Staying within a calorie limit every day can be quite challenging, especially for those that have a calorie limit of what I’d consider being on the lower end of the scale. For most people, there are good days when you can comfortably stay within your calorie limit but also not so good days when you exceed it.
Before carrying on with this article, it’s important to know that going over your calorie limit should not be the self-destructive act that then leads to a week of over-consuming followed by completely quitting your diet and going back to your starting point.
Is it ok to go over your calorie limit? It is ok to go over your calorie limit once or twice per week without it negatively impacting your diet and preventing weight loss. If you maintain a weekly average calorie limit then you can make adjustments throughout the week to balance any higher-calorie days with lower-calorie days.
The human body is constantly striving to maintain a balanced state and makes adjustments to its internal and external environment constantly. While this is the case, small actions on a daily basis will not cause any significant changes, it’s only the actions repeated daily that result in sufficient and noticeable change.
If you’re feeling stressed because you’ve gone over your calorie limit, keep reading to see why it’s not that big of a deal and how best you can manage it to ensure one day over a calorie limit doesn’t lead to multiple days!
Is It Ok To Go Over Your Calorie Limit
Firstly, calorie limits are not the exact science that you might think them to be. Whenever I set a calorie limit for clients it’s based on estimates. Online calculators and guidelines are just that, guidelines. No two humans are the same and we all respond differently to food, calories, and macronutrients.
Therefore, a calorie limit to support weight loss of 2,000kcal as an example, might work well for one person weighing 180lbs but could also do nothing for another individual also weighing 180lbs. Progress comes from setting a baseline and then making adjustments over time to see how you respond.
Depending on where you are in your fitness journey, going over your calorie limit could have no immediate impact on your physique (especially in the initial adjustment phase) or it could be detrimental to progress (someone at 7% body fat preparing for a bodybuilding show).
The honest answer is that for most people going over their calorie limit, this will be fine as long as you meet the following criteria:
- Going over your calorie limit one day does not lead to you going over your calorie limit on the following days.
- Going over your calorie limit is not too excessive (4,000kcal over your limit through pizza and cheesecake will likely have an immediate impact on your physique).
- You balance this throughout the week to ensure your weekly calorie average is consistent.
One day of going over your calorie limit is not going to have a detrimental effect on your progress or physique just like going to the gym one day and hitting your calories for one day will also not radically transform your physique.
Is It Ok To Go Over Your Calorie Limit Once per Week
For people wondering whether or not you can go over your calorie limit once per week, it’s usually because you want a “cheat day”. No matter how you phrase it, this is typically what you are looking for when asking this question.
The key to a cheat day or day when you go over your calorie limit is to schedule it so that you don’t have a weekly surplus. This means the rest of the week would need to maintain a lower calorie target in order to allow for a day going over your calorie limit.
For most people, this can be a more difficult plan to stick to, and cheat days have caused a big issue when it comes to weight loss. True cheat days are better known as refeed days and this is when you consume a higher carb day after consecutive days of low carb.
It’s to replenish muscle glycogen stores when someone is cutting, is in a deep deficit, and regular weight training. If these points don’t apply to you, chances are these “cheat days” will lead to excess fat gain and it’s why they should be supervised by a personal trainer or nutritionist.
What Happens if You Go Over Your Calories One Day
When it comes to body composition and any kind of physique transformation, it’s important to understand that it’s a long-term process and changes do not happen on a large scale on a day to day basis.
A lot of people will find that they are counting macros but not losing weight and this is usually because they are focusing on the finer details that only contribute to fine margins of progress. This is the same as people who wonder what happens if you go over your macros.
The calorie in vs calories out equation simply means that spending more time in a calorie deficit will see people lose weight. Doing this daily is convenient for us but the body has a slightly longer time frame for permanent change.
We know you can eat a meal and immediately gain weight, however, this doesn’t mean that you will now be 1lb heaver forever. The same is true of staying hydrated which will naturally keep you at a higher body weight than what you are upon waking each morning when you are dehydrated and fasted.
Going over your calories one day is not enough for your body to reverse your dieting process and store it all as body fat. Going over your body fat one day may mean you weigh more through water retention and undigested food but there will be no long term impact from this.
The exception as I’ll keep mentioning is when you repeatedly go over your calorie limit. This is even more important if you go over a weekly calorie limit as you’ll then find that you are in a surplus and will gain weight.
As long as you balance out any days that you go over your calorie limit, it will be manageable. This doesn’t mean you should yo-yo between high and low days as this is a recipe for failure for most people. Instead, accept the days when you go over your calorie limit and then balance it out throughout the week.
What Happens if You Go Over Your Calorie Deficit
Now a calorie deficit is something very different from a calorie limit. Some people set a calorie target to ensure they eat enough to support training and exercise whereas others set a calorie limit to maintain weight and keep a log of your daily consumption.
If, however, you are setting a calorie target that’s a deficit, then this means you are actively cutting (trying to lose weight), and going over a calorie deficit can be more detrimental to your progress than those that don’t have body composition or weight loss goals.
This is because a sustained calorie deficit keeps your body in a fat-burning state (provided other factors are also being met) and going over your calorie deficit, if unplanned or unsupervised by a personal trainer or coach, can immediately halt progress.
You’ll face water retention, cravings (if you go over with a heavy amount of carbs), and then days or weeks of trying to get back to the point you were before going over your deficit.
This is different if you have been scheduled a refeed by a coach but if you’ve just gone over your calorie deficit through personal choice, you are likely to slow down and halt your progress in the short term.
How To Stop Going Over Your Calorie Limit
Now that you hopefully understand that going over your calorie limit is not a serious issue for 99% of people, there are of course going to be people that frequently go over their calorie limit. If this is you, then this is different from everything I’ve said above, and going over your calorie limit constantly will impact your progress.
One day over a calorie limit is an exception, multiple days over a calorie limit is a habit and our body makes progress through habits. If you go over your calorie limit more times than you stay under or on it, you’ll gain weight.
You’ll therefore need to apply some of the following principles to ensure that one day of going over your calorie limit does not lead to many:
Tracking your calories on a daily and weekly basis alongside tracking your weight on a daily and weekly basis is the single best method you can implement to stay in control and stop going over your calorie limit. Forget needed willpower or motivation to stick to your diet, tracking will take the mental strain out of the equation.
The reason for this is because you can easily see how a day going over your calories has impacted your weekly calorie goals and more importantly, it allows you to make adjustments easily.
If your weekly calorie target is 14,000kcal (2,000kcal per day) then you know that consuming 2,500kcal one day will mean you need to reduce your other days by a total of 500kcal in total. This could mean consuming 1,500kcal one day or 1,900kcal for 5 days.
Keeping your weekly average in check is what will lead to progress and this is measured by tracking calories and also weight.
The reason weight is important is because a high-calorie day with a high carb intake will lead to water retention, more food being kept in your stomach, and ultimately a short term weight gain.
This can easily be something that demotivates people when going over your calorie limit one day but if you track it across the week and take an average, you’ll have a much more accurate picture and can then compare this week to week.
This is how trainers analyze a person’s diet and weight progression because it removes emotions or opinions and allows you to make rational decisions moving forward. As in individuals seeing the scale weight go up one day can be disheartening even though it’s normal.
2. Consecutive Days
Never have consecutive days where you go over your calorie limit. This sounds a bit cheesy but each day is a new day and whatever happened the previous day should have no impact on what you do the next day. As mentioned, it’s ok to go over your calorie limit for a day or two per week but these should be an exception.
Always follow up a “bad”* day with a “good”* day. Daily actions are important but ensuring your weekly averages align with your goal is what will make all the difference. If you have more days hitting your target than you do missing it, you’ll make progress.
Never follow a day where you’ve gone over your calorie limit with another day going over your limit. This mindset and habit will keep you moving forward in the right direction.
** There are no bad days and good days when it comes to dieting. Going over your calorie limit is not bad and thinking about it this way gives it a strong psychological meaning. Instead, it’s just a “higher calorie” day which you can then look to balance out with a “lower calorie” day.
Consume nutrient-dense foods that are highly satiating. A chocolate bar is unlikely to satisfy any food cravings because it has a poor nutrient density and high sugar content which is quickly broken down and absorbed into the bloodstream.
A large meal consisting of leafy green veg and a meat/fish source that’s high in protein however will have a dual benefit. The leafy green veg is voluminous and also has a high fiber content which means it will fill up your stomach so that you feel full and will also need longer to break down the food.
Protein is highly satiating which means it reduces the feeling of hunger and research shows a high protein diet is also linked to lower levels of body fat which is going to be preferable for those with calorie limits in the first place.
You should also drink plenty of water, exercise, and reduce boredom. These are generic tips for calorie management and you’ll find them mentioned millions of times but it’s because they are simple and work to reduce the feeling of hunger which leads to overconsumption.
When setting a calorie limit for weight loss or another goal, the motivation is always going to be there to have the intention to hit this target every single day. This takes discipline but in reality, it’s also an unrealistic expectation for the vast majority.
The truth is that occasionally going over your calorie limit is not going to be an issue and will have a minimal impact on your progress and physique. If you do go over your calorie limit, just keep track of how much you’ve gone over it by and make adjustments to your diet throughout the week to counteract it.
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