Problems with Bingeing While Dieting

Q: I am trying to diet to lose bodyfat. I find that I am generally very good about it but every once in a while, I end up bingeing (which I call the ‘hoover effect’) and eating everything in sight. Is this going to hurt my diet and is there anything I can do about it?

Lyle McDonald: Ahhh, dieting. You gotta love the starvation and suffering that goes along with trying to reach that higher level of physical perfection don’t you? Yeah, right. Let’s face it, dieting is no fun no matter who you are or what you do. Think about it this way, if I told you that you couldn’t have something, no matter what it was, simply knowing that you couldn’t have it would make you want it even more. Even if it was something that you didn’t want in the first place. This is human nature, we want those things which we cannot have.

This especially pertains to dieting. Most people take a very all or nothing approach to dieting for fat loss. Either they are on a diet or they are in a full blown binge. Either they are perfect or they are putting away as much junk as they can get their hands on. I had a client once who took this to an incredible extreme. Came to me one Monday with guilt all over her face. Told me she’d been ‘bad’ over the weekend. She had eaten (get this) one whole candy bar. Putting on my best sarcastic voice, I chided her for it, trying simply to point out how irrational she was being.

The all or nothing approach that most take to fat loss is an extremely dangerous mental state to get into. There are NO absolutes in anything. We all miss workouts, we all ‘cheat’ (and I hate to use that word because it’s got so many negative connotations) on our diets, etc, etc.

And here’s what I”ve found, both in myself and in clients. The more extreme you try to be with your dietary or training approach, the LESS likely you are to follow it in the long term. We all know of someone who decided to get into shape and jumps into it head first. Extremely low calories, daily workouts. And they initially do very well but without exception they drop out because they get burned out or injured or something else. No one can be that perfect all the time.

Which is all leading up to the fact that trying to be perfect on your diet is ultimately a recipe for failure. What happens is this, you’ve associated going off your diet with a lack of willpower or mental strength. And as soon as you have that first cookie and decide that you are a failure, you are much more likely to eat the rest of the bag out of guilt. As a buddy of mine once put it “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.”

Of course, I suggest an alternate approach. I encourage individuals (and this of course assumes they don’t have some timeline, like a bodybuilding contest to get into shape) to plan their cheating. That is, consider these two individuals.

  1. The first individual follows a super strict diet 6 days out of the week. But one day out of the week, when willpower gives out, they have that first piece of pizza. Suddenly the wave of guilt hits and the rest of the pizza disappears. To atone for their ‘sin’ this person hits it that much harder the next week, more restriction, more time on the bike, leading to yet another (and probably bigger) binge the next weekend. This cycle repeats until this person finally just gives up completely.
  2. The second person is following the same strict diet but has decided that one meal per week, they get to eat whatever they want. Pizza, donuts, whatever. Just eat it, be happy and get on with their life. No guilt. No increased resolve to do better the next week because this was a planned excursion from the diet.

The end result is the same, 6 days of dieting with an excursion to eat whatever you want. But the psychological effect is totally different. The first person feels nothing but guilt for their excursion from the diet because it wasn’t part of the plan. The second can easily go back to their diet the next day since the excursion was part of the overall plan. Who do you think is more likely to stick with their plan, the one who feels guilty every weekend or the one who feels in control of what they are trying to achieve?

Ok enough pop-psychology, what are the physiological effects of bingeing while on a fat loss diet? In the short term at least, the body is able to deal with an excessive influx of calories by raising metabolic rate. Think about Thanksgiving Day. The average person consumes from 4000-7000 calories on that one day. From a strictly thermodynamic standpoint, that should equal a ‘true’ fat gain (not including water and stuff) of 1-2 lbs. But it never does. Sure we all gain a few pounds but it’s mainly water and carbs being stored as glycogen which is quickly lost. It’s only when caloric intake is higher than caloric expenditure in the long term that true fat gain occurs.

Additionally a known effect of fat loss diets is a gradual reduction in metabolic rate as the body adapts to lowered calories. Many authorities recommend a ‘cheat day’ as I have described to prevent some of the attenuation in metabolic rate. I happen to agree with them. By planning your ‘binge’ day, you may be able to prevent some of the fat loss plateaus which always tend to occur.

Finally individuals who are weight training (and you all should be) while they diet tend to find that they fill out after their cheat day. The body’s first priority when calories (especially carbs) reintroduced into the diet is to refill muscle glycogen stores. Only when those are filled will the body start laying down bodyfat. This means that, under ideal circumstances, your cheat day should probably fall on a weight training day to ensure that all those extra calories go to glycogen resynthesis instead of fat stores.

But unless you have a specific time frame to get into shape, I don’t see the occasional detour off you diet as a big deal. Simply build it into the plan to avoid the negative psychological feelings associated with it and get on with your life.

IFBB pro bodybuilder Quincy Taylor

Photo credit: Muscletime

About Lyle McDonald

Lyle McDonald is the author of the Ketogenic Diet as well as the Rapid Fat Loss Handbook and the Guide to Flexible Dieting. He has been interested in all aspects of human performance physiology since becoming involved in competitive sports as a teenager. Pursuing a degree in Physiological Sciences from UCLA, he has devoted nearly 20 years of his life to studying human physiology and the science, art and practice of human performance, muscle gain, fat loss and body recomposition.