Tuesday, December 28, 2010

How long before calorie surplus shows as weight gain?

NOTE:  This is a repost from June 2009 but I thought it would be appropriate this time of year.

How long before calorie surplus shows as weight gain?

How many have you eaten a really bad dinner calorie-wise and then weighed yourself in the morning to see how much you've gained? Raise your hand. I know I have.  Does Christmas ring a bell?  Birthday parties?

This got me to wondering (or pondering): how long does it take before a calorie surplus shows up as a weight gain?

It takes a 3500 calorie deficit to see a 1 pound loss but many factors can cause a gain such as water retention.

I asked @bodybugg on Twitter about gain/loss/results and here is her answer:

"I received a question on Twitter today that I thought warranted a blog post. @dasschus (that's me!) asked "how long does it take for a surplus of calories to show up as a weight gain? How long until is shows as stored fat? Curious."

The answer to this question is pretty complex & like everything in health & the human body, what may be the answer for one person may not be the solution for all. Therefore, I'm going to answer this question from my own personal experience.

The short answer is that it doesn't happen instantly. That's good and bad news because just as one day of eating poorly isn't going to derail your weight loss goals, neither will one day of excessive activity make a noticeable difference either. The body ultimately takes an average of my calories in & calories out over a period of time. I notice a lag time of about a week.

That being said, we all notice weight fluctuations on the scale that can happen instantly. Those weight fluctuations are typically water & waste; not fat. Scale weight is very deceiving because it doesn't accurately reflect our intention for losing weight. In actuality we want to lose fat & the scale doesn't accurately reflect that. Our scale weight is determined by fat and lean mass. Lean mass is typically defined as muscles, but also organs, bones, water and waste (stuff in our stomachs & bowels). One pint (two cups) of water weighs 1 lb. There are a number of factors that determine how much water the body is holding:

hormones, carbohydrate levels, lean mass, and sodium levels.

hormones - most women experience bloating and weight fluctuations at different times of their cycles by no fault of their own. At this time in the menstrual cycle, the hormone levels in a woman's body are high, which causes gas and stool to move more slowly through the intestinal tract.

carbohydrates - when we eat carbohydrates, the carbohydrates are broken down & stored in our muscles and liver in the form of glycogen. Each molecule of glycogen stores four water molecules along with it. (I've read elsewhere that they store 2 water molecules but the idea is that there is water involved)

lean mass - muscle is comprised of ~75% water, where fat will hold ~25%. Additionally, the more lean mass you have, the more glycogen your body can store.

sodium levels - when your electrolytes are out of balance (typically through consuming too much sodium), your body will retain water until they are back in balance.

Okay - so now you can see why folks who are on low carbohydrate diets will see quick fluctuations in their weight: because as they deplete the glycogen in their muscles by not eating carbohydrates, their muscles are also shedding water. Then, if s/he eats a large amount of carbohydrates s/he will see a weight gain because where their muscles were depleted of glycogen before, they are now replenished & the water is added too. Therefore, the more muscle you have, the more glycogen and water you can store.

I personally don't intentionally keep my sodium levels low. I tend to not eat processed foods, which is where high sodium lurks. But, I can tell immediately when I eat something that is high in sodium because my fingers swell. The best way to reduce swelling is to drink lots of water. It reduces the concentration of sodium in your system & will help you shed that water that the body is holding on to.

So, let's say it's a holiday & you've eaten foods that you haven't been eating in a while. The next day, when you weigh yourself, you'll notice a huge gain in weight. Typically those foods that we eat in social gatherings are high in sodium, carbohydrates and low in fiber. Since fiber helps food move through our digestive tract, we have the physical weight of the food in our bodies, and the retained water from over-indulging on carbohydrates, and sodium.

Even if you overate for your calorie level for that day, if you're in a calorie deficit or equality for the week, the over eating should not show up on the scale long term (as fat). You will notice that the scale will go up immediately, but fear not. Resume your normal eating and exercise routine & all of that water weight will fall off again. I notice that the fruits of my labor usually take about a week to show up as fat loss or fat gain.

And for what it's worth, I don't weigh myself for at least a week, if not two, after I've come home from vacation."

For more bodybugg and fitness information, visit http://www.elizabethsherman.com/

Here's to a successful New Year.


  1. I like to think I'm up on all the fitness/health info, but I learned alot here. Thanks for sharing the info.

  2. And think of the blood that has to be made and lost to service the tissue!
    Once on the Golden Girls, they were going to have some cheese cake. But they were all on diets for some big event. Then they said "Oh, WTH, it won't actually show up for 3 more days!"
    And that is about how long - in gaining or losing - it takes me.
    Also, that's why I THINK I've gotten by with cheating,
    Then eat on plan, and gain!
    Because it was from sometime last week.
    I've always written that metabolism occurs in days and weeks, not minutes or hours.
    Great post!

  3. That makes a lot of sense, thanks for the repost! I've done what you have described before - gone crazy off plan, weighed the next day (or 2 days later)..and I didn't see a big impact..I'd think "hmm, wow, not bad not bad at all!"...

    I would then - either start cheating more here and there b/c it didn't hurt the scale OR go back on plan, and the next week see a terrible weigh in and THEN go off plan.

    Also...it explains my love/hate with Chinese food. I can eat Chinese 1 day, and the next day? I can be up 3-6 lbs - all water weight gain just about. That stuff turns me into a sponge!

    Anyway..thanks again for the info, I'll tuck that away in my arsenal of knowledge :)

  4. OOH really interesting and again the 'it's all different for each of us' answer huh?

    have you read the 4 hour body??


  5. Thanks for sharing this information. I always wondered how long eating something like a bar of chocolate for example, would take to become extra fat. It doesn't weigh much, so I wouldn't think it would make you gain weight the next day, but with a high calorie content- it would have to happen at some point! Very interesting!

  6. I remember gaining supposedly 12 lbs. in one 3 day weekend. Combination of my period and a buffet with lots of sodium. It went away but the scale scared the crud out of me!

    This month I've been tracking closely and it's interesting to see what happened during my period. 1200 calories a day and tons of water and I gained like 4 lbs. It's been with me for like 4 days now. Very annoying it has been and I'm sure it will go away but still, interesting.

  7. Very Intereting!!! Thank you for that repost!

  8. I never saw this post, but want to know what a small world it is?

    I went to high school with Beth Sherman!

    Yep, we both attended Oak Park River Forest High School - class of 1986. She started out gaining weight after her Mom died I think. She was in the corporate world, then did a 180 and became a personal trainer - she looks great!


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