While overeating may be enjoyable in the moment, it can be very distressing after the fact knowing you went over your daily calorie budget. If you have ever considered undereating to try and compensate for a previous calorie blowout, you are definitely not alone.
Should you undereat after overeating? Reducing calories the day after a period of overindulgence may seem like a desirable solution. However, this will lead to a disordered relationship with food if repeated. Your best bet is to simply get back on track with your calories and macros as soon as possible.
There are some exceptional circumstances where it may be appropriate to undereat after overeating, and we’ll touch on these in this article. But these are the exception, not the rule. Overeating occasionally might not be too problematic, but doing it frequently can have some major health consequences.
After reading this article, you’ll feel more confident knowing:
- What “overeating” means
- What happens when you overeat
- Undereating after overeating: when (if ever) is this okay?
- 3 steps to take after overeating
- What NOT to do after overeating
- Identifying exactly why you overeat
What Does “Overeating” Mean?
Overeating is best described as eating more than you can comfortably handle. When you eat past the point of physical satisfaction and it becomes uncomfortable, you have overeaten.
Overeating may be a single episode (a meal) or it may take place over a day or even a weekend.
How we navigate the “after overeating” window will depend partly on whether it was a single meal or a multi-meal or a multi-day episode.
- Related Article: Going Over Your Calories Once A Week: Is This Okay?
Understanding What Happens When You Overeat
When you overeat, the following side effects may occur:
- Your stomach stretches (a lot)
- You feel gassy and bloated
- You may experience heartburn
- Your body will store the extra calories as fat
1. Your Stomach Stretches (A Lot)
When you overeat, your stomach will expand like a balloon to accommodate the extra food you have eaten.
Your expanded stomach pushes against other organs in your body, which is why you may feel the need to loosen your pants. You might feel pressure in your chest or even some discomfort when breathing.
2. You Feel Gassy and Bloated
Every time you swallow food, a small amount of air will enter your stomach. If you have been drinking carbonated beverages (e.g. soda or beer), this will likely feel more pronounced. Burping is one of the ways your body tries to get rid of the extra gas.
You may also feel tired, sluggish, and “gross.” This is because digestion takes quite a bit of energy, and heat is given off, making you feel warm and possibly sweaty or dizzy.
3. You May Experience Heartburn
When your stomach is overfull, it puts pressure on the sphincter (donut-shaped muscle) on the top of your stomach. Your stomach produces acid to help with the digestion of food. If this mixture of liquid food and acid leaks out of your stomach into your throat, you may experience tightness or a burning sensation known as heartburn in your chest.
If this is a regular occurrence, you may wish to make an appointment with your primary care physician to address the reflux.
4. Your Body Will Store the Extra Calories as Fat
While it might be distressing to hear that your body will store your extra calories as fat, this is a normal biological response to eating an excess of calories. This mechanism has allowed human beings to survive centuries of food insecurity.
If you have previously been overweight, it is easier for your body to store extra calories as fat as your body has retained the (shrunken) fat cells for quick and easy refilling during periods of overeating.
- If you want to know how much weight you can expect to gain by overeating (like on a cheat day), then read my other article Gaining Weight After A Cheat Day.
Undereating After Overeating: Is This Okay?
As an occasional occurrence, a period of undereating following overeating is unlikely to be problematic. This is especially true if this undereating is guided by the (lack of) hunger signals and you wait until true physical hunger returns before eating again.
It is not unusual to experience a loss of appetite following a meal or a day of overeating. As such, you should not feel pressure to resume eating before true physical hunger returns. If guided by natural hunger and fullness cues means that you eat below your calorie target for the day, there are unlikely to be any negative long-term ramifications.
In other words, you might choose to skip the next meal, and that’s not a problem if you’re not hungry. However, it may mean that you eat fewer calories for the rest of the day.
For some people, it may even mean that you eat fewer calories than what is on your plan for the next few days until your normal appetite returns.
This pattern of eating becomes problematic when it is used as a compensation mechanism for a repeated pattern of overeating, as this is likely to lead to ongoing weight gain in the long term. It is a slippery slope to “borrow” calories from future days to compensate for overeating.
If you find yourself using undereating as a strategy to counter out-of-control overeating episodes, this is a sign you may need to seek professional help to rebuild your relationship with food (contact us if this is happening to you).
3 Steps To Take After Overeating Without Skipping Meals
The most important step you can take after an overeating episode is to put it into context. A pound of fat requires an excess of 3500 calories, and it is likely that any spike in weight following an overeating episode is due to an excess amount of food and fluid volume rather than fat. It should disappear within a day or two.
Beyond that, here are our top 3 steps to take following an overeating episode:
1. Take a Slow Breath And Relax
Don’t beat yourself up after overeating. One excessive meal or day won’t ruin your health.
Extreme guilt around eating behaviors can lead to extreme restriction, which leads to feelings of deprivation, which triggers future overeating. Instead, decide what positive steps you will take in the days that follow rather than shaming yourself for overeating.
2. Go For A Walk
Very often the first response after overeating is to want to lay down because of the uncomfortable feelings you might be experiencing. However, lying down after overeating can actually make the symptoms worse.
A casual walk can help the movement of food through your digestive tract, bringing relief to some of the physical discomforts that typically follow an overeating episode. It’s important to keep in mind that this is meant to be a relaxing stroll, not a workout to compensate for overeating.
- Related Article: Should You Work Out On Cheat Day? (Pros & Cons)
3. Sip on Water
During overeating, it is common to consume an excessive amount of sodium. This can lead to strong feelings of thirst.
But rather than chugging water, which can lead to acid reflux, sipping on 8oz / 250mL of water over the course of an hour following a meal can keep thirst at bay and help to flush out the extra salt.
3 Things You Should NOT Do Immediately After Overeating
Overeating can trigger an emotional roller coaster, as feelings of distress, guilt, and shame may appear. While these feelings are understandable, it is not in your best interest to overreact and try to overcorrect what has happened.
I recommend avoiding these three things after a period of overeating:
1. Undereating To Punish Your Behavior
If you were driving down the highway and your tires touched the rumble strip, would you steer across 4 lanes of traffic in response? Probably not. It’s much more likely that you would simply gently correct and move back into your lane.
The same applies after an overeating episode. If you try to radically overcorrect, you’re very likely setting yourself up for a destructive cycle of over- and undereating. Instead, forgive yourself, resume tracking calories and macros, and get back into a healthy pattern of eating.
2. Going For A Hard Workout
While going for a walk after a big meal is a great idea, going for a hard workout is counterproductive.
It will draw blood away from your digestive organs to fuel your muscles, and this can lead to prolonging the discomfort.
3. Beating Yourself Up
While you can’t undo the overeating, beating yourself up over what you’ve done will only prolong the discomfort you feel. Remember, overeating does not make you a bad person — it simply makes you human.
If you show some compassion towards yourself and the situation, you’ll better be able to help yourself get back on the up and up sooner. Compassion is not a “get-out-of-jail-free” card, it’s recognizing that it is human to struggle and make mistakes.
Compassion also allows us to look at our behavior with the desire to understand rather than the desire to judge. When we let go of self-judgment, we can then begin to look for the reasons why we overeat.
Identifying Why You Overeat
There is no one reason why we overeat. Reasons for overeating are individual to us. That being said, there are some common causes of overeating:
- Mindless eating
- Emotional eating
- Stress eating
- Excessive dieting/restriction
- Consumption of highly processed food products
1. Mindless Eating
Mindless eating can be defined as eating while being distracted by something such as our phone, TV, work, or driving. When we eat mindlessly, we are less aware of portion sizes and can easily miss the signal from our bodies that we’ve eaten enough.
The opposite of mindless eating is mindful eating. Research shows that people who engage in mindful eating tend to eat less and choose healthier foods.
2. Emotional Eating
Almost all eating will have some kind of emotion connected to it. It becomes a problem when eating is a coping strategy. When we are eating to change the emotion that we are feeling, food will only ever be able to bring temporary relief.
Other ways to help navigate difficult emotions can be to call a friend, go for a walk, exercise, meditate, write in a journal, or spend some time outdoors in nature.
3. Stress Eating
When we are feeling stressed, our cortisol levels rise, which can lead to an increase in appetite and greater difficulty in regulating food consumption. Under stress, we are more likely to crave sugary, salty, and/or fatty foods that give us a hit of dopamine when we eat them.
Consider introducing proactive stress-management tools into your daily routine. Meditation, deep breathing, and/or exercise are all fantastic for reducing stress. Remembering to practice regular self-care will be your best weapon for countering stress and overeating.
4. Excessive Dieting/Restriction
When we are engaging in calorie restriction, it can be tempting to push things to the extreme in an attempt to get faster results. However, this strategy is likely to backfire in the long term.
While a sensible calorie deficit is a powerful tool for weight loss, it’s important to keep the big picture in mind. Choosing a sustainable calorie deficit will yield much better results, with fewer cravings and a lower risk of falling into overeating behavior patterns.
5. Consumption of Highly Processed Food Products
Highly Processed foods are rapidly digested, leading to spikes and crashes in blood sugar, which can lead to powerful cravings. On top of this, it can be difficult to regulate their consumption because these foods are digested so rapidly.
According to FeastGood’s Registered Dietitian, Brenda Peralta, to minimize overeating episodes, no more than 20% of your daily diet should be comprised of processed and ultra-processed foods.
Keep a Food Journal to Recognize Patterns of Overeating
Keeping a food journal doesn’t just involve counting calories and macros, though that is a great place to start so you can get a better understanding of calories and macronutrients.
A food diary should include everything you consume, including snacks and drinks. It should also include when you eat, where you eat, who you eat with, what you are doing while eating, and how you are feeling before, during, and after a meal.
Keeping track of this information can help you to identify any potentially troublesome patterns of eating and take appropriate steps to rectify them.
- Related Article: How To Count Calories Without Getting Obsessed (5 Tips)
Frequently Asked Questions
If I Overeat Calories One Day, Can I Undereat The Next?
As a “once-off” after a day of overeating, undereating won’t be a problem. Simply wait until physical hunger returns before resuming normal eating. However, be careful of falling into the trap of “borrowing” calories from future days to compensate for overeating, as this could lead to disordered eating developing.
Overeating occasionally is normal behavior, and understanding this encourages us to show compassion when we slip up and eat a little more than we should. Knowing more about what leads to overeating can help us to make this a less common occurrence in the future.
However, if you do find yourself caught in a cycle of overeating, over-restricting, and beating yourself up, you may want to consult a coach or therapist who can help you process the behavior and understand where this behavior pattern is coming from.
All in all, though, overeating occasionally isn’t the end of the world, and everyone does it. Be gracious to yourself, learn from it, and move on.
What To Read Next
Here are a few more resources that can help you decide what to do when you overeat:
- I Ate 700 Calories Over My Limit, Now What?
- I Ate 1000 Calories Over My Limit, Now What?
- I Ate 2000 Calories Over My Limit, Now What?
- What Happens If You Go Over Your Fat Macros (Is This Bad?)
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Roberts SB, Fuss P, Heyman MB, et al. Control of Food Intake in Older Men. JAMA. 1994;272(20):1601–1606. doi:10.1001/jama.1994.03520200057036
Joseph B. Nelson; Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence While You Eat. Diabetes Spectr 1 August 2017; 30 (3): 171–174. https://doi.org/10.2337/ds17-0015
Avena, N. M., Murray, S., & Gold, M. S. (2013). Comparing the effects of food restriction and overeating on brain reward systems. Experimental Gerontology, 48(10), 1062-1067. ISSN 0531-5565. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.exger.2013.03.006.
SadieB. Barr & JonathanC. Wright (2010) Postprandial energy expenditure in whole-food and processed-food meals: implications for daily energy expenditure, Food & Nutrition Research, 54:1, DOI: 10.3402/fnr.v54i0.5144
Volkow ND, Wang GJ, Fowler JS, Tomasi D, Baler R. Food and drug reward: overlapping circuits in human obesity and addiction. Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 2012;11:1-24. doi: 10.1007/7854_2011_169. PMID: 22016109.
About The Author
Jon McLernon (aka Coach Jon) is a Precision Nutrition Level 2 Certified Master Coach. With a background in chemistry and psychology, Coach Jon has a passion for supplement/nutrition science and behavioral psychology. When he’s not helping his clients crush their nutrition goals, he’s usually trying to wrangle a busy toddler (and get him to eat more veggies), or he and his Aussie wife are off on another globetrotting adventure!