Why Don’t You Get Fat When You Binge?
It’s easy to find examples of people who’ve eaten ungodly amounts of food without getting fat.
Case in point, google “10,000 calorie challenge.”
You’ll find countless examples of people who’ve eaten enough food to gain at least two pounds of pure fat on paper, yet after a few days they’re back to their pre-calorie-spree weight.
You see the same thing in scientific studies. In these two studies where the participants overate every day for several weeks, they “should” have gained about ¾ of a pound per day of fat per day, assuming all of their additional calories were stored as body fat. In reality, they only gained about ⅕ of a pound of fat per day.
What’s going on?
Are these people immune to the rules of energy balance?
Are they blessed with ”skinny” genes?
Are the studies wrong?
No, no, and probably not.
While overeating will almost always cause some amount of fat gain, several changes take place in your body that prevent all of the calories you eat from being stored as body fat.
Namely . . .
You burn more calories digesting food.
You store some macronutrients as fat more easily than others.
You (may) move more when you eat more.
You don’t absorb every calorie you eat.
Let’s look at each in turn.
You burn more calories digesting food.
When you eat a meal, your body has to expend energy to digest and process the food. This is known as the thermic effect of food (TEF).
Research shows it accounts for approximately 10% of your total daily energy expenditure. That is, about one in ten calories you consume is burned digesting your meals.
In other words, your metabolism temporarily increases after eating a meal.
How much your metabolism increases depends on the size and composition of the meal.
Smaller meals require less energy to digest, so they cause a smaller increase in energy expenditure.
Large meals, on the other hand, require far more energy to digest, so they cause a much greater rise in energy expenditure. (This is also part of why you feel warmer after eating a large meal—your body is expending energy to turn that food into usable calories).
Some macronutrients also raise TEF more than others:
What this means is that meals higher in protein and carbohydrate cause a greater increase in TEF than meals high in fat.
How processed or unprocessed your food is also changes its effect on TEF. In one study conducted by scientists at Pomona College, they found a processed-food meal of white bread and American cheese increased TEF about 10%, whereas a whole-food meal of multi-grain bread and cheddar cheese increased TEF about 20%.
Another study found similar results when people burned 92 extra calories per day by eating whole grains instead of refined grains for six weeks.
Thus, let’s say you overeat 1,000 calories. Right off the bat, you’re losing about 100 of those calories to the thermic effect of food. If the meal is high in protein or carbs and mostly composed of whole foods, you might burn closer to 150 or 200 calories.
Summary: About 10 to 20% of the calories you consume are burned by your body during the digestion process, and this number will be even higher if you eat a meal high in protein or carbs and mostly composed of whole foods.
You store some macronutrients as fat more easily than others.
How many calories you store as fat also depends on what percentage of those calories come from protein, carbohydrate, or fat.
This is because not all macronutrients are processed the same way by the body.
Protein is used almost entirely for repairing, building, and regenerating cells, hormones, and other molecules in the body, and the excess is burned off as fuel in the liver. It’s never directly converted into body fat.
Carbohydrate is mostly stored in the muscles and liver in the form of glycogen. Despite what many people believe, carbs are rarely converted directly into body fat.
Fat is chemically very similar to body fat, and thus your body prefers to store dietary fat as body fat and burn carbs and protein for immediate energy instead.
Now, you might be thinking you can outsmart your body’s metabolism by overeating carbs and protein and keeping your fat intake low, but this isn’t as effective as you might think.
Eating too many carbs can make you gain fat, just not in the same way as overeating fat.
Chemically speaking, carbs are very different from the molecules that make up body fat (triglycerides), and they have to undergo an energy-intensive process known as de novo lipogenesis (DNL) to be converted into body fat.
The thing is, DNL only ramps up enough to make a difference in your body fat levels after several days of gorging yourself on carbs. We’re talking 700 to 1,000+ grams per day for most people.
Even then, about 15 to 25% of the energy in carbohydrate is lost during the process of converting it into fat, so 100 calories’ worth of carbs might only turn into 75 or 85 calories’ worth of body fat.
Overeating carbs can increase fat storage in another way, though. As your body burns more and more carbs for energy, it burns proportionally less of the fat you eat, and thus more dietary fat is stored as body fat.
What this means is that the more carbs you eat, the more fat you’ll store and the less you burn throughout the day.
This is why most studies show people gain similar amounts of body fat after overeating carbs or fat.
In other words . . .
Eating more dietary fat results in the direct storage of body fat.
Eating more dietary carbs results in some of the carbs being converted to fat (if you eat a ton of carbs for several days), and it results in any fat you eating being primarily stored as body fat.
And in case you’re wondering, alcohol is burned immediately because the body has no way to store it, and is thus never stored as fat body fat. It does, however, shut down fat burning in a similar manner to carbs, which means that while alcohol is in your system, you’re going to store almost all of the fat you eat as body fat.
Now, if you’re willing to keep your fat intake very low, you can minimize fat intake by primarily overeating on carbs and protein. More on how this works in a moment.
Summary: Overeating protein and carbs generally results in slightly less body fat gain than overeating fat, although the differences tend to be small.
You (may) move more when you eat more.
There’s some truth to the idea that some people have naturally “fast metabolisms,” and can eat more than others without gaining as much weight.
This isn’t because some people are blessed with innately fat burning genes, though. Instead, the reason some people seem to have fast metabolisms is due to how their activity levels change when they overeat.
Research shows some people will spontaneously and subconsciously move more throughout the day when they overeat, and this increase in activity can help them burn up to 700 additional calories per day.
That is, if people are fed 1,000 calories more per day than they need to maintain their weight, some will burn off about three-quarters of that just by fidgeting, tapping their legs, and moving around more throughout the day.
These activities are known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT).
One thing you should know about NEAT, though, is that it varies a great deal from person to person.
When people eat more calories than they need to maintain their weight, some might actually burn fewer calories and others might burn almost 1,000 calories more per day. Women also tend to have a smaller rise in NEAT than men when overeating.
That’s why I say you may move more when you eat more—not everyone responds the same way.
That said, the average increase in energy expenditure works out to about 300 calories per day, which helps partly explain why people don’t gain as much fat as you’d expect after binging.
Summary: Most people burn several hundred more calories per day due to a subconscious increase in activity when they overeat. This reduces how much fat they gain when binging.
You don’t absorb every calorie you eat.
As you may have noticed after a trip to the bathroom, not every calorie you eat is entirely digested.
Some foods, particularly ones high in fiber like grains, nuts, seeds, and vegetables often make their way through the digestive system without being completely broken down.
What’s more, these high-fiber foods can also interfere with the absorption of fat, meaning more gets excreted in your poop.
So, does this mean that many of those extra cheat day calories just go in one end and out the other?
The body is very good at extracting calories out of the food you eat, and roughly 95% of the calories you put in your mouth are absorbed during digestion.
That said, eating more or less of certain foods can change how many calories are absorbed.
Specifically, eating more fiber-rich foods, particularly those high in soluble fiber, can slightly reduce how many calories are absorbed during digestion.
For example, you only absorb about 70% of the calories in whole almonds, because the fibrous shell of the almonds prevents much of the fat from being absorbed during digestion. Not only that, but when you eat high-fiber foods like almonds with other high-fat foods, the fiber from the almonds reduces the total fat absorption of the entire meal.
That is, eating high-fiber foods reduces the absorption of calories from all of the foods you eat, not just the high-fiber ones.
This won’t help significantly reduce how much fat you gain when overeating, but it helps further explain why you don’t gain quite as much fat as you’d expect.
Summary: Your body typically absorbs 95% of the calories you eat during digestion, but eating large amounts of high-fiber foods, particularly soluble fiber, can reduce the amount of calories you absorb.
What if You Binge on Carbs and Protein?
Now, you may be thinking, “Can’t I just overeat carbs and protein, keep my fat intake at zero, and gain no body fat?”
Fortunately, a study conducted by scientists at the University of Colorado provides an answer to this question.
They fed 16 lean and obese men 50% more calories than they needed to maintain their weight for two weeks, but they split the groups in half and gave them different diets.
One group got their extra calories from fat and the other group got them from carbohydrate. After two weeks, the group following the high-fat diet gained 2.7 pounds of body fat, and the group following the high-carb diet gained 2.4 pounds of body fat.
The researchers also looked at how the participants’ body fat percentage affected their response to the different diets. They found that the obese people gained equal amounts of body fat after overeating fat or carbohydrate, whereas the lean people gained less body fat after overeating carbohydrate and more body fat after overeating fat.
Even then, though, they still gained a lot of body fat regardless of whether they overate fat or carbs.
So, it would seem like the high-protein, high-carb, low-fat approach to binging is a dud.
There’s a wrinkle in this story, though.
The group following the high-carb diet was still getting 30% of their calories from fat, virtually all of which would be stored as body fat.
What if you kept your fat intake to the absolute minimum while binging on carbs and protein for a day or two?
Can you expect much, if any fat gain?
Researchers at the University of Lausanne tested this idea in a study by giving one group of people a normal “balanced” diet that included 300 grams of carbs, 90 grams of protein, and 90 grams of fat. The other group got a whopping 800 grams of carbs and the same amount of protein and fat.
After four days of eating like this, only about 13% of the extra carbs were being converted into fat in the high-carb group.
The researchers didn’t calculate exactly how much body fat gain this would translate into, but it’s likely less than a quarter pound of body fat per day.
If the high-carb group had kept their fat intake even lower, say 30 grams per day instead of 90, they probably would have gained even less body fat.
So, if you’re only overeating for a day, you can significantly minimize your chances of gaining body fat by keeping your fat intake low and primarily overeating carbohydrate and protein.
Of course, the downside of this approach is it means you have to avoid most of the tasty, high-fat foods people like to enjoy while binging.
So, you don’t really get to have your cake and eat it, too.
Summary: You can minimize fat storage while binging by keeping your fat intake as low as possible and primarily overeating carbs and protein.
Will a Single Day of Binging Damage Your Health?
You don’t need to be reminded that chronic overeating is bad for you.
Some fitness gurus, personal trainers, and Internet doctors take this even further, though, and claim even a single day of overeating is bad for your health.
Are they right?
Do a few days of gluttony and sloth really undo the other 360 days of healthy eating and physical activity you racked up throughout the year?
No, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you, either.
On the one hand, you don’t become overweight, diabetic, or develop a metabolic disease after a few days of overeating. Instead, these conditions are due to continuous overeating, lack of physical activity, and often other negative lifestyle behaviors like lack of sleep.
On the other hand, you can find studies that show negative health effects after a single day of overeating.
For example, in the study conducted by scientists at Loughborough University mentioned earlier in this article, the researchers had 15 young, healthy, relatively lean, physically active men and women eat 78% more calories than they needed to maintain their weight during a single day.
Most of these additional calories came from high-fat foods, too, so that 68% of their total calories came from fat.
The researchers took careful measurements of everyone’s metabolic health and weight before and after the day of binging, including glucose, insulin, and triglyceride levels and insulin sensitivity.
Interestingly, insulin, glucose, and triglyceride levels remained mostly unchanged, although insulin sensitivity dropped 28% after the binge.
Many news outlets were quick to sensationalize the results, claiming they were evidence “just one day of binge eating has shocking effects on your body.”
Are the results really shocking, though?
Scientists have known for years that insulin sensitivity temporarily drops after eating a meal, and it’s your average insulin sensitivity over time that matters when it comes to your health.
What’s more, your average insulin sensitivity is also strongly affected your body fat percentage and activity levels, not just how much you eat in a single day.
For example, multiple studies have shown people with more body fat have lower insulin sensitivity than people with less body fat. In other words, people with less body fat likely respond better to occasional overeating than people with more body fat.
Your activity levels also have a major impact on your insulin sensitivity. Research has proven many times that regular exercise drastically improves insulin sensitivity regardless of your age, health, or body fat percentage. That is, even overweight people can improve their insulin sensitivity through exercise (though being lean and active is ideal).
So, where does that leave us?
Well, the safest course of action would be to limit the extent of your overeating both in terms of total calories and number of days you overeat.
That is, instead of truly binging and consuming several thousand more calories than you need multiple times per year, it’s probably wiser from a health standpoint to keep your occasional calorie surpluses closer to 500 to 1,000 calories above your maintenance needs.
Here’s how I think of it: during the holidays, I don’t worry about my calorie intake, but I also don’t look at the holidays as a time to “get away” with eating as many calories as possible. I eat until I’m satisfied—maybe a little more—and then stop.
As long as I’m not actively force-feeding myself, my weight tends to be about the same or even a little lower after the holidays (this is also thanks to implementing the tips you’ll learn about in a moment).
If you have trouble with this intuitive approach to eating, I recommend you read this article:
Can Intuitive Eating Help You Get the Body You Really Want?
That’s amount of overeating will have a marginal impact on your body weight and metabolic health, yet still allows you to eat plenty of tasty foods during the holidays.
If you’re careful to reduce your calorie intake after overeating so you return to your previous weight, you can eat more than this, although you don’t want to make this a habit.
Summary: A single day of overeating has a negligible impact on your health if you maintain a regular workout routine, a healthy body fat percentage, and generally follow a healthy diet, but it’s best to limit the size and frequency of your feasting if you want to err on the safe size.
5 Ways to Enjoy the Holidays without Gaining Lots of Fat
Every holiday season you’ll find a number of articles on how to “avoid holiday weight gain.”
Most of the time, these articles are stuffed with useless platitudes like “watch your portion sizes,” “skip dessert,” and “use a smaller plate.”
Yeah . . . no.
Not only are these strategies largely ineffective (what good is a smaller plate if you get seconds?), most people will never follow them. That goes for me, too.
I don’t know about you, but I look forward to enjoying many different delicious dishes during the holidays, and in generous amounts.
And I’m not going to let concerns about gaining a miniscule amount of fat spoil my fun.
Based on what you now know about how little fat you gain when overeating, I think you can see where I’m coming from.
Remember—it’s continuous overeating that leads to weight gain, a flabby physique, and poor health, not the occasional high-calorie indulgence.
That doesn’t mean you have a license to go hog wild, either. Although you may not gain as much body fat as you’d expect when overeating, that isn’t an excuse to turn the holidays into one long binge.
With that in mind, here are some strategies for enjoying the holidays without gaining too much fat (that actually work).
1. Eat a few large meals, then stop.
One of the primary reasons people gain so much fat during the holidays is they never stop eating.
Instead of having a large Thanksgiving dinner and maybe a few high-calorie leftover meals, they eat several large meals and continue to gorge on cookies, candy, and dessert the rest of the time.
This is particularly true of people who’ve been in a calorie deficit for quite some time before the holidays, who’ve spent the past few weeks frothing at the mouth in anticipation of the coming feast.
Don’t do that.
Instead, eat a few large, high-calorie meals, and maybe a few snacks here and there, but know when you’ve had enough. Don’t turn the whole holiday into one long binge.
In other words, have a few large meals with all of the foods you want, but don’t continue grazing on cookies, pie, and so forth long after you’re stuffed.
2. Eat lots of protein and some fruits and vegetables.
You’ve probably experienced the feeling of eating 5 (or 10 or 15) cookies, and still not being full.
Well, most of the calories in foods like cookies come from refined carbs, sugar, and fat, which aren’t very filling (despite being high in calories).
Protein, however, is more satiating than carbs or fat.
Likewise, foods high in fiber such as fruits and vegetables also promote fullness better than foods high in refined carbs, sugar, and fat.
Now, I’m not saying you need to abstain from all processed foods and stick to turkey and Brussels sprouts, but including some high-protein and high-fiber foods is an easy way to help limit reckless gluttony.
In short, fill up on protein, veggies, and fruits first, then turn your attention to the really calorie dense foods like cookies, cakes, and so on.
3. Stay active and stick to your normal routine as best you can.
The struggle to avoid fat gain during the holidays is more mental than physical.
That is, squeezing in a few workouts over the holidays isn’t going to burn enough calories to offset how much you eat.
What it will do, though, is help you stick to your normal fitness routine.
You see, I have a little theory that one of the main reasons people fall “off the wagon” after overeating, such as during the holidays, is they let their entire health and fitness routine fall by the wayside.
They don’t just overeat—they also stop working out, stop weighing themselves, stop eating any fruits or vegetables, and they stay up late, drink too much, and so forth.
In other words, people shoot themselves in the foot by telling themselves they’ve “blown their diet,” and then use this as an excuse to abandon all of their healthy habits throughout the holidays.
Of course, in the back of their minds they know they’ll need to pay for their sins later, but that’s a problem for future Homer, not present Homer.
Aside from the other solutions on this list, one way to avoid this problem is to stick to your normal fitness routine, despite overeating.
That is, even though you’re eating a lot more than you normally would, keep working out, staying active, eating lots of fruits, vegetables, and lean protein, and getting to bed on time.
If you’re really feeling brave, keep weighing yourself. The number will be higher, of course, but it’s staying in the habit of monitoring your weight that matters.
Maintaining a few keystone habits like working out also makes it easier to jump back into your normal routine when the holidays are over.
4. Reduce your calorie intake before and after your big meals.
Some people practice intermittent fasting throughout the holidays so they can save their calories for big meals.
While this strategy can work, I prefer to maintain my normal meal frequency, but eat smaller meals when I’m not feasting.
I also keep these meals low in calories and high in protein. For example, the morning of Thanksgiving I’ll typically have some fruit and a lean source of protein, like some sliced apples and strawberries with Greek yogurt or whey protein powder.
That evening, assuming I want to eat anything at all after the Thanksgiving meal, I’ll probably have something similar, such as some low-fat cottage cheese or some leftover turkey before bed.
5. Cut after the holidays, not during.
After a day or two of overeating, many people feel the need to start cutting immediately to get rid of any fat they may have gained.
While it’s fine to stay in a calorie deficit if you simply don’t feel like eating much (which is usually the case for me), I’d caution against trying to lose fat as soon as possible.
This usually just causes needless stress over the holidays.
You’ll probably still be out of your normal routine and possibly out of your normal environment, which makes plugging back into your fitness routine frustrating. It can also put a damper on any other holiday activities you might have planned.
Instead, I recommend you maintain a slight calorie deficit for a week or two after the holidays. If you stick to the other tips on this list, that should be enough to lose whatever fat you’ve gained after a few days of overeating.
The Bottom Line on How Much Fat You Can Gain in a Day
Bingeing will always cause some fat gain.
How much you gain depends on what you eat, how much you eat, and how your body responds to overeating.
In the final analysis, though, here’s what we can say:
It’s impossible to tell exactly how much fat you’ll gain when overeating, but a good rule of thumb might be ⅕ to 1/4 of a pound of body fat per 1,000 calories above your maintenance needs.
In a worst case scenario, where you eat thousands of extra calories along with a large amount of fat, you can expect to gain maybe a pound of fat in a single day.
If you keep your fat intake low to moderate, and mostly overeat high-protein, high-carb, whole foods, you can expect to gain closer to ¼ to ½ of a pound of fat at most.
Theoretically, you could minimize body fat gain when overeating by keeping your fat intake as low as possible and overeating protein and carbs, but this isn’t an enjoyable strategy (especially during the holidays).
Assuming you’re lean, active, and follow a healthy diet most of the time, overeating a few times a year isn’t going to negatively affect your health.
With these points in mind, here are five strategies for enjoying the holidays without gaining excess body fat:
Eat a few large meals, then stop. Don’t continue to grace on high-calorie snacks long after you’re stuffed.
Eat lots of protein and some fruits and veggies. This helps prevent reckless overeating.
Stay active and stick to your normal routine as best you can. This reduces your chances of completely “falling off the wagon” and makes it easier to get back into your routine after the holidays.
Reduce your calorie intake before and after your big meals. This helps limit the size of your calorie surplus while allowing you to eat several large meals during the holidays.
Cut after the holidays, not during. There’s no need to immediately diet off any fat you gained. Instead, maintain a moderate calorie deficit for a week or two after the holidays.
Implement those tips, and you should have no trouble enjoying plenty of high-calorie, high-fat, delicious foods during the holidays while gaining only a small amount of body fat (that you can easily lose soon afterward).
If you want to learn more about how to enjoy your favorite foods while minimizing fat gain or even losing fat and building muscle, check out this article:
How to Get the Body You Want With Flexible Dieting
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