Food Binge
May 31, 2005 12:37 PM   Subscribe

Help, I just ate 5,000 calories! Normally I keep to a strict diet, but every once and a while I go a little crazy. I've always heard that the occasional binge won't cause any weight gain. Can anyone explain the science behind this idea? I've always believed "calories in, calories out".
posted by Evangeline to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's also what your body does with the calories. If they hit your bloodstream very suddenly (i.e., more quickly than your metabolism can burn them), the resulting sugar excess in your blood is converted to fat for storage. If the calories are converted more slowly, your body can burn them off as they hit your bloodstream (this is one of the ideas behind low-carb diets).
posted by Doohickie at 12:48 PM on May 31, 2005

The rest of the equation is that carbs generally result in this grotesque excess of blood sugar that turns into fat. They are rapidly converted to blood sugar and have to go somewhere. Fats, proteins, and "good carbs" (fiber, basically) take longer to be converted to blood sugar and give you a more steady burn; these foods last longer because they are converted to blood sugar more slowly. They burn off and don't turn into stored body fat, and also prevent the sugar trough that follows a sugar glut that makes you want to eat extra snacks.
posted by Doohickie at 12:53 PM on May 31, 2005

Let's say, for argument's sake, that your body burns an average of 2000 calories per day. If you consume more than this, the excess calories get stored as fat (as doohickie suggests). If you conume less than this, your body draws on its fat reserves.

So, if you binge with a 5000 calorie day (or meal), then you've consumed 3000 calories beyond what your metabolism requires. As a rule of thumb, 3500 calories equals one pound. In other words, if you consume 3500 calories fewer than your body needs, you'll burn the equivalent of one pound of fat. If you consume 3500 calories more than your body needs, you'll gain the equivalent of one pound of fat.

(All diets, regardless of their gimmick, are subject to these facts. The diets themselves are just means whereby to get their participants to consume fewer calories.)

In your case, you will have gained a pound. It's not an exact thing, though, because every time you weigh yourself, there are myriad complex factors at work: what time of day is it? How much water have you consumed recently? Have you been exercising. But, in general, your average weight will have increased a pound.

To say that the occasional binge won't cause any weight gain is false. I think what is meant by this statement is that if you only binge once in a while, you're more likely (subconsciously) to compensate for said binge by eating just a little less food for a few days. If you ate those calories, they're in your system. The only way to get them out is to burn them (via exercise), or to compensate by taking any 3000 fewer calories someplace down the line.

(Note: I am not a nutritionist, but I've struggled with weight all my life. I've read a lot on nutrition. I understand the principles. When I apply them, I lose weight and get fit. When I don't, I balloon like a whale.)
posted by jdroth at 12:57 PM on May 31, 2005

as far as i know, you're more or less right. BUT the reason people say otherwise is because one mistake every now and then isn't so bad, compared with losing heart and stopping altogether. so it's an excuse you can use so that you don't feel too bad and give up dieting completely.

in other words, we all have too much sometimes. just mark it up to experience and get back to counting those calories...

another way to look at it: if you weren't on a diet, you'd be eating more AND sometimes eat 5,000 calories (at a celebratory meal, say). so as long as you keep the binges infrequent, you're still eating less than before, and so will lose weight...
posted by andrew cooke at 1:43 PM on May 31, 2005

There is a limit to how much fat you can store in a day. If you're overweight this is pretty high but if you're not, I believe it's lower.
posted by kindall at 1:45 PM on May 31, 2005

incidentally, if you like thinking about dieting logically, you might enjoy the following - no matter what kind of food you eat, the number of calories is roughly proportional to the number of carbon atoms your body retains (ie excluding roughage etc). now unlike hydrogen, which is lost as water, the only way to get rid of carbon from the body is by breathing out carbon dioxide. so to lose calories you have to breath out more carbon than you absorb after eating. which quite nicely shows why exercise is a good idea. even better, when you're exercising and breathing heavily, remembering this helps you feel good about the hard work. :o)
posted by andrew cooke at 1:49 PM on May 31, 2005

I think the point of the (strictly incorrect) saying about the occassional binge is that it matters much more what you do over the long term than it matters what you do on any given day. It's worse to eat an extra 500 calories a day (3500/week=pound of gain a week) than it is to eat 5000 calories in a day occassionally when you should be eating 2000. Even if you did it every other week, it would still result in fewer net calories consumed than the extra 500/day.

The saying also reminds you to not enter a round of destructive thinking whereby you decide that all is lost (since you ate 5000 calories) and you might as well not pay attention to your caloric intake any more ever again. This is a serious problem with people who struggle with their weight, the belief that any excess negates all previous effort and so all excesses lead to more excess since what's the point anyway.

On preview: andrew cooke
posted by OmieWise at 1:50 PM on May 31, 2005

So, yeah, you may gain a pound or two, but you'll never notice it. I gain and lose that much every day in water weight. A pound or two is easy to loose. Don't worry about it. Be healthy, be happy (even if that means, occasionally, not being as healthy as you could have been), and that's that.
posted by lalalana at 1:52 PM on May 31, 2005

If you eat a larger meal than usual, your body expends slightly more calories in digesting the extra food. This can lead to a small, temporary rise in metabolism. But I wouldn't rely on that as protection against weight gain, as several small meals a day generally leads to less weight gain -- or better weight loss -- than the same number of calories taken in as a single meal.

That said, I've had success with weight loss by cutting calories during the week and "cheating" on the weekends by upping my intake by 500-750 calories from the base level. As long as my overall calorie intake for the week averages out to what I need for weight loss, it works. It keeps me from feeling too deprived, and is theorized to also be useful in avoiding going into "starvation mode", where your body metabolism drops because of strict dieting. But allowing yourself to binge without keeping things in balance overall will lead to weight gain.

So if your daily needs are about 2000 calories, you ate enough to possibly put on a fractional pound of fat. Just get back to eating well and exercise and see if you can structure planned cheat days into your week so you don't do this to yourself again.
posted by maudlin at 1:52 PM on May 31, 2005

Yeah, it doesn't really matter. Weight is a long term averages game. In fact, this is how weight really gets measured: you take a series of weighings and calculate the moving average. A one-time hit of 5000 calories is sure to disappear in the noise over the course of the month. Some day you may decide to eat nothing but some peanuts, another weekend you may spend the day doing some heavy biking. Going with jdroth's numbers, what you've really done is taken in a daily excess of 1000 calories for the month. Of course 5000 calories is a significant amount. It's not something you want to do once every month, or even once every three months...
posted by nixerman at 1:57 PM on May 31, 2005

People on Cyclical Ketogenic Diets use binges to re-feed.
posted by Kwantsar at 2:04 PM on May 31, 2005


It's not that an occasional refeed is helpful due to energy expended in digestion. The theory is that an occasional refeed will help keep your body in "fed" mode. If you constantly eat very little, it could go into a "starving" mode where alternate hormonal settings maximize fat storage.


the CKD refeed isn't a binge, it's just a normal-to-above-normal ingestion of carbs. I mean, there's no reason it should be an exceptionally caloric meal/day.
posted by rxrfrx at 2:25 PM on May 31, 2005

andrew cooke: I've heard about this "you can only lose carbon through breathing" theory before, and I can only ask: what about poop? That contains a lot of carbon atoms.
posted by breath at 2:29 PM on May 31, 2005

poop contains stuff you couldn't digest - i tried to be careful and say that it's only the carbon that gets digested. if carbon gets transferred from your bowels into your blood, it stays inside. in other words, your body doesn't send "extra stuff" out through your bowels, only what it can't digest (for certain things at hospital you need to be "empty" - they give you a (powerful!) laxative to take the day before and then you eat nothing; your bowels stay empty after the initial "flushing" by the laxative).

so roughage, for example, goes straight through, but sugars get absorbed into the blood and then stored away. the carbon in the sugars (or fat or protein - anything absorbed with calories) is the carbon that has to come out as C02.

at least, that's what i understand. i'm no biologist.
posted by andrew cooke at 2:48 PM on May 31, 2005

rxrfrx, that's why I said that a refeed was helpful in staying out of starvation mode. In my first paragraph, I said that the tiny bump in metabolic rate from a binge was no way to lose weight.
posted by maudlin at 2:51 PM on May 31, 2005

There is a limit to how much fat you can store in a day.

Well, there is a limit to how much energy your body can digest. It is something like 8,000 to 10,000 calories per day. This is a function of the internal surface area of your intestines (roughly equivalent to that of a tennis court), the catalytic potential of your digestive enzymes, carrying capacity of your bloodstream, metabolic rate of fat cells etc.

This limit is not of practical consequence to the average male adult who expends only 2,000 calories per day, but it seriously affects grand tour (Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and Vuelta de Espana) cyclists who expend about 12,000 calories per day.
posted by randomstriker at 6:03 PM on May 31, 2005

I can't promise anything about its accuracy, but here is an interesting tool to see how many calories your body requires to maintain its weight. Using this, and what others have said about calories per pound (3500), you can see roughly what impact the 5000 calorie binge will have.
posted by jaysus chris at 8:26 PM on May 31, 2005

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