11 lb weight gain in one afternoon

How much fat can you gain from a single meal?

The question occurred to me while ravenously hungry on a diet, wanting to justify a binge. I found out that even a few hours overeating can result in shocking fat gain.

The barbecue of doom

I’d been dieting for months, on a plan that makes me cringe when I look back at it now. It was very restrictive, and had generated the type of cravings that become irresistible.

Definitely not the best time to fulfil a social obligation, but one came up anyway. It was a barbecue, and there was a huge amount of high-calorie, delicious food. I actually intended to stick to my meal plan, but the hunger that had built up was too much.

I ate a stream of greasy sausages and high calorie desserts, rationalizing it by telling myself that one meal wouldn’t make a difference.

11 lb from a single extended meal

During those hours overeating I put on about 5 kg (11 lb).

Of course it wasn’t all fat—some of it would have been carbohydrate storage, no doubt a lot of water weight from the salty food, and extra digestive tract content.

Yet it wasn’t all water retention and glycogen. After that feast I went straight back on my plan, but the extra weight took weeks to disappear. That doesn’t happen with water weight.

Inadvertent science

In hindsight it was a fascinating experiment, but at the time it was horrifying.

It’s common to hear that if you slip up on a diet the effects are minimal, after all it’s just one meal out of many. Besides, fat gain from a single meal is limited, as long as you keep to your plan most of the time you’ll be fine.

In general that’s true. Things change with metabolic adaptation though. My diet had slowed my metabolism—I had severe hunger, perpetual light-headedness, and a lot of fatigue. My physiology was geared toward fat regain.

A hard lesson

What I took away from the experience was twofold. First, knowing how much damage is possible in a short amount of time is good motivation not to stray from a fat loss plan.

More importantly, a badly designed fat loss plan will fail. I’d intended to permanently lower my body fat, but you can’t motivate yourself to lasting results while perpetually craving a hamburger—you’ll eventually break.

I no longer restrict food choices, and if I had to go to a barbecue while dieting, I’d simply save some extra calories for the occasion, and eat what I wanted.

With this flexible approach, I achieved my original goal of permanent fat loss. For years now I haven’t put on weight through loss of control, despite being at my long term leanest.

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