Everyone who has ever been successful with long-term weight loss has cheated at some point along their journey. So, how bad is it, really, when you binge for a day or two and blow up your plan? You might be surprised.
What actually happens when you’ve cheated?
The short answer: not a lot. You probably didn’t gain any fat. Your current weight isn’t the result of a day or two of poor eating decisions. It’s the results of years or decades of them. Remember, it takes about 3,500 extra calories to store a single pound of fat. That’s on top of whatever you need to maintain your current weight. (So, for the average adult, you would need to eat about 5,500 calories in a single day in order to gain one pound.)
Even though you probably didn’t gain (much) fat, regardless of how much food you eat, the scale is going to show otherwise. Remember, the number on the scale indicates three things: (1) Muscle, (2) Fat, and (3) Water in your body/cells.
When you have a binge-eating day, or even eat a “little” extra sugar, #3 is where the weight is really going to show. You could gain anywhere from 2 to 10 lbs after a single “cheat weekend.” Most people respond to this with panic, horror, dread, feelings of self-deprecation, depression, and more. They feel defeated. They think they’ve undone weeks or months of hard work and they just want give up.
But if you focus on the idea that the weight on the scale is just water, and no, you didn’t undo anything in a single weekend or a single day, the situation becomes a lot easier to cope with and correct.
So the short answer to “what happens?” is that you will see a big bump on the scale from the water your body retains due to the surprisingly large amount of food it now has to process (something your body just isn’t used to doing at this point). The extra weight will be gone within 3 to 4 days, and then some, if you get back to healthy eating right away.
Don’t beat yourself up.
Weight loss doesn’t require perfection. In fact, nobody who’s been successful with long-term weight loss does it without making mistakes. You were weak at the moment. You didn’t follow the plan. You’ll use it as a learning experience. It happens to all of us!
The most important thing is not to create punishments for yourself. Never do extra exercise at the gym or starve yourself the next day because you cheated; that is how eating disorders are born. Not only do these things make no real difference in “fixing” the situation, they create an enormously unhealthy mentality that can lead to severe to yo-yo dieting and depression.
People who succeed with long-term weight loss are able to shrug it off and…
Get back on the horse!
It’s important to remember that the extra “water weight” you just gained doesn’t block fat burn. In fact, if you go get back on the horse right away, fat-burn will resume within 24 to 36 hours. (Yup, that fast!) So even though it takes even longer for the scale to show the added water weight is gone, you can resume fat burn almost immediately!
All is not lost. A one-time cheat does little to no damage and you can immediately pick up where you left off.
…But be careful
The fact that it’s easy to “pick up where you left off” sometimes causes people to lose perspective of what’s important, or they use that information to allow them to rationalize cheating. The secret? Plan your cheating.
Learn the difference: planned vs. unplanned cheating.
There is some confusion with how to appropriately do a cheat meal. Remember. Never have an unplanned cheat day or meal. You should never eat anything unless you planned to eat it at least 24 hours ago.
Let me re-phrase that. Never eat anything you didn’t plan at least a day before! Ever!
That means when the temptation arises for the sweet-stuff, don’t tell yourself “no,” tell yourself you can have it for your next cheat meal. Even write it down if you want. And if you still feel like having it when it’s appropriate, by all means, go for it! What usually happens, however, is that the craving is temporary, and by the time the plan says it’s okay to indulge, you’re over it.
Successful people all share one single trait: they’ve mastered the concept of delayed gratification. You can have it… Just not right now. Never give in to temptations that arrive in the moment. You don’t need to say “never,” you just need to say “not right now.”
I talk more about how to appropriately do cheat meals here. And yes, you should be doing them!!
Use it as a learning experience.
This may be the most important thing you can gain when you’ve found that you cheated. You should always do a “post-mortem” diagnosis. What happened? At what point did things break down? What caused you to give in? And most importantly, how can you avoid the same situation or chain of events in the future?
This is really important. If you were attending a birthday party and just couldn’t resist the cake, or you were on vacation and ended up eating fast food, walk through the entire sequence and figure out what you’ll do differently next time. Did you fail to bring your own snacks or fail to have a backup plan? Did you plan all of your eating in advance, or did you just wing it? What led you to give yourself permission to eat that piece of cake, or eat food you didn’t plan?
If you don’t do this kind of self-evaluation, you’ll just end up in the same situation with the same result.
When all is said and done, ask yourself one final question: “Was it worth it?” Remember the answer to that question the next time the same situation arises. Cheating always seems worth it at the moment, but in hindsight, it never is. Vacation-cheating is a time when it’s especially easy to rationalize poor eating. “But I’m on vacation…” or “But I’ll never get to eat this again…” are common excuses that we’ve all used. I can honestly say my best vacations have been when I’ve resisted the junk food and stayed on the healthy (guilt-free) path. You feel so much better even though in the moment you’re telling yourself the opposite.