Food ScienceHealthy Weight Loss

Can Cheat Days Actually Make You Gain Weight?

There has been a lot of controversy about binge days, also known as cheat days. You get to a point where you start thinking, will this cheat day undo all my hard work? After all, counting every calorie, choosing to eat healthier, working out at the gym, and devoting your lifestyle to this cause isn’t easy.

But binge days will not make you fat, and here’s why: During your cheat days, when you decide to deviate from the regular healthy choices and treat yourself to a few carbs here and there, the supposed weight you gain isn’t really fat.

The only time you gain actual weight is when you continuously overeat and bulk up on unhealthy, fatty foods that you should be steering away from. I know it can be frustrating to see the pounds pile on after sacrificing so much before your beloved cheat day, but don’t let this bring you down.

Let’s Do the Math

According to numerous experts in the field of nutrition, the recommended calorie intake ranges from 2,000 calories daily for females and 2,500 calories for males. This ideal range also depends on your height, age, and gender. The younger and smaller you are, the lower the number of calories are required.

Here’s where it gets a bit tricky to understand. There are approximately nine calories present in one gram of fat. Theoretically, for you to gain one pound of fat in a week, you would need to consume roughly 500 calories per day on top of the recommended caloric limit.

Therefore your weekly limit would be increased by:

  • (500 Calories) x (7 Days) = 3,500 calories per week

Now, if you were to gain five pounds of fat in a single day, you would need to consume at least 17,500 calories in that single day in addition to the recommended limit. If one pancake is 175 calories, you would need to eat a thousand pancakes to do so, and even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson isn’t crazy enough to eat a thousand flapjacks to bulk up.

The gain or loss of fat is determined by how many calories you consume from eating versus the number of calories you use within the day. If you live a sedentary lifestyle with little to no physical activity and you take in more than the number of calories you use, that’s when you start to gain fat.

On the other hand, those individuals with an active lifestyle use more calories than they take in. At this point, you are looking at the loss of fat since your body will tap into stored fat reserves for energy. It needs this energy to perform all of its bodily functions above and beyond any exercise you get that day.

Perhaps you’re reading this article because you are looking for ways to reduce or maintain your weight without putting in much effort into working out. Instead, you might be interested in controlling the amount and quality of food you eat. If that’s the case, let’s discuss thermogenesis.

What is Thermogenesis?

By definition, thermogenesis is the process of heat production within an organism’s body. This process occurs in all warm-blooded animals and a few plants as well. You can divide thermogenesis into three categories: exercise-associated thermogenesis (EAT), non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), and diet-induced thermogenesis (DIT). For this particular article, we will be focusing on diet-induced thermogenesis (DIT) and non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT).

You use the calories you get from the food you eat to do various bodily functions. Through the processes of digestion, metabolism, and absorption, fat gets burned off and converted to heat, and this is how DIT works.

In a healthy individual with a regular mixed diet, DIT claims ten percent of the calories consumed; however, this is merely an estimate. The actual percentage will depend on various factors, which includes the overall quality of the food you consume and your lean body mass (LBM). Each macronutrient in your meal has a specific percentage of energy.

  • Protein: Four calories for each gram with a DIT of twenty to thirty percent
  • Carbohydrates: four calories for each gram with a DIT of five to ten percent
  • Fat: nine calories for each gram with a DIT of zero to three percent

A sedentary lifestyle and overeating will increase the expenditure of energy through two types of thermogenesis: diet-induced thermogenesis (DIT) or non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). DIT’s magnitude would highly depend on the macronutrients or the composition of your food. In contrast, the amount of food consumed affects the scope of the NEAT.

Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is the energy expended for everything that does not involve exercise or other sports-like movements, sleeping, and the process of digestion. If you overeat, you start feeling fidgety and restless. The restlessness is your body’s way of telling you to burn off the excess calories you have taken in. Fidgeting is one typical example of NEAT.

So the question remains that, if the five pounds we initially talked about isn’t fat, what is it, and how long will it stay in our body? The answer to this focuses on one of the body’s favorite sources of energy: glycogen.

What is Glycogen?

We know our bodies store macronutrients that are not utilized for daily functions or are in surplus due to the uncontrolled consumption of food. When we consume carbohydrates, it goes through the digestion process, and this breaks down into a simple sugar called glucose.

Glucose is the primary fuel source for our cells. When we are physically inactive, glucose does not get converted into energy. Instead, the liver or our muscles store energy. When stored, the glucose molecules connect and form a chain, collectively called glycogen.

If you require a quick boost, but there is a shortage of glucose in your system, the glycogen breaks down and releases glucose to the blood to supply energy to the cells.

Remember how there are two storage areas for glycogen? The body uses the liver as short-term storage for glycogen. During fasting or when you are asleep, our bodies use the glucose stored in the liver to function normally, and this is necessary for survival. Your liver will see a reduction in glycogen levels of almost 50 percent after 12 to 16 hours of fasting. Its supply will continue to decrease until you start eating to replenish the used-up glycogen.

Glycogen must bond with water molecules for your body to store them in your muscle mass. For every gram of glycogen, there will be at least three grams of water attached to it. This can go as high as 17 grams, depending on the amount of fluid and carbohydrates you have consumed.

This means that the amount of water or fluids you drink during your binge session affects the amount of water you retain.

For example, a normal female would have about 50 pounds of muscles and approximately 268 grams of glycogen. Since each gram of glycogen is bound to at least 3 grams of water, the individual may be carrying an extra 804 grams of water weight. The more fluid consumed during the binge, the more water that will be retained on your muscles after. Water retention is especially common with cheat days filled with carbohydrates and sodium.

Effect of Depleted Glycogen Levels

Athletes and other active individuals can store and synthesize glycogen efficiently compared to those who lead a sedentary lifestyle. A study has determined the rate of glycogen synthesis versus lipogenesis in male athletes.

The test subjects for this study were physically active men in their early 20s, all of the ideal weight and body mass index (BMI). In comparison, the average man approximately carries 341 to 593 grams of glycogen in the muscles. In contrast, the subjects in this particular study had an average of 810 grams.

For this particular study, a specific protocol was set in place to ensure the viability of the results. In the first three days, the glycogen levels of the test subjects were depleted through a low-carbohydrate diet and exercise. The following week, they consumed high-carb meals that covered about 3,500 to 5,000 calories per day. The weight gained was then recorded during the time of the experiment.

On day one of the binge, the surplus of glycogen was used to replenish the supply that had been depleted during acclimatization, and the test subjects did not gain fat on the first day. On day two, only 30 grams of fat were synthesized, and on day 3, it increased to 45 grams. There was no significant increase within the seven-day binge.

By the end of the week, the test subjects gained an average of about 10 pounds and only 2.5 of it was fat. This study, therefore, proves that, when you’re on a diet right before going on a binge, it can help create a buffer to minimize the amount of fat you will gain.

De Novo Lipogenesis vs. Glycogenesis

We know that glycogenesis, or glycogen synthesis, is the process by which glucose molecules are added to glycogen chains for storage purposes. On the other hand, de novo lipogenesis (DNL) is a more complex metabolic pathway that is primarily active in the adipose tissues and the liver. DNL converts excessive carbohydrates to fatty acids and goes through the process of esterification to become triacylglycerols. In turn, triacylglycerols, through the process of beta-oxidation, provide energy for us to consume.

After you consume a high-carb meal, your body’s initial reaction is to utilize the glucose as heat or energy. And we know that the excess glucose molecules become glycogen in the muscles and liver.

When the storage facilities are filled, your body makes fat out of the surplus. And this is how DNL works differently compared to glycogenesis. It converts carbohydrates into fat instead of glucose.

Water Retention

As mentioned, we know that water is needed for glycogen to bind in your muscles, which results in water weight. Another factor you would need to consider in the increase of water retention is sodium. Wherever sodium is, water will follow. An example of this phenomenon is cell crenation.

For example, when red blood cells (RBCs) are mixed with normal saline and observed under the microscope, there is evident scalloping. This is due to the amount of moisture escaping from the RBC from the hypertonic solution.

By definition, water retention, or edema, is an accumulation of fluid in the body. It commonly occurs within tissues and the circulatory system. Swelling on the hands, ankles, legs, and feet are prime examples of water retention. Though it may seem alarming, most causes of edema are not that serious. It can occur during pregnancy or even before menstruating, and yes, after a high-carb and sodium meal accompanied by a large quantity of water.

But it doesn’t mean that edema should be taken lightly. Depending on the severity of the swelling, water retention is also a symptom of diseases like heart failure or kidney disease. Severe discomfort requires immediate medical attention.

Your weight increases on binge days because you digest more carbohydrates and sodium as a result of the cheat meals. As such, you will retain more water, and ultimately, the numbers on the scale will increase.

How Long Does It Take to Get Rid of Water Weight?

The answer to this truly depends on your body type, diet program, and your routine. People with a more active lifestyle can eliminate the water weight in a couple of days with a few minutes of a high-intensity workout.

Water weight will eventually come off. You can speed up the process, but there is no need to panic and assume that you are gaining weight from a binge day.

Recommended Dietary Program

If your goal is to lose fat, you have to cut down the number of carbohydrates you consume. This technique is quite prevalent in that a lot of fad diets. According to the Mayo Clinic, an ideal and reasonable low-carb diet contains approximately 60 to 130 grams of carbohydrates in a day. But there are drastic diets that go as low as 18 grams.

However, even with a strict program, you can afford to binge now and then. Remember that, as long as you can maintain the diet you have, slipping during holidays will not cause any permanent weight gain.


If your end goal is to lose weight or maintain the current weight you have in spite of consuming more food during cheat days, the best way would be to regulate your meals after your cheat day. Though there are supplements that may help, it should be a decision you make with your physician.

It’s Perfectly Okay to Indulge

When you binge over the holidays, the additional weight you see when you step on that scale is not fat, but is, in fact, water. Binging on food high on carbohydrates and sodium can increase this amount exponentially.

If you have been on a low-carb diet before your binge, you should be fine. In fact, you can prepare for the big day by depleting your stored glycogen beforehand through a low-carb diet. This reduces the amount of fat that will be converted, especially if we’re talking about a whole weekend.

Regular overeating is what causes you to gain fat, so don’t feel too guilty when you are enjoying the holidays with your family. It is okay to have cheat days; you just need to regulate them accordingly.

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