We’ve all been there. The last bite is barely down your throat when the shock and horror hit: What have I done? It occurs to you that you’re the fat Greek party god whose name you can’t remember because the 800 grams of carbs you just plowed through are making you drowsy. Your next thought is usually along the lines of: I just wasted the last three months of working out.
Binges are like the weather. For the most part, you can predict and outthink them, and you don’t get caught without an umbrella. But sometimes, the perfect storm of hunger, emotion and, let’s be honest, alcohol come together in a swirling vortex that smashes your discipline and turns you into a calorie-eating machine with absolutely zero self-control.
Here’s the good news about binging: No matter how disgusting and bloated you feel immediately afterward, the damage can be undone. In fact, it can be erased pretty easily. Just like eating 500 grams of quality protein in one sitting won’t make muscles suddenly sprout all over your body, demolishing a box of donuts doesn’t mean you’re sentenced to 12 months of fatness. “A party is just one meal in time,” agrees Shelby Starnes, a nutrition consultant and amateur bodybuilder who has counseled hundreds of physique athletes about putting on muscle and stripping away fat. “Your physique wasn’t built in a day, and it won’t be destroyed in one either.”
However, that’s not to say that the mental hurdles you’ll have to leap while recovering from a binge won’t be more difficult than the physical ones. That’s why we came up with these tips to get you back on the fitness track as soon as possible. When all that’s left are crumbs and guilt, here’s what you need to do.
Anatomy of a Binge
There are two kinds of binges: the planned binge and the surprise binge. The planned binge is when you and your buddy decide that the Friday after next you’re going to meet at that high-end Brazilian steakhouse and find out whether the two of you actually can eat a whole cow. The surprise binge is when you show up hungry to a corporate event to find that they hired Mario Batali to toss pizzas all night. You weren’t planning on eating five whole pies yourself, but, seriously, when is Batali going to serve you in person again? The post-binge strategy is the same for both, but if you have a gustatory bacchanalian in your calendar, there are a few pre-emptive moves you can make.
BEFORE THE BINGE
Do an HIIT workout
High-intensity interval training — interspacing repeated short bouts of extremely intense work with easier recovery efforts — can help burn calories even as you are shoveling them down your gullet. The process of restoring the body to its rested state after a bout of HIIT can boost metabolism for hours.
In a study conducted at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, the energy expenditure of subjects was measured for 24 hours after either a bout of low-intensity exercise or high-intensity intervals. The subjects in the low-intensity group cycled at 50 percent of their max effort for 60 minutes. The high-intensity subjects performed two-minute intervals, shifting between 100 percent effort and a less-strenuous recovery spin. Scientists found that the high-intensity group expended more energy during exercise, during recovery and even while sleeping over the next 24 hours.
Eat some fiber and protein
Three to four hours before the scheduled calorie tsunami, eat a low-glycemic meal that is loaded with dietary fiber and resistant starch. A study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that subjects who ate a low-glycemic meal that contained resistant starch and fiber demonstrated lower glucose and insulin response at their next meal. Having less insulin circulating during a binge can help keep a Defcon-Three binge from escalating to Defcon One. And it will also mean decreased fat storage. Try a bowl of lentil soup with chopped chicken breast tossed in (not only do you need protein at every meal, but the protein also will help lower the overall glycemic load of a meal.) A whey protein shake blended with berries and a banana (the less ripe the better) is also a good choice.
DURING THE BINGE
Hit the protein first
If there is a safe time to go completely Scooby-Doo on your food, it’s when you’re standing in front of a guy carving a turkey. “Fill up on protein,” Starnes says. “If there is chicken or ham or beef at the party, eat that first. That does a couple things. One, it makes sure you get your protein in for the meal. And two, it helps fill you up before you get into the junk stuff.”
Asking someone not to drink at a party is like telling a guy at the gym not to touch the weights. What’s the point of being there? But the sobering fact is, alcohol has no real upside when it comes to training. Go ahead and sputter something about the French and red wine; we’re telling the truth.
“Clients always ask me this question, and I always have to say that alcohol is not included in their diet,” Starnes says. “One drink might be OK, but if you want to progress, then stay away from the booze.”
Of course, drinking is an important part of our culture, and a couple of stiff ones can go a long way in fighting off the feelings of deprivation that come with a training diet. Go ahead and have a couple if it keeps you sane, but just stay away from sugar-bomb girlie drinks.
“I’ll sometimes do a vodka on the rocks with a squeeze of lime,” suggests Sara Polston, MA, RD, NSCA-CPT, a nutritionist and NPC figure competitor who practices in Norman, Okla. “Or lean toward light beer or red wine. Those are better than high-sugar daiquiri-type drinks, and you’ll feel a lot better the next day, too.”
AFTER THE BINGE
Work out immediately, if possible
Unless you’ve been drinking — beer and treadmills really don’t mix — try to get some exercise after your binge. A study published in the American Journal of Physiology examined the thermic effect of food in meals as related to exercise. That’s the increase in metabolic rate you experience from eating, digesting and storing the food you consume, and it can last up to six hours after a meal. In the experiment, researchers had subjects exercise at various times before or after a large meal. The thermic effect of food was significantly greater in those who trained after a feeding.
“I feel 100 times better if I can take a walk after a huge meal,” Polston says. “If you have a huge meal, get up and move around a little bit. Hopefully, that will get the food digested that much faster. It doesn’t have to be a full-on run or sprint. Just get up and move.”
How you look and feel the day after a binge is going to influence whether you come back like a champion or drown your depression in a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. Drinking water can help make the difference. A bad case of “hot dog fingers” — when your rings feel tight because your fingers are bloated from all the sodium you ate — go a long way to making you feel hopeless. That is why you need to start drinking water immediately after a binge.
“Increasing water intake will help you flush out your system, especially if you have been binging on soda or alcohol, which will dehydrate you,” Polston says. “Keep drinking water, and try to lay off the high-sodium foods for a little while.”
Don’t make up for it all at once
“The problem comes when people start skipping meals the next day in order to offset the excessive caloric intake from the binge,” Polston says. “Inevitably, they fall back into another binge because they are depriving themselves.”
Over the next few days, simply replace some of your regular starchy carbs (rice, oats, potatoes) with an extra serving of green vegetables. Let the carbs bear the brunt of the calorie restriction. Do not cut back on your fat grams or protein intake because that will only hinder your fat-burning efforts.
Add a little more cardio
Think of working off those calories the way you would a large credit card debt. You can’t pay it off all at once. Patiently chip away at it regularly until it becomes smaller and smaller and then pretty soon you have a zero balance. Polston recommends adding an extra 10 to 15 minutes of cardio a day for the next week and increasing the intensity a few degrees in the weight room.
Train legs the next day
The one good thing you can say about a binge is that it sure tops off your fuel tank. Take advantage of that high-octane fill-up by getting in a killer workout. “A lot of people like to have a cheat meal after they train, but I prefer to do it before a big bodypart,” Starnes says. “Legs are pretty much the most taxing bodypart to train. So I like to take a cheat meal the night before I train legs so I ensure that I am maximally glycogen-loaded and maximally bloated with sodium to support a good training session.”
Don’t forget your supplements
“When you are eating junk, you can easily think, Why take my fish oil?Why take my creatine? But you need to get your supplementation back on track just like your diet,” says Polston, who takes fish oil and creatine as well as a multivitamin, vitamin C, calcium, glutamine and branched-chain amino acids.
The Binge vs. The Cheat Meal
The classic fallacy most people employ after a binge, in order to rationalize their vacuum-like behavior, is to chalk up the food orgy to being a cheat meal. But a cheat meal is a very different and more civilized animal than the binge.
First, only those on seriously restrictive diets are allowed cheat meals. If you are eating to gain mass or to maintain your current size, then you really shouldn’t be using them. “Cheat meals are a strategic tool to periodically rev metabolism up, refill glycogen stores and stave off catabolism,” nutrition consultant Shelby Starnes says. “If you’re not dieting for fat loss, then you’re already getting ample calories and glycogen.”
Second, cheat meals are not no-holds-barred face-stuffing sessions. Cheat meals are designed to give the person something to look forward to and a way to fend off feelings of deprivation. But they still need to be within reason. “Something needs to give,” nutritionist Sara Polston says. “Have a burger and fries, but don’t have a pitcher of beer and dessert on top of that. Or have a steak and a baked potato, then you can have a glass of wine and some dessert.”
For a complete guide on how to cheat, see our April 2012 issue.