Friday, 2 April 2010

Intermittent Binging – Could it be Good for You?

Set aside, if you can, the fact that my own intermittent binging invariably involves excessive alcohol and the consumption of vile (yet divine) cakes whose ingredients list requires a PHD in Chemistry for any meaningful interpretation.

Instead, focus on the pattern of calorie consumption it creates. My hypothesis is that intermittently consuming a lot of food might actually be good for you under certain circumstances.

When I binge, I eat a large number of calories over one weekend, then spend the next 4-6 weeks eating fewer calories than I need on a day to day basis. I do this consciously because I want to maintain my body composition – but no doubt it’s made easier by increased leptin levels from the extra fat stored, and by the beneficial effect on appetite control of the Paleo/Primal food I eat during the recovery phase.

In the ‘wild’ I might have experienced 4-6 weeks of calorie deficit simply because each day I spent a little more energy finding food than the food gave back. Then, just occasionally, I would find a tree laden with fruit, or a stash of honey. Perhaps around the same time an especially large animal was killed. Knowing that both the fruit and the meat might not last beyond a couple of days my family and I would eat as much of it as possible.

The main difference between this and my modern binges is the type of food: in the wild I would have eaten healthy food and less of it. My modern junk fests are driven to unnatural levels of calorie consumption by ingredients specially engineered to stimulate the senses into gross over-consumption.

So on the one hand we have these larger cycles of calorie fluctuation, perhaps spanning weeks, and involving occasional feasts followed by a slow, semi-instinctive reduction in daily calories; but on the other, we have our friend, intermittent fasting. This is the ‘inner’ cycle of calorie consumption - eat well for a couple of days, then fast.

Perhaps in the wild, food would be totally absent for a day or two because the group is moving camp or there are a couple of failed hunts. In my modern equivalent, I choose to fast until dinner time on one or two days per week. On days between fasts, I eat slightly more than I would if I never fasted. However, my total weekly consumption would typically be slightly less than I need, because I am between binges.

People who practise CR (calories restriction) do so because they believe being in calorie deficit creates favourable conditions in the body, allowing it to be healthier and better protect itself against disease; and there is some evidence to support this. The trouble is, as anyone who’s seen documentaries on the subject will know, many CR enthusiasts appear distinctly emaciated and spend most of their time hungry.

Yet there is evidence that intermittent fasting, by periodically creating a profound calorie deficit, can provide the same benefits to longevity, without requiring a net calorie reduction. For example, by going without food for 24 hours a couple of times a week and you can spend the rest of the time eating as much as your overall activity levels dictate you need. You don’t need to be hungry all the time - just sometimes; and you won’t look like an escapee from a prison camp.

So calorie deficit can apparently work in more than one way - a large deficit over short periods, or a slight deficit over long periods. By combining intermittent fasting with intermittent binging, I might spend more time in some kind of deficit than with intermittent fasting alone. This raises the following questions:
  1. Does my combined approach provide any additional benefits?
  2. Does the fact that my binges are based on junk food sabotage any benefits anyway?
I, and everyone who expressed solidarity in the comments of my last binge confession, have to believe the answer to the second question would be yes. As soon as you start finding excuses to intermittently binge, they surely will become less intermittent. Fortunately, binges carry with them their own disincentive to excessive frequency – how awful they make you feel.

So the real question to consider is whether intermittent feasting – what we might have done in the wild – is worth consciously combining with intermittent fasting, and if so whether it might reduce binging frequency.

16 comments:

Matt Stone said...

What it works best for is getting out of hibernation mode. Anyone with a low body temperature or vague hypothyroid symptoms can make great leaps and bounds towards getting out of that state by overfeeding. It certainly improves insulin sensitivity, fat burning, energy levels, mood, and more.

thania said...

I am all for gorging once in a while and a 80/20 primal eating rest of the time. But I find I get real ill if I eat wrong food , had a huge dish of my favorite pasta a few weeks ago and I was ill for two days and not fully recovered before a week, but my fasting BG reading was much better!

SO I dont think is a harmful thing to bing once in a while, but with right sort of meal, I do think binging on cakes with all those chemical goodies for a usual clean eater is more harmful than a usual junk eater!

Methuselah said...

Thania - there's definately something in your last point. If you eat clean for a long time your body seems to lose the ability to deal with the effects of bad food.... or I suppose it's possible that we psychologically lose the ability to cope with feeling bad. I did read somewhere that not eating wheat leads to a decline in certain enzymes that help with its digestion...

Joanne at Open Mind Required said...

I have a weakness for ice cream and can eat large portions. I usually feel badly afterwards but, oh my, vanilla ice cream with blueberries. Inevitably, after a few days' splurge, once the stored water is dumped my weight drops below the former weight.

And as Matt commented, I'm starting to think that my low body temperature and apparent hypothyroidism is dragging on because I'm not eating enough. It's easy for me on low-carb to eat very little in a day. So I think I'm going to try boosting my intake and see if that warms up my feet.

After reading of your many binges, I'm grateful that I'm gluten-intolerant, because I'd be throwing back the cream cheese cake, bread and pasta on a binge.

Joanne Unleashed said...

I have a weakness for ice cream and can eat large portions. I usually feel badly afterwards but, oh my, vanilla ice cream with blueberries. Inevitably, after a few days' splurge, once the stored water is dumped my weight drops below the former weight.

And as Matt commented, I'm starting to think that my low body temperature and apparent hypothyroidism is dragging on because I'm not eating enough. It's easy for me on low-carb to eat very little in a day. So I think I'm going to try boosting my intake and see if that warms up my feet.

After reading of your many binges, I'm grateful that I'm gluten-intolerant, because I'd be throwing back the cream cheese cake, bread and pasta on a binge.

Joanne Unleashed said...

You wrote: "If you eat clean for a long time your body seems to lose the ability to deal with the effects of bad food.... or I suppose it's possible that we psychologically lose the ability to cope with feeling bad."

I think it's more a matter of the body becoming healthier and responding with more vigor to insults. The opposite is the canary in the bell jar. We can adapt to slow poisoning over time, but our health and vitality are diminished.

Methuselah said...

Joanne Unleashed - I am not convinced by the idea that our bodies are made healthier by responding to insults: at least not in the context of eating the wrong food. I don't think it operates in the same way as, for example, the immune system, or muscular or skeletal responses, where exposure to adverse conditions can build a stronger system. In both those cases there is evolutionary precedent - we would have encountered those adverse conditions so our bodies would have learned to capitalise. The premise behind paleo is that we never encountered these alien foods, therefore mechanism did not evolve to strengthen in response.

Methuselah said...

Joanne @ OM - I am not sure that even if I were intolerant it would stop me, such is my determination to eat garbage when in the grip of a binge!

Joanne Unleashed said...

Sorry. I didn't do a very good job explaining what I my point.

I meant that when we are in poor health eating a poor diet, the body has little energy with which to respond to insults and illnesses. For example, drink coffee long enough and the body responds weakly to the stimulation.

As we get healthier and as our nerves recover, we have much more violent reactions to insult. Go without coffee for a couple years and a cup will provoke a strong response.

So the healthier we become, the stronger the bodily reaction to infectious diseases, dietary indiscretions, etc.

(BTW, I'm both the Open Mind Required and Unleashed, but I can't seem to get my Google account to cooperate.) I'm still following your binges with interest :)

Methuselah said...

Joanne - that makes perfect sense. And thanks for explaining your dual identity!

Kyle Murphy said...

I do the exact same thing! Except my binges inevitably come from nuts. Almond butter was my achilles heel, but have replaced it with Macadamias as my binge nut, which are pretty neutral, health-wise (other than the fact that I binge on them). I ate an entire 24oz thing of Mauna Loa dry roasted macadamias today. That's like 5520 calories in and of itself. That's coming after 1/2 roasted chicken, and then in full-on binge mode, I downed an entire tub of Fage Total Greek Yogurt (600 calories). I swear if they set a dog-food size bag of macadamias in front of me I'd eat myself to death.

Just like you, I'll drastically cut calories for a few days, with no hunger problems, to drop the weight.

Anyway, this post made me feel better about my own binging, so thanks. I always feel so guilty post-binge.

Methuselah said...

Kyle - wow - that's impressive. I suppose at least the food itself is broadly healthy, and the only problem is volume. Certainly better than the garbage I tend to binge on...

Kyle Murphy said...

Yeah, I've avoided crossing the non-paleo threshold (save for that time I downed an entire jar of peanut butter), because I know the disaster that lies therein.

Honestly, behind every binge lies nuts. They are evil bastards. I observed my state before and after the first macadamia yesterday. I felt myself transform from a calm reasoning human being into a macadamia-obsessed animal. My soul focus in life suddenly became eating macadamias. I biked home as fast as I could to eat them. My binging made me late to class, during which all I thought of was the last bunch of macadamias waiting for me at home.

I'm abolishing nuts. I don't care if they are paleo, they are inimical to my goals.

Methuselah said...

Kyle - you've hit the nail on the head. I've always had a problem with binging on nuts, something I talked about a while back in this post - Nuts - Best Friend or Worst Enemy. Since then I have an uneasy truce with the nut monster. I am allowed to include walnuts in lunch tubs taken to work, but not uncontrolled feasts from the nut cupboard in the evening. I have also deliberately run down my stocks to almost zero levels, so that the Aladdin's cave is not there. Not popular with Mrs M, who is capabable of moderating and misses having the variety there, but that's just tough ;-)

kayumochi said...

This "binge" post couldn't have come at a better time for me as I went on a rare binge myself last weekend. Seems that eating Paleo makes me even more sensitive to carbs than I was already as when I take that first bite of dessert there is no going back from my gorgefest. Funny thing is, I never crave (consciously, at least) any Neolithic food at all and if I stay in the routine that I created am fine ... and satisfied, but at a party, well, I will eat until it is all gone ...

Maybe the rare binge IS healthy because I can look at he choice I made to binge and say, "I don't want that," and mean it. On Monday and continuing through today, Wednesday, my appetite has been much lower than normal and my carb intake has dropped to almost 0 without a conscious effort.

One can always begin again and guilt serves no healthy purpose.

Methuselah said...

Funnily enough, I am on holiday at the moment and have had a protracted binge. I feel pretty ropey, but do appear to have adjusted a little and each successive 'bad' meal is making me feel less bad than the previous one...

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