So you’ve done it. You ate more than you wanted to. Or you ate foods you think are unhealthful. You feel overly full, perhaps, and maybe are slammed with a sugar rush, and you are (wrongly) feeling shitty and guilty about the whole thing. What do you do? I get asked about post-binge/ post-sugar behavior a lot. I don’t have all the answers. But I do have some.
What happens to our bodies when we binge?
Mostly, we get flooded. Our hormones get right down to work, and do their assigned jobs with absolute vigor. We’ve consumed lots of carbohydrate, so our blood glucose and our insulin levels spike. The blood glucose eventually crashes, so we feel lethargic and perhaps dizzy in the end, but in the beginning we feel high and charged. Often, I think, we feel good enough that we try to maintain this high, and therefore keep on eating. This is a strong motivator both for bingeing and for grazing behaviors.
Another strong motivator is dopamine, which gets released in the brain when we eat. Those of us who have experience with overeating know this phenomenon well. The more conditioned a response–that is, the more of a habit this behavior is for us–the stronger the desire for dopamine, and the more relieving it feels to finally eat. This relief and this pleasure is so strong that it keeps us eating.
So sugar and fat are processed in the intestines and in the liver and then getting stored as fat. Protein is much more difficult to convert and to store, so its likely that if protein has been a part of our binge, it is being sent to become molecular backbones for a whole range of cell types, particularly muscles. If we ate” too much” protein (more than 1 g/day/lb of body weight, generally), our body will convert it to glucose in the liver, and it will be handled by insulin like the rest of the glucose already in our bloodstreams.
The food in our systems is all the while triggering the release of satiation hormones. The biological need to eat has passed. Ghrelin, the “appetite” hormone produced primarily in the stomach, decreases after food has entered the stomach. Insulin acts on the hypothalamus and tells our brains we’ve had enough. Cholecystokinin, glucagon-like peptide 1, and peptide y are all produced by the gut and signal satiation. Lots and lots is going on here. But: “I don’t know what it feels like to be ‘satiated’!” you cry. Amen. It’s… I don’t know. Difficult. Really, really fucking difficult. Those of us who binge, or who graze, or who have some sort of unhealthful relationship with food often have dysregulated appetite signalling. Or we’ve got it just fine but don’t know what to do it with. So we binge. We never feel satiated, and we don’t know how to stop. But we employ certain strategies and eat certain foods and think certain ways… and in the end we find progress. Over time. And perhaps get better and better at hearing the signals of our hormones.
In any case. We’ve now flooded our systems with food and with the appropriate hormones and we’re each wondering… how the hell do I get back on track? Is it hopeless? Is it futile? Can I still be healthy? Can I still be me?
How do you recover?
First, you fast. Easier said than done, I know. But hear me out:
Fasting is great for your system, metabolically. It triggers autophagy–a sort of cellular clean up–increases insulin sensitivity, and generally allows your body to clean up shop, get efficient, and perform damage control. If the idea of a fast doesn’t scare you, doesn’t further dis-regulate your eating, and won’t be further stressing out your adrenal system, consider waiting a while before you eat. Determine the proper time period for you. Is it the following morning? Afternoon? Evening? Or another great idea: wait until you feel absolutely, certainly physically hungry before you eat again. That way, you’ll know that you’ve maximized the calories and benefit you can get from the foods you binged on, and your body is now hormonally and physically primed to resume eating. This will help you feel positive about your self, affirmed about your actions, and physically much better all at the same time.
You may also, of course, exercise during that time. (!)
And what foods do you eat? Whether you’re coming off of a fast or not, what helps your body and your mind the most?
Eat protein. Protein is a vital part of every cell. Therefore, when we consume protein, a lot of it is going to go directly to cell maintenance and repair, and will not be stored as fat. Protein, when digested, also comes with a thermal effect, which means, in essence, that it creates some excess energy (re: heat) when digested. It’s “harder” to digest than carbohydrates or fat, so our body expends more energy (that heat) when digesting it. Bottom line: metabolically, you work the hardest to break it down, so if you’re looking for a low-impact, highly satiating food, protein is your star.
Some great proteins to eat would be eggs, which are high in protein, important vitamins and minerals, and saturated fat. Also: fish, which is high in protein, high in omega 3s, and low in just about every other kind of fat. It is also relatively low in density, and fairly low calorie, if that is a concern of yours. Also: beef, lamb, or pork. Ruminants have awesome protein, vitamins, saturated fat contents, and pretty good omega 3/6 ratios. Eat a lean portion if you just want the high protein content, but fat is great for satiation, so go ahead and eat up as much of the fat as you like.
Eat fat. Animal fat. Re: eggs, fish, and meat, as stated above. Bacon. Fat gets you all kinds of wonderful satiation hormone activity, so eat up! Try eating in small quantities at first. Since you’re coming right off of a binge, you don’t actually need all that many calories to maintain your weight and your health. What you’re looking for in this meal is a regulator, something to take the place of a meal, and something healthy and filling that can get you back on track. Perhaps have a few eggs fried in butter, one hamburger patty, or one half filet of salmon. These foods are hugely nutritious and hugely satisfying, even when we have somewhat messy relationships with feelings of fullness.
If you feel the need to keep eating, however, or perhaps to fill up your stomach with more stuff, supplement your animal foods with some nice, fibrous veggies. Sometimes when I come off of a period of overeating I feel the need to ramp down slowly. So I might do a whole head of cabbage for lunch one day, and then have a protein/fat heavy meal for dinner.
The point here is to think about your favorite healthful (PALEO) food, to get as much satiation from it as possible, and to make sure you get as much satisfaction out of this time period as possible. You want to be healthy, and to “stay on track” but you never want to create feelings of deprivation. One negative eating episode won’t derail you (IT WON’T), so just fast a bit and eat your favorite paleo foods and continue to revel in how awesome you treat yourself and your body.
You also need to think about you. How do you react to certain foods? What made you binge in the first place? Is that trigger removed from your life? What foods will help you get back on track as soon as possible?
And you need to think about your psychological response. Despair is a big NO. Self hate is a big NO. Disordered eating is a monster and you are amazing for resisting it as often and as well as you do. The fact that it got you this time is OK, and natural, and, in fact, inevitable. So forgive yourself for bingeing, and consider it a natural part of your healing process. Use the binge as a learning episode and continue your paleo lifestyles as healthfully and happily as you had been before. If you really, really can’t resist the pull of sugar, phase it out of your life gradually. The next day, have some sweet potatoes and enjoy them and consider it a wonderful and healthy paleo way to ease back into excellence. Recall that your body is in fact a temple and you are going to continue treating it with as much love as you were previously. And in the days following your binge you will eat the best paleo foods for your body and for your particular soul, and it will feel good and satiating and all will settle with time.