What ACTUALLY Happens When You Overeat

As a health coach, I am often the barer of bad news.

Letting people know what an actual serving of nuts or nut butter is, informing them on alcohol’s effect on fat metabolism or helping them realize that their morning Starbucks drink is basically another meal’s worth of calories.

So when I get to be the barer of good news, it’s pretty exciting!

One “cheat meal” or day of extra holiday “treats” doesn’t effect you as much as you think.

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Let’s go through an example.

Meet Sara. Let’s say she’s 35, 5’8 and 160 lbs. She does 1-2 workouts per week and gets about 6-7,000 steps per day.

I would estimate her maintenance calories to be about 2,000. (Meaning she would maintain her weight of 160 if she averages 2,000 most of the time.)

Let’s say Sara has a day where she has a holiday lunch out with friends, goes out to dinner with her husband and comes home and has sugar cookies with her kids. This day she ends up eating 4,000 calories.

This is 2,000 calories over her maintenance. Keep in mind there are 3,500 calories in a pound. If the body were an exact science machine she would “gain” 0.57 lbs. the next morning. (Often after a day like that the body is up more than 0.57 lbs. and I’ll explain why below.)

Let’s say the next day Sara has more holiday events and eats 3,500 calories. 1,500 over her maintenance. Now, from those two days, she has finally eaten enough over her maintenance calories to gain the equivalent of 1 pounds.

But the scale is up 4 pounds and Sara is bummed.

Why did Sara gain 4 lbs, not 1 lb? Possible reasons:

  • Extra weight of the food itself in her digestive system
  • Extra water storage due to salt
  • Extra water storage due to carbohydrate
  • Extra storage due to (a small) amount of fat

If Sara goes back to eating 2,000 calories the next few days, here’s what will likely happen:

  • Sara’s body will get rid of the extra food weight in her digestive system
  • Sara’s body will get rid of the extra water storage from salt and carbohydrates
  • Her body will slightly increase her metabolism because it loves homeostasis and actively tries to maintain a normal weight range for her

If Sara freaks out and eats 800 calories for the next few days, here’s what will likely happen:

  • Sara’s body might get constipated because there’s not a lot of food volume to keep digestion regular
  • Sara’s body might go from high salt and carbohydrate to low salt and carbohydrate causing the body to continue to retain water
  • Sara’s body might hold onto fat because of the inconsistent supply of food
  • Sara’s body might hold onto fat because she feels lethargic and tired eating 800 calories and doesn’t have the energy to be active or fuel a good workout
  • Sara feel super restricted and hunger after 1-3 days and compensates by making her crave anything and everything so that she way overeats and then repeats this cycle

Stop the madness.

If you eat extra calories for a few days, your body can handle it and it won’t effect you very much in the long run. You just need to stay away from the scale and not freak out that your body is holding onto excess weight (that is likely not fat).

The thing that leads to problems is when you eat a little extra, then over restrict, then overeat because you were restricted, then restrict and the cycle continues forever.

Did this help you? Do you understand the science behind weight a little more now? Let me know in the comments below!

11 thoughts on “What ACTUALLY Happens When You Overeat

  1. This is a really great article, thank you. I was of the belief that the restriction after the gluttony was necessary. Having you point out the tiredness factor of restriction then leads to not wanting to exercise, and all of the other science points, is very enlightening and a relief! I will proceed differently now after overindulging.

    1. Thanks Sue! Glad you liked it πŸ™‚ It can definitely be a vicious cycle! Let me know how it goes!

  2. I wanna open a punk rock bike shop and call it Vicious Cycle. Just kidding but it is a fun idea. Biking as much as I do makes me hungry and I don’t lose weight doing it. Surely it’s my diet, age and metabolism, which doesn’t work like it should. Gave up processed grains for two years with zero weight loss, but can’t get rid of sugar. And quantity of the the latter is far less than what I had of the former.The struggle is real. πŸ™

    1. Haha great idea! Biking/cardio is great for so many benefits, but you’re right that exercise alone doesn’t = weight loss. I find figuring out the amount of sugar (within a healthy limit) that let’s you stick to a plan long term is key πŸ™‚

      1. Thank you Kate. Sugar seems impossible to avoid and not crave. I figured cutting out bread etc would help, but it didn’t. Impressive workouts you’re doing. I’ve thought of joining a gym again but…

      2. Thanks! I love bread πŸ™‚ It, in moderation, could probably really help fuel your biking! Often when people think “sugar” they are actually thinking of foods with a high combination of “sugar and fat” which tends to be the combo causing a lot of cravings!

      3. If I eat some bread I’ll go back to eating lots of cookies, cake, pizza, crackers, etc. so it’s easier and everyone says eat while grain. I’m a little surprised you’d say otherwise, Kate. How do you keep your girlish figure eating bread? I’d guess just that you’re young and have a good metabolism plus you work out like a beast. Processed grains just turn to sugar, and I prefer my carbs in chocolate form or potatoes. I do eat rice cakes and popcorn as they’re whole grain. How to stop liking sugar? Ni one’s ever explained that. More addictive than heroin! BTW, I biked to the border of Calgary from Glacier NP, Montana a few years back. Thanks for writing.

      4. I do hear that a lot! For me swearing off X food or food group just isn’t realistic or fun, so I try to live by the 80/20 principle! Meaning 80% of the time I eat more nutritious food and 20% of the time I eat less nutritious/soul food πŸ™‚ I also track my calories and grams of protein most days and lift weight 5x/week. Being young also helps! I guess not having a goal of disliking or eliminating sugar makes it lose some of it’s power because I know that that it’s not “forbidden”. Oh wow I bet that was beautiful!

      5. I do have a cheat day. It’s every day that ends with the word day. ;-{)

        Some food is just too addictive to have any but maybe I should just not worry about grains since eliminating them didn’t matter.

        I thought lifting requires days off, unless you’re alternating muscle groups?

        It was great the trip north and wished I could have taken three months to tour and keep going! Been to BC and Ontario but not Central Canada.

        Do you think I need to do less biking (gasp! Oerish the thought!) and add weights and swimming to change my metabolism?

      6. I do recommend that if a client finds a food TOO addictive they keep it outside the house until it loses its power πŸ™‚ I did this myself with almond butter! Haha. I do an upper/lower body split so that splits up my volume nicely.

        Not sure how much biking you are currently doing πŸ™‚ But in general strength training is one of the best things you can do to change/increase your metabolism. If you’re interested in what type of workout plan I’d recommend for you, feel free to email me πŸ™‚

      7. That’s nice, until I go for a bike ride and people say eat simple carbs to not burn up your muscles (which *everyone* loses as they age).


        If have to check with at least two doctors, a PT and a local personal trainer before I started weights again LOL! But thanks, if I get to that point I will.

        Almond butter is crazy delish. You didn’t mention if you bike (and snow bike I image half the year or more). Nice chatting with you today!

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