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What a Junk Food Binge Does to Your Poor Body

We're living with a brand new historical privilege, and we're using it to destroy ourselves.
Eating all this is like dropping a bomb inside your body. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Human beings are supposed to eat reasonably. It's a product of both biology and ecology. Early on, the lack of resources on the average neolithic homestead meant it was pretty careless to devour a day's worth of food in one sitting, unless you really wanted to put added systematic pressure on the rest of your community. Our anatomies are designed to ration out food, because it's the responsible thing to do. And also because the Great Famines throughout history have taught us that disaster is lurking around the corner, and you better be used to taking only what you need.


Of course, now in the 21st century, you can order a gigantic feast from practically every restaurant in a 20 mile radius with a few clicks on your smartphone. A Jack in the Box munchie meal comes with a burger, fries, Coke, and two tacos. It's $6. That's about 1,600 calories without including the soft drink, and it's advertised for one person as a late-night snack. Back in less abundant times, nobody knew what happened when you ate three times your caloric allotment for the day in one sitting, because it just wasn't very likely. There simply wasn't enough food. We're living with a brand-new historical privilege, and sometimes we're using it to destroy ourselves. If you sit down and eat a bunch of sugar-y, carb-loaded snacks, you're filling your body with with a huge number of calories at once. You probably know the basics—an excess of energy turns into storable fat cells, which causes you to put on weight, but the ramifications of a carbohydrate assault can be far more devious. "Your body responds with an increase in your blood glucose level with an increase of insulin," says Leah Caruso, a registered dietitian and professor at the University of Buffalo who's been studying dietetics for the past 20 years. "That happens more with simple sugars. Your blood sugar spikes, and your body releases insulin to take that sugar and bring it into cells." Everyone's body is unique in how it manages its blood sugar, and Caruso says some people might get a heavy spike after eating carbohydrate-rich foods like bread, while others might be affected more by ice cream or soda. But the end result is always the same; a wave of glucose enters your bloodstream, your pancreas quakes out insulin, and potential ramifications follow. Adding fat to the sugar ups the already-negative stakes. "You're eating lots of sugar and lots of fat in one meal, your body then makes triglycerides," she says. "Triglycerides make your blood look really opaque, white, and fatty. So you're having all those things travel through your blood for a longer period of time. That can cause a lot inflammation in your arteries, and that can lead to chronic disease." Wahida Karmally is the director of Nutrition at Columbia University's Irving Center for Clinical Research, and says binging on meals that are high in fat and sugar can cause a condition called "postprandial lipemia," which essentially means an abnormal amount of fatty lipids in your blood. Hyperlipidemia, the blanket term for the ailment, can be naturally occurring in genetics, but the "postprandial" variant means an increase specifically tied to overeating, and, she says, is "an important independent risk factor for atherosclerosis." Binging on junk doesn't only have negative physical ramifications. Caruso says that filling your body with trash food can lead to negative emotional patterns, too. Have you ever felt tired or depressed after a giant meal? That's not just because you're feeling guilty. It's a sugar rush and subsequent insulin dump in your bloodstream. Add to that the fact that foods loaded with fat and sugar can be highly addictive, and it's easy to see why some have trouble breaking the cycle of binging once it's become habit. Binge eating can lead to Binge Eating Disorder (or BED), characterized by "excessive overeating that feels out of control and becomes a regular occurrence." BED has become the "most prevalent eating disorder," according to this review of the literature Karnally refers me to in the Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders, and is brought about by people using food as comfort through anxiety or stress. Treatment for the disorder usually consists of identifying the root of those overarching psychological issues. Unfortunately, according to the review cited by Karmally, people suffering from the disorder often go undiagnosed. "Primary care physicians may find diagnosing and treating BED challenging because of insufficient knowledge of its new diagnostic criteria and available treatment options," it reads. "Furthermore, individuals with BED may be reluctant to seek treatment because of shame, embarrassment, and a lack of awareness of the disorder." Fast-food companies often take advantage of the science of food addiction. McDonald's Hot & Spicy Chicken, for instance, contains an insane 22 grams of sugar, making it far more noxious and habit-forming than it should be. But again, these are pretty modern problems. For centuries, most people were malnourished and reliant on narrow, compromised biospheres. We are fortunate to live in a time where food is plentiful, but it's important to remember how easily it can be abused. It's something we're not reminding ourselves of nearly enough, apparently. In the best selling book Thinner This Year, co-author Jen Sacheck writes that so-called Bad Stuff—fatty red meats, fried foods, overly processed grains like white bread and pasta, fast food, ice cream, candy—represents "about 50 percent of the average American diet" and that "a whopping 35 percent of the total average daily calorie intake comes from added sugars and solid fats." Sacheck is a PhD associate professor of nutrition in the John Hancock Research Center on Physical Activity, and in Thinner, she breaks down exactly what happens to your body when you fill it full of garbage. As Sacheck writes, scarfing down a bunch of sugar and fat at once "is absolutely dreadful for you. Your body goes a little nuts, and both the fat and sugar try desperately to find some place to go" and "cause damage" along the way. This, of course, done enough, will cause fat around belly, "an area right next to vital organs where it can do the most harm." You probably know some of the physical and mental ramifications of a solid binge, which can range from diarrhea to gastrointestinal carnage, or a general, mental fogginess. Some people report a weird, non-alcoholic hangover, caused by the massive amounts of sugar laying dormant in your veins. We are putting our bodies in uncharted territory. The amount of food at our disposal is a gift, but it's also a responsibility. You don't necessarily have to think about how your eating may affect your community anymore, but you're wise to think about what it's doing to your own body.

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