Time to Feast: How Much Can One Meal Impact Body Composition?

Even if the scale goes up, you know that it’s nearly impossible to gain multiple pounds of fat overnight. It’s the sodium, carbs, and water that cause the bloat and additional gain in water weight (which will come off over time). Instead of focusing on the impact that one meal or day will have on your body composition or health, let's step back and view things from 30,000 feet.

Time to Feast: How Much Can One Meal Impact Body Composition

By: Jeremy Partl, Registered Dietitian

It’s that time of year! The holidays are coming. For many, anxiety over holiday eating dampens the holiday spirit. Stress and worry should not be a part of your holiday celebrations, and it makes me sad to see people have so much anxiety about what a Thanksgiving meal or Christmas dinner will do to their waistline.

As with so many nutrition-related issues, perspective is the cure for concern. In this article, I will talk about the potential impact of one meal or one day of over-eating ruining your body composition. I will touch on some aspects of the holidays in general, but when it comes to Thanksgiving and Christmas (or even a birthday for that matter), stressing about one meal is an unnecessary distraction from the enjoyment of the holidays and celebrations.

How Much Fat Can You Gain in One Day?

According to research from the Calorie Control Council, a typical holiday dinner can contain roughly 3,000 calories (although some estimates, even from their original report in 2015, went upwards, to 4,500).[1] To put that into perspective, that is a minimum of 500 calories more than the typical US adult eats in a day.[2]

Photo used from https://examine.com/nutrition/minimize-fat-gain-via-binge/

Eating significantly more calories than you need to maintain your weight will always cause some fat gain. But will it result in waking up obese the next day? You will gain some fat because that is what the body does with excess energy. But it’s not going to be as much as the media likes to scare you with or as much as the scale might tell you the next morning.

While there hasn’t been research investigating the body composition impact of one day of overeating, a few studies have looked at the effects of WEEKS of overfeeding. Massively overfeeding subjects (1,000 to 3,000 calorie surplus per day) for up to 8 weeks resulted in gaining ⅓ to ½ of a pound of body fat PER DAY.

Let’s say you just smash Thanksgiving dinner and end up eating 2,000 to 3,000 calories more than you need to maintain your weight. What’s the damage?

Maybe ½ a pound of adipose.

Now I know I’m going to get the response of, “but I gained 6 pounds overnight.” True, you may have added 6 pounds of gravitational pull. But only ½ a pound of that may be actual fat mass. The remaining is water weight. When it comes to that additional weight on the scale, increases in sodium, carbohydrate, and water storage could spike your weight by 5 to 10 pounds or more.

  • Every gram of glycogen brings with it at least 3-4 grams of water. If you would, theoretically, eat and store all of 300 grams of carbohydrates you eat in a day, you would gain an additional 900-1200 grams of water.
  • Sodium also pulls water into your cells, which is why eating large amounts of sodium can cause a lot of water retention. 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.

Not only do people freak out about additional weight on the scale, but even the mirror can be hard to look into. Phrases like being “bloated” or “retaining water” after eating a large, salty, high-fat, high-carbohydrate meal like at holiday dinners or even with pizza, burritos, or fries can leave a lot of food in your stomach and leave you looking “puffy.”

The good news is that within a few days, a lot of this will be gone. Your kidneys and urinary system will excrete most of this extra sodium and water, your carbohydrate stores will gradually return to normal, and the food in your stomach will digest and be sent out as stools. But until this occurs, you may be fooled into thinking you’ve gained several pounds of fat if you go by only by scale weight.

Why You Don’t Get Fat When You Overeat

So, why don’t all of those extra calories you eat turn right into adipose tissue? Your body is a pretty adaptive piece of machinery that is quite amazing when you take a step back. From how the body operates to changes in behavior, the effect of overeating is multifaceted and worth looking at in the bigger picture. Here are some things to consider.[3]

With an increase in calories, you burn more calories digesting that food.

There is a caloric price that comes with eating more. As with any of the calories you eat, your body requires energy to digest, absorb, and metabolize the food. This cost is referred to as diet-induced thermogenesis or the thermic effect of food (TEF). On average, it accounts for about 10% of the calories you consume but may vary depending on the macronutrient balance and degree of processing of the foods that you eat.[4],[5],[6], [7]

  • Fat provides nine calories per gram, and its TEF is 0–3%.
  • Carbohydrates provide four calories per gram, with a TEF is 5–10%.
  • Protein provides four calories per gram, and its TEF is 20–30%.

So, if you consume 1,000 calories, you would, on average, burn 100 of those calories just to fuel your body’s digestion and storage.

Some macronutrients are stored as fat more easily than others.

As we saw above, a calorie isn’t necessarily just a calorie.

Dietary fat is the closest form to adipose tissue (they’re pretty much the same molecules), making it a relatively easy process for the body to store excess dietary fat as fat around your waistline. Fat grams either gets burned for energy or stored, with a 90–95% efficiency rate.[8]

However, carbohydrates and protein are less likely to be stored as adipose tissue. The efficiency of carbohydrates to be stored as body fat is estimated to be around 75–85%.[9] In order of priority, carbs are 1) burned for energy, 2) stored as glycogen, 3) burned off as heat, or 4) turned into fat.

Proteins are even less likely to be turned into fat. In order of priority, protein is 1) used for protein synthesis and many other metabolic purposes, 2) burned for energy, 3) turned into glucose or fat (very rarely).

You may move your body more when you eat more.

Why can some people eat thousands of calories and yet remain lean?

Research suggests that while there are some genetic factors at work, part of this phenomenon comes from movement and activity. The act of consuming more energy results in more spontaneous and subconscious movement throughout the day.[10]

In overfeeding studies, two-thirds of the increases in total daily energy expenditure were due to increased nonexercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), accounting for a 10-fold difference in fat storage that occurs when compared with fat gain among the subjects.

The estimates suggest that you may burn an additional 350 calories per day when you indulge. But, the impact of NEAT varies substantially from person-to-person—up to 2000 calories per day.[11] You cannot rely on NEAT to absorb all the negative effects of overeating, but you can help it along by striving to be a little more active on holidays.

You don’t absorb every calorie you eat.

On average, roughly 95% of the calories you put in your mouth are absorbed during the digestive process.[12] However, as you may have noticed the last time you took a number two, not every parcel you eat is entirely digested.

Some foods, particularly those high in fiber, make their way through the digestive system without being completely broken down. Others, some of the higher fiber foods (specifically those in the soluble variety), can prevent absorption of fat.

Whole almonds are a good example. Because the fibrous shell of the almonds prevents much of the fat from being absorbed, your body only extracts about 70% of the actual calorie content of those almonds.[13]

You probably won’t eat as much the next day

While it isn’t enough to make up for the excess calories eaten when overindulging, research suggests that people do compensate by eating less for some time after a big splurge.[14]

Will a Single Day of Overeating Damage Your Health?

Hopefully, by now, you feel a bit more relaxed about the impact of a day of overeating on your body composition.

But for those who don’t care as much for the way they look, who instead care more about their metabolic health, is it still okay to indulge?

Will you become overweight, diabetic, or develop a metabolic disease after a few days of overeating?

One study looked at this question, with some scary results. A single day of high-fat overfeeding impaired whole-body insulin sensitivity by 28% in young, healthy adults.[15]

However, even though one day negatively impacted their health, we know that it’s the chronic choices that we make with sedentary lifestyles, processed foods, and excess calorie intakes that play a MUCH larger role in the development of chronic diseases and becoming unhealthy.

This is analogous to sleep restriction. A single night of sleep restriction caused insulin resistance in multiple metabolic pathways.[16] However, I’m sure if you followed up with these subjects or the subjects from the overfeeding study, they were most likely back to normal within a week.

Just because you had a few slices of pumpkin pie doesn’t mean you’re going to get diagnosed with diabetes on Black Friday.

How to Minimize the Impact of a Day of Overeating

I’m going to put it out there. Just because you overeat at Thanksgiving dinner, you don’t have to completely abstain from food for the next week or go on a juice fast.

Focus on protein, fiber, and water

Remember that protein is the macronutrient that requires the most energy to digest, relative to the energy it provides, and it is also very unlikely to be stored as fat. Not only does protein have this advantage, but it’s also the most satiating of the macronutrients.[17]

Practically speaking, this makes it hard to overeat protein. While I know people who can finish off a large 16 oz. steak, it’s much less likely to happen than putting down multiple slices of pie, finishing off a dozen cookies, etc. Filling up on protein at mealtimes will likely lead you to eat less of the higher-calorie sides and sweets that pile on the calories.

What else promotes satiety and naturally makes it easier to eat less? Foods full of fiber and water like a soup or salad are typically low in calories and high in volume (depending on what goes in or on them).

You don’t need to abstain from desert and stick to turkey and plain green beans, but including some high-protein and high-fiber foods is an easy way to shy away from getting reckless.

Limit fat and alcohol

Alcohol decreases inhibition, leading to poor decision-making with foods and portions. It also can lead to poor sleep, which can inhibit fat loss or cause weight gain.

Alcohol and fats are also the two macronutrients that are the most calorically dense, with nine calories per gram for fats and seven calories per gram for alcohol. It can be easy to add up the calories without getting the satiating properties of lower density options (see above).

Not only do these two macros cause you to store more fat, but they can also make fat gain even more likely with their superpowers of leaving you desiring more, elevating appetite levels (more related to alcohol), and increasing food intake.[18],[19]

You don’t need to neglect the dark meat, the buttery mashed potatoes, or even a glass of wine with dinner. But that doesn’t mean you have to go back and get seconds (and thirds) either.

Alternate periods of eating more and eating less

I will re-emphasize that I’m not advocating for yo-yo periods of feast and famine. What I’m talking about is slightly reducing your calorie intake on the morning of a big dinner, later in the day, or the days before and after.

While some people may prefer to skip meals, you can easily keep your normal frequency and just eat smaller portions, focusing on filling up on higher protein, more satiating meals like lean meats and veggies, an egg white omelet, plain Greek yogurt with berries, etc.

Just simply reducing your consumption at other points around these occasions may help keep your overall calorie intake at a level closer to a more balanced benchmark.

Perspective

Even though I spent the last section talking about strategies to minimize the impact of a higher-calorie meal or day, I want to give you full permission to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner or whatever significant event is coming up.

Enjoyment does not have to mean going off the rails. It’s giving yourself permission to eat what you want and still be mindful of what honors your body and overall long term goals.

Let’s get real: the occasional feast won’t make you fat, but overeating on a regular basis will. Even if the scale goes up, you know that it’s nearly impossible to gain multiple pounds of fat overnight. It’s the sodium, carbs, and water that cause the bloat and additional gain in water weight (which will come off over time).

One feast, therefore, isn’t the big problem that causes holiday weight gain. The problem is the succession of feasts—Thanksgiving, Christmas parties, New Year’s Day—that makes the closing months of the year a buffet of bullets for your waistline.

Think about it in these terms: it’s not the huge debit or credit card purchase that bankrupted you, but instead the small debits over time that compounded and added up until you found yourself piled under loads of debt.

Instead of focusing on the impact that one meal or day will have on your body composition or health, step back and view things from a 30,000-foot perspective. Ultimately, you want to watch out for repeated decisions, as those are the ones that bear more weight on your overall goals.

Plus, we are neglecting what these meals are actually about. They are not just meant for eating loads of good food. These holidays and events have meanings and significance that emphasize gratitude, connection, relaxation, and the other aspects of our health that play a role in our holistic picture of what it actually means to be “healthy.”


[1] https://caloriecontrol.org/stuff-the-bird-not-yourself-how-to-deal-with-the-3000-calorie-thanksgiving-meal/

[2] Ford, E. S., & Dietz, W. H. (2013). Trends in energy intake among adults in the United States: findings from NHANES. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 97(4), 848-853.

[3] https://legionathletics.com/how-much-fat-can-you-gain-when-you-binge/

[4] Westerterp, K. R. (2004). Diet induced thermogenesis. Nutrition & metabolism, 1(1), 1-5.

[5] Barr, S., & Wright, J. (2010). Postprandial energy expenditure in whole-food and processed-food meals: implications for daily energy expenditure. Food & Nutrition Research, 54(1), 5144.

[6] Hall, K. D., Ayuketah, A., Brychta, R., Cai, H., Cassimatis, T., Chen, K. Y., … & Fletcher, L. A. (2019). Ultra-processed diets cause excess calorie intake and weight gain: an inpatient randomized controlled trial of ad libitum food intake. Cell metabolism, 30(1), 67-77.

[7] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8878356/

[8] Horton, T. J., Drougas, H., Brachey, A., Reed, G. W., Peters, J. C., & Hill, J. O. (1995). Fat and carbohydrate overfeeding in humans: different effects on energy storage. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 62(1), 19-29.

[9] Horton, T. J., Drougas, H., Brachey, A., Reed, G. W., Peters, J. C., & Hill, J. O. (1995). Fat and carbohydrate overfeeding in humans: different effects on energy storage. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 62(1), 19-29.

[10] Levine, J. A., Eberhardt, N. L., & Jensen, M. D. (1999). Role of nonexercise activity thermogenesis in resistance to fat gain in humans. Science, 283(5399), 212-214.

[11] Levine, J. A., Vander Weg, M. W., Hill, J. O., & Klesges, R. C. (2006). Non-exercise activity thermogenesis: the crouching tiger hidden dragon of societal weight gain. Arteriosclerosis, thrombosis, and vascular biology, 26(4), 729-736.

[12] Atwater, W. O., & Rosa, E. B. (1899). A new respiration calorimeter and experiments on the conservation of energy in the human body, II. Physical Review (Series I), 9(4), 214.

[13] Novotny, J. A., Gebauer, S. K., & Baer, D. J. (2012). Discrepancy between the Atwater factor predicted and empirically measured energy values of almonds in human diets. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 96(2), 296-301.

[14] Apolzan, J. W., Bray, G. A., Hamilton, M. T., Zderic, T. W., Han, H., Champagne, C. M., … & Martin, C. K. (2014). Short‐term overeating results in incomplete energy intake compensation regardless of energy density or macronutrient composition. Obesity, 22(1), 119-130.

[15] Parry, S. A., Woods, R. M., Hodson, L., & Hulston, C. J. (2017). A single day of excessive dietary fat intake reduces whole-body insulin sensitivity: the metabolic consequence of binge eating. Nutrients, 9(8), 818.

[16] Donga, E., van Dijk, M., van Dijk, J. G., Biermasz, N. R., Lammers, G. J., van Kralingen, K. W., … & Romijn, J. A. (2010). A single night of partial sleep deprivation induces insulin resistance in multiple metabolic pathways in healthy subjects. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 95(6), 2963-2968.

[17] Paddon-Jones, D., Westman, E., Mattes, R. D., Wolfe, R. R., Astrup, A., & Westerterp-Plantenga, M. (2008). Protein, weight management, and satiety. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 87(5), 1558S-1561S.

[18] Caton, S. J., Ball, M., Ahern, A., & Hetherington, M. M. (2004). Dose-dependent effects of alcohol on appetite and food intake. Physiology & behavior, 81(1), 51-58.

[19] Fazzino, T. L., Rohde, K., & Sullivan, D. K. (2019). Hyper‐Palatable Foods: Development of a Quantitative Definition and Application to the US Food System Database. Obesity, 27(11), 1761-1768.

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