Lasting change starts with small, sustainable habits, like sipping on water throughout the day, cooking more at home, and moving your body regularly. Still, you’re only human, and it’s natural slip-ups happen on the quest to improve dietary habits and lose weight. But on days you overeat, the worst thing you can do is throw in the towel and beat yourself up about it. Instead, remember consistency always beats perfection, and missteps are part of the process. Here’s what to do if you find yourself veering off track:
One meal or day of overeating won’t have a big impact on progress, but a week or month of splurging can definitely set you back. Instead of tossing in the towel and telling yourself, “I’ll start over tomorrow,” begin eating nutrient-dense foods at your next meal or snack. The whole day or week isn’t a wash with a little indulgence — just get right back on track, and you will feel good you did.
If you slip up, refocus on the reason you’ve set these goals in the first place. Are you training for an upcoming marathon? Is it to look stunning as you walk down the aisle at your wedding? Do you want to be fit and healthy to chase your grandkids around? Remind yourself this journey will be full of peaks and valleys, but keeping a positive outlook is key.
One reason you might be sailing through your calorie budget — especially if it’s happening regularly: “You’re not eating enough filling foods like fruits and veggies,” says Amy Gorin, MS, RDN. Keep a food journal and take the time to reassess what foods you’re eating within your calorie allotment. If you’re light on produce, now is a great opportunity to recalibrate and make sure with every meal or snack you’re getting in a fruit or veggie, which are generally very low in calories and high in fiber that keeps you satiated and your blood sugar stable. This can go a long way toward keeping cravings at bay.
“I’d really encourage people to be kind to themselves,” says Gorin. To that end, there’s no point in promising yourself it will ‘never happen again’ — because it probably will. “There’s always going to be ‘that day’ where you eat the extra slice of birthday cake or indulge because it’s a holiday,” she adds. But blowing your calorie budget doesn’t say anything about who you are as a person, nor should it dictate shame about yourself. “Don’t punish yourself or feel horrible, because that’s often when people really backtrack with progress and could end up with days in a row of overeating,” says Gorin.
Rather than beating yourself up about overeating, take it as a learning moment. Were those chocolate chip cookies in your pantry calling your name? Did you forget how to say no to the bottle of wine your friend wanted to split at dinner?
When you blow your calorie budget, assess if external pressures are to blame. If the cookies in your pantry are too tempting, don’t bring them inside the house. If you find yourself eating (or drinking) for social reasons, maybe it’s time to practice standing up for yourself and embracing the power of “no.”
Emotions are often linked to food, and it’s helpful to address how they’re impacting your choices. One way to do that is by keeping a food journal with an app like MyFitnessPal and writing down how you’re feeling in the notes section after each meal and snack. For instance, you might notice you tend to reach for sugary foods when you’re stressed. “Try to come up with non-eating ways to make yourself better when those feelings arise,” says Gorin. Take a quick break to stretch away from your computer or phone, go for a brisk walk, or phone a friend.
Instead of sitting on the couch and letting a day of overeating spiral into one that’s also sedentary, make sure to prioritize movement. This doesn’t mean you need to feel pressure to burn off calories you consumed, but rather getting some extra endorphins from exercise helps boost your mood. In turn, you’ll feel better about getting back to your healthy habits at the next snack or meal. Whether it’s a short walk, some gentle yoga or a few bodyweight exercises, make sure to fit in some exercise you enjoy.
Even if you might have blown your calorie budget by lunch or have been mindlessly snacking all day, don’t skip your next meal or severely restrict calories the following day to make up for the splurge. Restriction backfires and can set you up for a cycle of blowing the budget. Skipping meals creates ravenous hunger and, at that point, everything in sight might look good.
Instead of amending your budget by cutting calories from another meal or day, chalk it up as a small splurge and continue with your healthy eating plan.
Consider how you’re proportioning your calorie budget: Are you eating often enough? “I recommend that most people eat every 3–5 hours,” says Gorin. For most people, that means you’ll be eating three meals and one or two snacks. Eating less often to save up calories means you likely end up so hungry you overeat. Also, if you’re thinking about food all the time and regularly feeling tired and cranky, these are signs you might not be eating enough to support your weight-loss goals.
Rather than waiting to go over your calorie budget because of that spontaneous ice cream cone, lunch with a friend or glass of wine at dinner, plan for these to happen and adjust accordingly. Create a space for them in your meal plan 2–3 times per week, advises Gorin. “It might be a choice between wine and the dessert at Friday night dinner, but you shouldn’t have to deprive yourself,” she says. Also, think about the type of food you’ve been gravitating toward when you blow your budget and see if you can find healthy alternatives that still feel satisfying. For example, if ice cream is your kryptonite, opt for a banana-based or dairy-free ice cream to get a few more nutrients and less calories. Or, if pizza is your thing, try a cauliflower crust or mini naan pizzas.
Having others who support your goals makes lifestyle changes easier to make and sustain. In fact, research shows simply sharing your goals with friends and family makes them more likely to be achieved. You can ask your partner or a friend to be your accountability buddy or engage with the community on MyFitnessPal to get virtual support from like-minded people who can motivate you to stay on track. Similarly, working with a registered dietitian can help you “come up with a calorie budget that works for your weight-loss goals,” says Gorin. You don’t have to do this alone.
Originally published January 2018, updated with additional reporting.
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