Last week, I had the apartment to myself for three days before flying to Texas for a wedding. And while this might seem like a nice moment for an introvert like me to have some alone time, I freaked out. I don’t know why, but I was in full-on panic mode for nearly 72 hours, which culminated in a trip to the grocery store to buy some “comfort food.”
Here’s what I walked home with: A case of ginger ale, a gallon of milk, a box of cookies, two frozen pizzas, orange juice, two bags of salt-and-vinegar kettle chips, hummus and (I’m not kidding) a slice of Boston cream pie.
Typically, I’m a healthy eater.
In fact, I’ve lost about 15 pounds in the last year thanks to running every day and keeping my calorie intake low. I never (and I mean never) drink soda or milk. But that night I polished off one whole pizza, about 12 cookies, a quarter-gallon of milk and two ginger ales.
I was stressed out, so I ate a ton of food — and then, of course, I felt guilty about it. On the rare occasion I buy cookies, I’ll typically keep it to three a night like the respectable 30-year-old adult man I am. But sometimes… it’s hard to stop.
So how guilty should I feel after these binges? How much did those 2,310 calories set me back — and what does that even mean? I asked a few nutritionists to find out.
Abbey Sharp, a registered dietitian and author of a book about orthorexia (the obsessive pursuit of a healthy diet) and binge eating titled The Mindful Glow Cookbook, says “bingeing” is subjective — both from a physical and emotional sense.
“A big meal or snack for one person may be completely ‘normal’ and healthy for another, depending on their caloric needs and appetite that day,” she tells me.
“However, if you’re eating beyond your comfort level, to the point where you feel unwell — emotionally or physically — it’s usually a symptom of unhealthy restriction elsewhere in your diet.”
The Emotional Barrier of Bingeing
The physical tipping point of binge eating is a bit more nuanced, which we’ll get to, but emotional limit comes first, and the line is clear: If makes you feel guilty, it’s bad.
“Bingeing often occurs when we’ve restricted the amount or types of foods we will allow ourselves to such a degree that at some point we crack, and once we start eating the ‘forbidden’ foods,” Sharp explains. Then, once you’ve cracked, you keep going because, ‘Hey, I’ve already ruined my diet, might as well eat everything and start again tomorrow,’” Sharp explains.
Hence why the emotional limit comes first. Once you eat enough to feel guilty, chances are you’re going to keep eating.
“Had we just allowed ourselves a moderate mindful treat here and there, we wouldn’t feel the compulsion to overdo it in one painful, uncomfortable snack attack,” Sharp tells me, adding that despite “guilt” having become synonymous with “delicious” in society’s conversations around food, “feeling any guilt after eating is not healthy or normal.”
So what’s the difference between eating 840 cookie-calories in one sitting and berating myself about it on Twitter… versus eating 840 cookie-calories over the course of four days? If the former makes me feel guilty, and the latter doesn’t, Sharp says, “then the latter would be a better, more balanced option — even if calorically they don’t make a difference.”
“This overindulgence (when accompanied by guilt) often then leads to the thinking that you then need to restrict even harder to pay for your ‘transgressions,’ which only leads to a repeat binge when you can’t take the restriction anymore,” Sharp explains. “It really comes down to a mindset.”
The Physical Barrier of Bingeing
Once you find yourself careening down the emotional binge-eating slope, the physical downsides begin to take hold.
Sharp explains: “If you eat the 12 [cookies] one night and it doesn’t hold any moral value to you — you don’t feel bad or like a failure, and you don’t feel the need to punish yourself with extra time on the treadmill or a juice cleanse the next day — then whatever. Move along. You had a treat. Totally normal. But when this ‘binge’ leads you into a restriction and binge cycle, it’s definitely problematic.”
Jason Priest, registered nurse and fitness nutrition specialist, tells me that if you stay out of the cycle, a bingeing episode here and there won’t “do much harm in the grand scheme of things.”
Bingeing often, however, can cause “significant damage” to someone’s physical health, Priest says.
“Anytime we overeat, our body doesn’t know what to do with the extra calories so it stores them as fat. Over time this can lead to insulin resistance, eventually turning into type 2 diabetes. [It] can also result in other negative health outcomes, such as a fatty liver.”
When I asked Priest if I could simply run an extra mile or two the next day to “burn off” those extra cookies, he told me it doesn’t really work that way. Yes, technically I’ll burn extra calories, but “it won’t really combat the potential damage being done, especially with sugar,” he tells me. “Sugar leads to blood-sugar spikes, and over time it will eventually lead to insulin resistance if done repeatedly.”
Plus the whole thing about feeling the need to “punish yourself with extra time on the treadmill” and entering a “restriction-binge cycle,” as Sharp mentioned earlier, only puts me on the path to binge-eating more often.
Is There a Magic Number?
I was still hoping to find a way to quantify the damage. I asked both Priest and Sharp if there’s a max number of calories one can eat in one sitting — a tipping point, if you will.
According to Sharp, no. A binge is not about the number of calories, but the feeling associated therein. “It’s purely related to the mindset of the person at that meal or snack and their unique needs,” she says.
As for Priest, he says it depends on on a person’s BMR, or the amount of calories needed to maintain your current weight. This is typically the magic number fitness- and calorie-tracking apps utilize: Basically, how many calories you consume in a day versus how many you burn.
It’s still a bit more nuanced than that, however. Priest explains that despite the differences in people’s metabolism, the impact of over-consuming calories is very similar.
“If you have two people of the exact same weight and one has a higher metabolism than the other, they still have to digest the food. So ultimately the one with the higher metabolism may burn off the calories faster, but the initial blood-sugar spikes and subsequent insulin spikes will be quite similar.”
In other words, the dangers of a cookie binge isn’t in the potential weight gain, but the spike in insulin. “Seeing our insulin spike and fall could eventually become a risk factor for diabetes in the long run,” Sharp tells me. “In the short run, it will likely lead to irritability and fatigue.”
Plus we’re talking about bingeing, and somewhere between cookies five and nine, you stop taking calorie counters into consideration. “In typical binge fashion, the 12 [cookies] leads to a ‘screw it, my diet’s ruined anyway’ attitude, which then turns into a bag a chips, a box of donuts, a large pizza and a tub of ice cream.”
The damage done by bingeing on such sugar- or carbohydrate-loaded foods “may be a bit more significant than if a person is bingeing on fish or vegetables,” Priest laments. “But, as you know, fish and vegetables aren’t chosen as binge foods very often.”
Overall, though, Priest says that if I’m only bingeing full rows of cookies “on occasion” and am “healthy otherwise, including diet and exercise, then it may take quite some time to start having a negative impact.”
“Everyone’s body is a little bit different,” he concludes, “but the average fit person likely would be okay if the bingeing isn’t happening frequently.”
Priest used to binge-eat. After having kids, he worked his way back into shape and launched his own fitness website, DadBodHealth.com. “When I had my dad bod, [the bingeing] was frequent, and I was living proof of what can happen. High triglycerides and increasing weight led me to make some changes,” Priest says. He still battles with binge-eating today, but he’s no longer prone to slipping back into the emotional cycle. “I know I’m disciplined enough now to get right back to my routine after,” he tells me.
A healthy diet, Sharp concludes, is “a balanced intuitive diet that has room for enjoying cookies or chips without making yourself sick.”
“Key word is enjoying. [Cookies] taste great and should be enjoyed. But when you nervously scarf down an entire box and feel nauseated, that pleasure factor quickly disappears.”
It’s like she read my mind.