Blog Post

What To Do When You Blow Your Calorie Budget

What to do if you accidentally overeat

Have you ever wondered “what should I do if I eat more than my planned calories while in a deficit?” 

As dietitians, this is a question we get asked all of the time and is a common concern for those undertaking a fat loss phase. 

Everyone, even the most consistent people, are bound to go off track a day here and there. Whether it is a meal out with friends or a few drinks with work colleagues on a Friday afternoon. 

So what do you do after this happens?

Energy Balance – A Quick Recap

Let’s quickly revisit energy balance as it will underpin this whole discussion. Without an understanding of calorie deficits, this isn’t going to make a whole lot of sense. 

Of course, if you already have a good handle on this, feel free to skip to the next section.

Calories are simply a unit of measurement that we use to measure the amount of energy in food. They can also be referred to as kilojoules (kjs).

You can think of kilojoules and calories as we think of kilometers and miles. They are simply two different ways to measure the same thing.

There are 4.18 kilojoules per 1 calorie. Therefore, if something is 418 kilojoules, this is equal to 100 calories.

Energy balance refers to how many calories you are consuming in comparison the how many calories you are burning.

It is usually discussed as energy in versus energy out. Your overall energy balance is what will ultimately dictate the maintenance of or changes in your weight.

To maintain your weight, the amount of energy you consume through food must be equal to the energy you expend through your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). On the other hand, weight loss occurs when your energy expenditure is greater than your energy intake, whilst weight gain occurs when your energy expenditure is less than your energy intake.

Energy Balance Scales

Having fewer calories than what your body is burning is called a calorie deficit.

Having more calories than what your body is burning is called a calorie surplus.

Matching your calorie intake to your TDEE is called maintenance (because you are maintaining your weight)

So now that we are all caught up on that, we can get back to the question at hand. What should you do if you go over your calorie budget while in a deficit?

Option 1: Do Nothing 

My preferred option is typically to not do anything about it. Just get back on track with your regular plan starting the very next meal or day.

There are quite a few reasons why this is my preference 

  1. Ideally, you are consistent with your deficit most of the time and it is on the rare occasion that you go significantly over your calorie budget. So it is unlikely to have a huge impact on progress regardless. 
  2. Mathematically, unless you massively eat over your calorie budget for the day, you are likely still in a deficit for the week.  It’s more of an issue if that one day over the calorie budget turns into quite a few days over your calorie target. One day is rarely the issue. Hence why just getting straight back into the swing of things is a great option.

In the example below you can see that there is still an overall deficit of 3000kcals for the week despite, eating up to maintenance on a single day (i.e. 500kcals more than their calorie budget). 

Example of calorie balance over the week if you don't make changes
  1.  Unless you are taking an aggressive approach for whatever reason, ideally your planned approach is quite flexible. This gives room for flexibility with food options, which once again makes it easier to be consistent to the point that this overall question matters less.

Option 2: Eat Less The Next Day

Another option is to simply eat fewer calories the next day to balance things out.

Think in terms of weekly calorie balance. So theoretically you can balance things out and get similar results, simply by eating fewer calories the next day. 

So if you eat 500kcals over your calorie budget on a single day, you just increase your calorie deficit by 500kcals the next day. 

This can be seen in the example below;

Example of calorie balance over the week if you reduce calories to compensate

The obvious issue with this option is that you now have one day that has a really big calorie deficit. And the more you overate the day before, the larger that deficit will have to be the next day. 

Compensating by reducing your calories a lot the next day could lead to you being hungrier and more likely to end up eating more calories anyway. It can be a vicious cycle.

There is also the potential problem of knowing that you have the option of compensating later in the week or the next day. Which can make you more likely to overeat more often. Leaving you with high-calorie days and very low-calorie days too often. This can contribute to a less than ideal relationship with food and/or could interfere with your training if that is a consideration for you.

If you are trying to be quite strict with your calorie deficit but still want the flexibility of including some higher calorie days, this method is absolutely a feasible option. You just don’t want to take it too far.

Option 3: Eat Less Over Multiple Days

Example of calorie balance over the week if you reduce calories over a few days

In the same vein as option 2, this option involves reducing your calorie intake on other days to balance out the overconsumption of calories. The difference is that instead of simply decreasing your calorie intake the next day. You spread out the reduction in calories across more than a single day.

In the example above, instead of having 1 day where there is a 1000 calorie deficit, it is instead split between two days of a 750 calorie deficit. Which makes up for the extra 500 calories that were consumed on the Friday.

So overall for the week, the planned deficit was maintained despite having a higher calorie day. The pro of spreading it out across multiple days is that it alleviates the issue of having one really low-calorie day which may be pretty uncomfortable to get through.

Key Take-Away

Overall, you have 2 main choices when it comes to eating past your planned calories in a deficit. You could;

  1. Just move on to the next day and aim to hit your planned calories as consistently as you can or;
  2. Compensate for the additional calories consumed over 1 or more days throughout the week

What option you choose will be dependent on your goals and how strict you are wanting to be with your deficit. 

For example, a bodybuilder in prep or a boxer needing to make weight for an upcoming event can be examples of times where you may need to be more strict. Ideally, you would leave enough time to have a little flexibility whilst reaching your goal on time but that is not always the case.

It can be a slippery slope to start compensating for calories. The worst-case scenario would be that you end up in a restrict and binge cycle. A situation you do not want to get yourself stuck in. Although, for some people, it can be a valid approach to making consistent progress.

In an ideal world, you would be following a plan that allows some flexibility such as an occasional relaxed or social meal or the ability to eat something to satisfy a craving whilst working towards your goal. Therefore, no need to compensate for calories.

But at the end of the day, how you manage your fat loss is completely up to you and everyone is going to have their own individual preferences.

By Leah Higl

Leah is an accredited practising dietitian from Brisbane. She also competes as an under 75kg powerlifter with Valhalla Strength Brisbane. As both an athlete and dietitian, she spends much of her time developing her knowledge and skills around sports nutrition, specifically for strength-based sports. Although, she works with a range of athletes from triathletes to combat sports and powerlifting. Leah also follows a plant-based diet and her greatest passion is fuelling vegan/vegetarian athletes and proving that plant-based athletes can be just as competitive as their non-vegan counterparts.​