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What Happens When You Pig-Out

A reader had a few questions about what happens when people go on an eating binge at an eat-all-you-can restaurant. How fast will the food be metabolized and fat be stored in the body? Will "burning" fat through aerobic exercise be as quick?

There is really a tendency to eat too much at eat-all-you-can restaurants. First, we eat more because the sight of food stimulates our appetite. There is a big difference between reading the description of an entrée in a menu and actually seeing the food laid out before your eyes on a buffet table. As they say, a picture paints a thousand words.

Second, the greater the variety of food available, the more we eat. No matter how much you love ice cream, if that is all you are "allowed" to eat, I guarantee that you will lose interest in a few days. That’s why single food diets like the ‘cabbage soup diet’ or the ‘bananas and milk diet’ work temporarily. Of course, in the end they boomerang right back at you because you are so bored with eating just one kind of food that you head for the nearest eat- all-you-can resto!

The third reason why we pig-out at buffet-type restaurants is that we eat more in the company of others who are also eating a lot. It’s almost like we have social approval to make pigs of ourselves. We are not embarrassed because everyone else is doing the same thing. Vacations and the Christmas holiday season are other occasions when we don’t feel ashamed about bingeing because others are doing the same. Fourth, we feel that it is our duty as smart consumers to get our money's worth.

How much food you can stuff down your gullet all depends on the size of your stomach, how hungry you are, and how much stimulation (sight, smell, variety of food, etc) your appetite receives. The stomach of a normal-weight person can hold about three cups before feeling uncomfortably full. The stomach of an overweight person can hold four cups or more. You see, if you are used to eating big meals, your stomach has been "trained" to expand and stretch more than a person who is used to eating smaller meals. Occasional overeating won’t make your stomach expand but constant overeating will. The reverse is also true. If you change your eating habits to eat smaller meals, your stomach will shrink back to normal size.

So, now what happens to all that food? The body will use what it needs immediately and store the rest. Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose. Your body will use what it needs for fuel and the excess will be sent to your muscles and liver to be stored as glycogen. However, if your glycogen levels are already at its peak from consumption of carbohydrate-rich foods in the previous days, the excess carbs will be stored as fat. Protein is broken down into amino acids and sent out to repair and maintain whatever body tissue needs it. The excess eventually ends up, you guessed it, stored as fat. The fat in the food you just ate will be broken down into fatty acids and the body will also use it as fuel for its immediate needs while any excess will be stored away. Basically, any extra calories will end up in your fat cells in about eight hours.

The body is always burning calories (its called your resting or basal metabolic rate) so it will use up some of the calories from your binge while you are sleeping but unless you are doing a marathon in your sleep, most of it will be stored. However, those excess calories do not have to remain in your fat cells forever because if you are physically active for the next couple of days and you also eat lower calorie meals, you should be able to get rid of them. If you lead a slug’s life and you eat high calorie meals most of the time, it will take you a much longer time to shake off those excess calories. In fact, you might still have them when you go off to your next eat-all-you-can outing with your friends or family. This is why people gain weight when they go on vacation. Too many binges in a short amount of time.

As an interesting side note, have you ever noticed that you are much hungrier the morning after a big binge compared to the morning after a small dinner? This is an interesting phenomenon that happens to a lot of people (myself included) for which there is still no explanation. One theory is that the stomach walls remain stretched and this causes certain hormones to send signals to the brain that you are still hungry.

If you are trying to lose weight, I suggest staying away from eat- all-you-can places. It is just too much temptation - a lot more than your willpower can take. When you are in the weight maintenance phase, you can risk a once-in-a-while binge.

If you are invited to an eat-all-you-can restaurant but you don’t really want to go, here’s what you can do to minimize the damage. Do not go to the restaurant on an empty stomach. Eat something like soup or fruit before going so you can control your appetite. Drink water instead of juice or soft drinks. Choose the lower calorie items on the buffet table. This means stay away from anything fried, creamy, or oily. Eat fruits instead of the high calorie desserts. Eat slowly so that by the time your more "greedy" companions are on their second serving, you are still on your first.

An occasional binge won’t do you much harm if you eat low- calorie meals for the next couple of days and exercise regularly. However, the danger is that you can get cocky and pig out a little more often than you realize because you think you can get rid of the excess calories before they have a chance to really do you in. Another danger is that bingeing could become your way of relieving stress and tension. Before you know it, you could become a compulsive overeater. And if you have been compensating for overeating by throwing up like some people do, you could become dependent on this coping mechanism and be on your way to becoming a full-blown bulimic. So be smart and keep those pig-out episodes to a minimum.

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