Post-Binge Biology: What Happens To Your Body When You Overeat (and 8 Things To Do Afterward)

‘Tis the season for consumption.

Cookies, cakes, and pies abound. Feasts happen on a regular basis. Candy is given and received as gifts. And there are parties immeasurable—at work, with family, with friends—where calorie-dense, rewarding food is handed out, like, well, candy. The holiday season is a practice in overeating, and it can be very hard to avoid. You may not want to even avoid it; there’s something to be said for letting loose now and again on special occasions, especially when holiday cheer is in the air.

But what happens to your body when you overeat? And what can you do about it?

The type of overeating most people do across the holidays is high-sugar, high-fat, and relatively low protein. These are your cakes and cookies. Your brownies and fudge. Your pie for breakfast. This is the worst kind of overfeeding you can do. Research shows that just six days of high-sugar, high-fat, low-protein overfeeding rapidly increases fat deposition in the liver and muscle. Seven days of overfeeding reduces whole body insulin sensitivity, inhibits glucose clearance, and impairs endothelial function.

If you keep doing it, say, over the course of a month, bad things pile up. You get incredibly insulin resistant. Your liver fat increases. Your body weight and overall body fat increase. Your C-reactive protein increases, an indication of inflammation. A class of antioxidants called plasmalogens also increase, which means your body is fighting oxidative stress.

One problem with the studies is that you have to distinguish between quality and quantity; overfeeding with different foods elicits different effects. For instance, in the study that looked at overfeeding’s effect on lipid metabolism, the subjects overate by eating more cookies, potato chips, and cheesecake and drinking an oil-based liquid supplement. Overeating a bunch of that junk food is different than overeating steak.

In fact, research shows that overfeeding protein has little to no impact on fat or weight gain compared to carbohydrate or fat overfeeding.

Another factor to consider is individual variability. Some people are “obesity prone.” Others are “obesity resistant.” In one study, obesity prone and obesity resistant subjects had different responses to three days of overfeeding. The obesity prone people saw their fat oxidation rates drop during sleep; they burned less fat. The obesity resistant subjects saw their fat oxidation rates unchanged during sleep; they continued burning fat like normal.

So, when we talk about the effects of overeating, we have to keep in mind that the effects will  differ between individuals and vary if you’re eating a pound of roast lamb versus eating half a pie. But the general point still stands: Overeating can make you gain weight, gain liver weight, induce oxidative stress, cause insulin resistance, increase inflammation, and make you sicker, fatter, and more unwell the longer it goes on.

But am I too late in saying this? Are you already dealing with the effects of excess? Here are 8 tips for scaling back and minimizing damage. 

1. Favor Protein

As explained above, overfeeding protein has more neutral metabolic and body composition effects than overfeeding fat and carbs. Some effects are even positive, like boosts to energy expenditure during the day and during sleep. Load up on the turkey, the lamb, the beef rib roast and keep portions of mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, stuffing, candied chestnuts, and cookies more reasonable. One advantage of overeating protein is that eating less of the other stuff tends to happen inadvertently.

2. Eat Vinegar

Vinegar, whether it’s organic apple cider vinegar with the mother still swimming in it or standard white vinegar from a two gallon jug, improves glucose tolerance and keeps postprandial hyperglycemia and insulin tamped down. The trick is eating the vinegar (maybe a side salad before the big meal dressed with a vinegar-y dressing) 20-30 minutes before you overindulge.

This is most relevant for meals containing carbohydrate.

3. Exercise

No, exercising after overeating is not “binge behavior” or evidence of an “eating disorder” for most people. It’s simply physiological common sense. You consume a ton of calories, calories in excess of what your mitochondria can process and convert to energy. What makes more physiological sense—just sitting there, letting that extra energy circulate and eventually accumulate on your body, or creating an energy deficit so that the extra energy is utilized?

This isn’t about “calories,” per se. It’s about throwing a ton of energy toward your mitochondria and giving them a job to do—or letting them languish in disuse. It’s not about “weight gain,” necessarily. It’s about energy excess and the oxidative stress and inflammation that results. It’s about not being wasteful. If you introduce a ton of energy and then do nothing, you are wasting that potential.

Besides, research shows that exercise counteracts the short term negative effects of overfeeding, including countering the negative epigenetic effects seen in the adipose tissue of over-consumers. The best time to exercise is immediately after eating. Of course, I wouldn’t suggest doing an intense CrossFit workout with a belly full of food, but something light like the several sets of 10 pushups, squats, lunges, and situps in this study done immediately after does the trick.

4. Accept It As a Positive Experience and Move On

That overeating induces oxidative stress enough to trigger the release of antioxidant compounds may mean the occasional acute bout of overeating can act as a hormetic stressor that makes you stronger in the long run—provided it stays acute and hormetic. It could actually be good to overeat once in awhile. Yeah, go with that.

5. Have Some Black Tea

I just did a big definitive guide to tea, and it turns out another benefit of the stuff is that it actually speeds up digestion after eating. It beats alcohol, espresso, and everything else that people tell you helps digestion.

6. Go For a Walk

Right after you overeat, a 20-30 minute walk will reduce blood glucose and speed up gastric emptying—helping you process the meal much faster and reducing the feeling of fullness. Longer walks are even better and can also reduce the postprandial insulin spike. It has to be immediately after though; waiting even 30 minutes will suppress the effects.

7. Get Out Into the Cold

It’s the perfect season for cold exposure (in most places). Even mild cold exposure—just 18°C or 64.4°C for 2.5 hours—is enough to increase energy expenditure without increasing hunger or subsequent food intake. That’s downright comfortable for a lot of people. If you went out into sub 50°F weather, I bet you could get the same effects even faster.

8. Don’t Throw In the Towel and Continue Overeating For the Foreseeable Future or “Until the New Year”

A consistent finding in the literature is that people gain weight during the holidays and never quite lose it. They don’t do this because they had an extra slice of pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving or five cookies on Christmas morning. They gain and retain the weight because they consistently overindulge for the entire duration of the holidays. They figure “Oh, I ate badly yesterday, which means this week is shot. I’ll just do better next Monday,” and then keep that mindset going for months.

Well, one way to break that cycle is to stop that “this week/month is shot” mindset. No, just because you ate badly yesterday doesn’t mean you should eat badly today and tomorrow. That will compound your problems and dig an even deeper hole. Stop overeating immediately.

Overeating happens. It’s okay, or even beneficial if used judiciously. There’s nothing like filling your belly with your grandma’s signature dish, or really letting loose with your favorite people in the world. Humans are feasters by nature. We like to make merry and eat big to ring in the good times. Just make sure you contrast it with leaner days. (Intermittent fasting around the holidays is great for this.) A feast no longer qualifies as a feast if you do it consistently. A party’s not a party if you party every day. Contrast is the stuff of life—heed that rule and all will be well.

How do you approach holiday overeating? What do you do to counter the effects? What physical behaviors and mental models do you adhere to? Let me know in the comment board.

Take care, everyone, and happy feasting!

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References:

Surowska A, Jegatheesan P, Campos V, et al. Effects of Dietary Protein and Fat Content on Intrahepatocellular and Intramyocellular Lipids during a 6-Day Hypercaloric, High Sucrose Diet: A Randomized Controlled Trial in Normal Weight Healthy Subjects. Nutrients. 2019;11(1)

Parry SA, Turner MC, Woods RM, et al. High-Fat Overfeeding Impairs Peripheral Glucose Metabolism and Muscle Microvascular eNOS Ser1177 Phosphorylation. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2020;105(1)

Leaf A, Antonio J. The Effects of Overfeeding on Body Composition: The Role of Macronutrient Composition – A Narrative Review. Int J Exerc Sci. 2017;10(8):1275-1296.

Schmidt SL, Kealey EH, Horton TJ, Vonkaenel S, Bessesen DH. The effects of short-term overfeeding on energy expenditure and nutrient oxidation in obesity-prone and obesity-resistant individuals. Int J Obes (Lond). 2013;37(9):1192-7.

Bray GA, Redman LM, De jonge L, et al. Effect of protein overfeeding on energy expenditure measured in a metabolic chamber. Am J Clin Nutr. 2015;101(3):496-505.

Ostman E, Granfeldt Y, Persson L, Björck I. Vinegar supplementation lowers glucose and insulin responses and increases satiety after a bread meal in healthy subjects. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2005;59(9):983-8.

Solomon TPJ, Tarry E, Hudson CO, Fitt AI, Laye MJ. Immediate post-breakfast physical activity improves interstitial postprandial glycemia: a comparison of different activity-meal timings. Pflugers Arch. 2019;

Heinrich H, Goetze O, Menne D, et al. Effect on gastric function and symptoms of drinking wine, black tea, or schnapps with a Swiss cheese fondue: randomised controlled crossover trial. BMJ. 2010;341:c6731.

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