The holidays carry with them a lot of bingeing, being lazy about our exercise, going off diet, and worrying about the long term impact of this on our results.
At the same time, it’s mathematically impossible for a binge to do much to ruin our results: after all, we’re not really eating so many calories that it can seriously sabotage weight loss efforts.
Eating more carbs or salt than usual can cause water retention, which leads us to believe that we’ve gained more weight from a binge than we really have. However, this weight quickly evens itself out over time, provided we get back to our usual habits.
The real power of a binge to sabotage our efforts lies in the fact that it can convince us to believe that our results are sabotaged, leading to further binge eating and further deviation from the plan.
It’s holiday time. That means parties, drinking, and celebration. It also means cheating on your diet, worrying about messing everything up, and skipping more days in the gym than you’d like.
My most common recommendation to all my clients (myself included) is not to worry about it! After all, it’s (I would argue) often more important to worry about your mental health, and taking a little time off here and there will have no negative impact on your results. So, since there’s no point in keeping on your diet and exercise 100%, I don’t see why the holidays can’t be a part of your normal, planned time off. Enjoy yourself!
One of the biggest concerns most people have is that a holiday binge will ruin their diet. Here’s why that’s impossible.
A Binge, On Its Own, Isn’t Much Of A Setback
The reality is that a binge can’t set you back nearly as much as you thought. Some people step on the scale, see that they’ve gained a couple pounds after a heavy feast, and then grow frustrated. But here’s why, mathematically, a binge isn’t as much of a setback as you think.
A single pound of bodyweight contains about 3500 calories. This means that if you’re looking to lose weight, you either need to burn 3500 more calories through exercise or eat 3500 calories less through diet in order to lose weight. Usually, some combination of the two works best.
The typical recommendation is to cut about 500 calories per day from your diet. Over the course of 7 days, this totals up to your 3500 calories, resulting in about one pound of weight loss per week. Of course, you can attempt more aggressive weight cuts than this, but this isn’t recommended since it’s better to focus on steadier long-term progress unless you’re specifically training for a competition.
Back to the question of binges - how many calories can you actually eat, during a binge?
The reality is that you can’t possibly eat too much. Even eating to gain weight at about 500 calories per day over your calorie needs is often uncomfortable and difficult for many of the lifters I’ve worked with who have little experience bulking. Eating this much can cause you to feel full and bloated, and you may have trouble just forcing yourself to eat more.
Sure, you can overeat your needs by say, 500-1500 calories in one huge binge, or a bit more if you're focusing on the traditional "bad" foods, your high calorie/low filling foods like candy and soda. But this only really equates to about a half a pound on the high end, and much less than that on the low end. Now say that we repeat this binge over several days - 3 straight days of Christmas partying, for example. This would mean a total of about 1500-4500 extra calories - somewhere between a half pound and a pound and a third.
Now, these numbers certainly aren’t zero. They do matter. But the mathematical reality is pretty clear: a single binge alone won’t do much. It’s only by adding up a lot of binges that we start to see real weight gain.
These numbers shouldn't mean much if you’re consistent in your plan otherwise. If you consume an extra 4000 calories over the course of several days of partying - well, on a -500cal/day plan, you’ve only set yourself back by 8 days. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have to resume the plan afterward to recover your losses, but 8 days isn't really much of a setback if you’re consistently able to stick to an enjoyable, non-restricting diet.
In short, a binge is only a serious setback if your overall exercise and diet strategy is ineffective to begin with - and fixing this issue will solve the bigger problem much quicker than worrying about enjoying the holidays.
Its Bark Is Worse Than Its Bite
So why is it that everyone thinks that binges can cause a lot of unintended weight gain?
In a previous post, I explored how various lesser-known phenomena can throw off our understanding of calorie-based dieting, leading us to think that calories don’t matter even though they do. One of the biggest ones is water weight.
Our bodies are made up of a large amount of water, which means that we can see fluctuations of up to several pounds over even the course of a single day due to changes in water weight. If I do an intense cardio workout, I might sweat out up to 5lbs of water, just to regain all that weight when I rehydrate. Women can hold more water at different points in their cycle.
Athletes that compete in sports involving weight classes are known for dehydrating themselves to lose weight, weigh in at an artificially lowered weight class, and then rehydrate quickly so that they can compete with minimal impact on their performance. The typical method involves long stints in the sauna without drinking any fluids combined with minimal food intake. This method is obviously not sustainable long term, explains why methods like hot yoga or weight loss sweat wraps seem to work, and is also just plain unhealthy. Dehydration isn’t a useful strategy for the long term.
Since water weight can fluctuate by a few pounds, this can obscure actual changes in your overall weight. If you lost a pound but were temporarily holding onto 2 extra pounds of water, it might look like you gained weight instead! However, since typical fluctuation is only a few pounds, this can’t obscure larger changes in your underlying weight.
If you’ve lost 10 lbs, but are temporarily holding onto 2 extra pounds of water, this doesn’t mean much! In the long run, you'll make big enough changes in your body composition that a bit of water here and there won't do anything. This is a bigger issue for women, who have to take a slower, longer-term approach to losing weight due to their naturally lower metabolisms, and see greater fluctuations in water weight over the course of a month.
For this reason, I recommend weighing yourself regularly but using rolling averages of your weight instead. Rolling averages help smooth out these bumps and drops due to changes in water weight, and give you a clearer picture of what's actually going on.
So how does this relate to holiday bingeing?
Interestingly, water weight is primarily related to water retention - a process that your body can turn up and down based on what you’re eating and what kind of environment you’re in. Higher water retention means that you pee out less of it, and a greater percentage of it is stored in the body out of all the water you take in. Two of the biggest factors in water retention are salt intake and carbohydrate intake.
Salt is used by the body as an indicator to regulate how much water you need. More salt means your body holds onto more water to counteract it. Likewise, carbs are broken down into and stored as an energy source in glycogen, a molecule which is made with water. This means that per calorie of carbohydrate stored in the body as energy, more water weight will be retained versus other calorie sources.
As a result, a sudden uptake in carbs or salt (above your normal intake) will cause a sudden upswing in water weight as well. The results can be dramatic - and accounts for the sudden jumps in scale weight that we see in response to a binge. But at the same time, this also means that we'll see this water weight vanish naturally when we return to normal carb/salt intakes, disappearing over time. Water weight can also explain why low carb diets initially seem to cause superior weight loss - cut out carbs, lose a lot of water weight, but this weight comes right back when you cease the low carb diet.
In essence, the binge’s bark is worse than its bite - it may initially seem like we’ve gained a lot of weight, but the reality is that a big chunk of that is water weight, and this water weight will even itself out in the long run.
What About Breaking Our Workouts?
Okay, so what about breaking off our workouts? What happens when we take a week off, or even two?
The reality is that very little actually happens. It takes multiple weeks to see any serious drop off in muscle mass due to lack of exercise. Some qualities, like speed and power, can decay a bit faster, but the reality is that even these wouldn't see too big of a dropoff in response to lack of training.
It's also much easier to maintain existing qualities than to build them - estimates range from 1/2 to 1/3 of the previous volume being sufficient to maintain. In short, just 1-2 quick workouts during your holiday week are more than enough to prevent any backsliding. Even doing 0 workouts is unlikely to cause any serious loss. So, it's not a good idea to worry about taking a break from your workouts either.
But It Can Be A Habit Breaker
That said, the danger of a binge lies not in the fact that it’s all that dangerous on its own, but because it represents a break in our normal habits. Habits are a huge key to our overall success in any discipline. When we break one habit, others might follow. A single binge can either be a blip in the overall picture or the first step towards a new trend.
Binges are demoralizing. We feel bad because we’ve been conditioned to think that binges are the end, and that a single misstep is all that it takes to ruin everything. This creates a negative feedback loop that can quickly build up into the decision to abandon our fitness habits entirely.
However, so long as we do resume our normal habits, the effects of the binge will quickly even themselves out over time. Since the actual weight gain of a single binge is probably about a half a pound, it only takes a few days to work it off once you return if your diet and exercise strategy are on point. The water weight will vanish as you return to normal eating habits and water retention returns to normal levels, not to mention once you start working out again and sweating some of that water out or burning some of that stored glycogen.
For example, here’s a graph of the weight loss of a client of mine. He’s an active guy, but he’s gained more weight in his 20’s than he’d have liked. He’s dieted successfully in the past, so he knew what to expect when we got started. Here’s a graph of the rolling average of his weight loss over the last month:
The blue trendline is his rolling average (calculated using the rolling average method mentioned above), which shows a steady weight loss of about 4lbs/month. At the same time, the range of actual weights (shown by the red dots) is huge. In some cases, he’s much higher than the trendline, in other cases much lower.
One cool thing is that this client is good about noting when he’s gone off diet this month: for example, the big jump on Dec. 2nd is due to going off diet 4 days in a row, and the smaller jumps on the 7th, 16th, and 23rd were also caused by holiday parties. All the same, this is STILL a picture perfect graph. It’s not really impacting his overall weight loss much at all!
That’s the real danger of the binge - that it might encourage us to give up entirely. So long as we don’t allow that to happen, and get right back on our plan after the holidays are over, the small negative effects of even a prolonged binge will quickly start to reverse themselves.
- Habit For Self Improvement
- What To Expect When You Start Lifting
- Calories Matter, Even When You Think They Don't
- Understanding Your Actual Metabolism
Are you interested in perfecting your deadlift and building legendary strength and muscle? Check out my free ebook, Deadlift Every Day. Or maybe a well-rounded beginners program for those looking to build strength, muscle, and endurance? Check out my other free ebook, GAINS.