photo of people having dinner together

What to do when you overdo it

Feeling like you overate can be a really crummy feeling, but the tactics we tend to turn to in those instances typically aren’t helpful options. Skipping meals to compensate, overexercising, only eating certain foods – these tactics don’t work and promote unhealthy habits. Fact: you can’t “compensate” for overeating. So what should you do when this happens?

First, let go of trying to compensate for overeating. This simply is not how our bodies work. Your body has already digested and dealt with that food accordingly. It is not sitting in a reserve tank to be emptied and you can’t create a void in your body for that food to take up by creating a calorie deficit the next day. Furthermore, even if you do successfully undereat or overexercise the next day, your body will adjust for that accordingly. You may or may not notice it, but 2-3 days later you will be much hungrier than usual and eat more. Remember, our bodies evolved to keep us alive through periods of starvation. Finally, we don’t get to pick and choose what gets burned and what doesn’t.

Second, be realistic and take it easy on yourself. One day of overdoing it isn’t going to make a difference. One weekend of overdoing also probably won’t make a significant difference. You won’t gain 10 pounds overnight and you won’t “undo” any progress you’ve made. Something else to note, when I work with clients who feel like they went way overboard with their eating, very often when we actually map out what they ate, it’s not as much as they thought.

Third, still practice those healthy habits you’ve been working on. Remember, there is no proverbial wagon to fall off of, no proverbial train to derail. Every day is a new opportunity to pursue your goals and those 4 margaritas didn’t “ruin” that opportunity. So carry right on with eating in balance. Move your body. Drink plenty of water. Listen to your body.

If you want to avoid overdoing it the future, keep in mind the main reason why we engage in overeating is deprivation. When we don’t allow ourselves to eat certain things, when we dub certain foods “bad,” we give those foods all of our power. It’s human nature to respond to deprivation this way. The best way to make sure these overindulgence episodes happen rarely, is to give yourself permission to the eat the foods you want to eat when you want to eat them. Yes, absolutely, practice balance and make sure you’re also eating lots of veggies. But, chocolate cake doesn’t only have to happen on your birthday. Mashed potatoes and gravy don’t only have to happen on Thanksgiving. When we only let ourselves enjoy these foods once a year, that’s when we get into issues with last supper eating.

photo of people having dinner together
Trying to compensate for overeating is not the answer. Photo by Daria Shevtsova on

You Aren’t Addicted to Food

Many of us believe that we are addicted to food. It explains away binges, obsessive thoughts about certain foods, our inability to say no when temptations are around. But the truth is that food addiction is a lie. We are not and cannot become addicted to food. What we can do, though, is respond to deprivation and restriction in ways that feel to us like addiction.

The basis for essentially every diet out there is deprivation – whether we are talking calories or carbs or meal frequency. This seems harsh to say, but the facts are that: adults need more than 1200 calories a day, our bodies need carbohydrates for energy, and our bodies tell us we’re hungry because they need food. When we choose to deny ourselves and our bodies the things they need, our bodies will react.

We often chalk up our fixation on certain foods to being addicted to food, but deprivation is actually the key.
We often chalk up our fixation on certain foods to being addicted to food, but deprivation is actually the key.

Our bodies have very distinct, powerful physiological and psychological responses to that kind of deprivation. On the physiological side, we have the compulsion to seek out food. We have cravings for foods. We have hunger pangs and consequences like lean mass loss. On the psychological side, we want those forbidden foods even more. We think about them frequently. We might even dream about them!

And what happens when we are finally faced with those forbidden foods? We overeat, feel out of control. In some cases, we binge. And the message that we too often take from that experience is that it’s proof that we can’t be trusted. That we have no self-control or will power. That we must be addicted to food. When in actuality, we aren’t addicted to food; we’re just having a normal human reaction to being denied the things we need and want. But the diet industry relies on us believing that we are the issue and not the restrictive diet plans in order to make money because, if we realized the diets were the problem, we would stop doing them.

Now, some will point to the fact that there is a dopamine reaction in our brain in response to food and that we can see this response in our brain when we take certain drugs as evidence of food addiction. But, dopamine is simply our feel-good chemical. In fact, there is a dopamine response to exercise, socializing, and to music, but we don’t talk about addictions to those like we talk about addictions to food, do we?

Studies have shown that unrestricted access to “forbidden” foods actually results in the end of binging on those foods. And studies that purport to show evidence of food addiction, actually seem more to indicate a response to deprivation when you really look at them (plus they haven’t been done in humans). So, while it may feel like you are addicted to certain foods or to food in general, it’s much more likely that you’re actually responding to deprivation. I suggest taking a look at your eating habits and your diet history to see, do you have a history of dieting and restrictive behaviors? Have you ever designated the foods you think you are addicted to as forbidden and off-limits? Have you ever tried to just let yourself have those foods?