Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
11 Jun

What Happens to Your Body When… You Carb Binge?

Carb BingeAnother day, another co-worker’s birthday (and the obligatory cake in the break room). Elaine Benes was right: this is insanity.

You’re into the Primal style of eating, so it’s easy to resist this stuff, right? You ignored the dirty looks when you turned down that piece of fudge-smothered bundt cake offered by your boss’s wife at their employee open house. You don’t mind gnawing on the few anemic carrot sticks left at the annual holiday party. Dessert just isn’t part of your vocabulary.

But would it hurt to indulge this once? This guy’s birthday? Well, you like him well enough, and the cake is a lemon cream after all. And it’s the end of the work day. Seriously, it’s not like you’ll suddenly burst into flame and melt in a fiery, torturous death, leaving nothing but a smoldering spot on the carpet. You’re disciplined. You can more than make up for this later. The worst that can happen is a sugar rush, and you spent half your time at summer camp walking (well, running) around in that state. Those were good times. Oh what the heck, gimme a slice. Yeah, sure, a little ice cream too.

So, what will happen? To your body, we mean. Once the plastic fork (with its spongy contents) hits your mouth. What goes on in there anyway? And why are you suddenly thinking of Willy Wonka and that kid who gets sucked down the garbage chute?

First off, the good news. There’s no purple suited man to pull an ominous lever. Nor is there any other permanent fate awaiting you. You’ll leave work a live, generally functional human being. They’ll be no curse or pox on your house or even truly long-term risk elevation for that matter. Nonetheless, you’ll likely regret your decision.

Within a matter of 10 quick forkfuls, you’ve gone from small doses of quality carbs wisely spread throughout the day to possibly 100 or more grams of pure sugar in one sitting. O.K., some guilt is setting in…. But that’s not all that’s happening.

The Domino Effect

Domino Effect

Within a few minutes, your pancreas kicks into overdrive and sends out a flood of insulin to try to sop up all the excess glucose that’s suddenly rushing through your bloodstream. Remember, while glucose is muscle fuel when it’s in the muscles, it’s toxic sludge when it stays in your bloodstream. Your body knows that and does everything it can to get it out of there. Perhaps you’re feeling flushed, a little high, spastic, or nauseous depending on how much you ate, how big you are, what your normal carb load is, and how acutely you tend to “feel” the effects of sugar and other substances. Ironically, if you were insulin resistant, you might not even notice these sensations, but you’re not. You’re a clean-fuel-burning primal specimen.

And it continues. The gush of insulin now creates a see-saw effect. If your glycogen stores have room, some of the sugar goes into muscles. If there’s no more room, the excess goes into fat cells, where it is stored as fat. In reaction to this quasi-emergency that looks like another life-threatening stress, the body steps up its efforts to achieve homeostasis by releasing both epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol from your adrenals. Your heart is racing, and you’re starting to feel uncomfortable, maybe even sweating. And we’re still likely within the first hour after you finished off that cake!

A bit more time passes. Burnout settling in yet? That’s called a sugar crash – when all the glucose is gone from the bloodstream and you start to feel sluggish, off-kilter, like the internal circuits are all fried after sparking in a heap of now smoldering wires. Hmm. Maybe that spontaneous combustion image wasn’t so far after all.

But there’s more…. The havoc that sugar rush set off – the swing of glucose and insulin, the cortisol and adrenaline – they’ve sent your immune system into a tailspin. Research has shown that the function of immunity-related phagocytes is impaired for at least five hours after intake of simple sugars. Free radicals have their heyday as well within the first few hours after sugar increases oxidative stress on the body. Your blood even thickens as a response to the stressors.

Wait, you aren’t out of the woods yet. You get home and try to sleep it off, but you toss and turn as your heart continues to beat faster than normal. Hmm. Little surprise there. The old hormonal system is confounding in its interconnectedness. You lay there cursing not just that cake but the entire cultural custom of birthday celebration. As the sun comes up and you roll out of bed, you think you should be done with this sugar business by now. Maybe. Maybe not. Unfortunately, a hefty dose of sugar can compromise the immune system for more than 24 hours. Groan. The images flash before you. The flu your daughter brought home earlier this week. The miserable cold (that incessant cough!) your boss has. Passing plans or reports around the meeting room. Shaking hands with the new clients who came by yesterday. Your toddler’s insistence on drinking from your cup last night. Suddenly you’re seeing your week in a new (and dimmer) light. Your immune system might have handled it all quite easily before the sugar incidence/insult. That’s one birthday cake that keeps on giving!

As bad as this sounds, it could be worse. If you follow the Primal Blueprint regularly and the lemon cream was just a detour, you’re a generally healthy person. You’ll experience the effects, and you may feel them more acutely than you did before you chose the low-carb path. (This isn’t a bad thing.) Nonetheless, after the dust settles, the worst thing you can end up with is maybe a cold you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Your system will realign itself pretty readily. Within a couple of PB style days you’ll be as good as new.

But if this is a normal day? Sigh. This presents a much bleaker picture. That see-saw of insulin and glucose? The process breaks down in your body until you develop insulin resistance. That rush of adrenaline and cortisol? That hormonal havoc over time fries your adrenal system. Your body is constantly in a state of “fight,” and inflammation becomes a constant state of affairs. Enough sugar over enough time (with the lack of exercise to boot), and you’ve gotten yourself into quite a pickle. (Maybe a pickle would’ve been a better snack choice….)

The Primal Blueprint offers up a plan to help guide our everyday choices as well as information to help us weigh the compromises we choose to make along the way. How we take care of ourselves each and every day can ameliorate the more taxing damage from occasional concessions we make for personal and social reasons.

And so we conclude the Willy Wonka journey.

Willy Wonka

What are your thoughts on sugar shock? PB compromise? Questions? Stories to share?

I Like, Fanboy30, Paradox Blue Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

On the Question of Sweeteners

The Salt/Blood Pressure Debate

Diabetes is Now a Disorder of the Small Intestine?

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You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. For about 2 months I was going strong with the PB lifestyle. But the last couple of weeks I have found myself going from 90/10 to 60/40 and now I feel the same withdrawal affects that I experienced the first couple of weeks switching to the PB. I feel lazy and constantly craving more sugar and, within a week, I have seen my results slowly dissipate. My 6pack abs quickly turned into a flat stomach… It is astonishing what happens to your body if you fall off the wagon slightly. Its time to go back to my PB roots and stick with it! No Excuses!

    Trevor wrote on June 2nd, 2010
  2. I’m 4 days into the Primal diet. I haven’t cheated at all. I used to LOVE my sweets and my carbs. But I have given it up. Now I’m very tired and constantly thinking of food (I even dreamed of cupcakes last night). My brother (who is basically Grok) says this will wear off. Errr, sure hope so.

    Kate wrote on June 10th, 2010
  3. Mark, I do realise that a good story sells better than one that contains all the facts, but sometimes these “primal” stories contain so much leaving out the facts that it´s embarrassing. Why don´t you include the fact that de novo lipogenesis isn´t so easy to achieve and requires a LOT more carb load than what you mention in your stories, and also that the body ramps up carb oxidation along with overconsumption. Etc. Etc.

    Juhani wrote on June 26th, 2010
    • @juhani, if you’re going to dispute my facts, it’s best you provide back-up of your own “facts”. I stand by mine here.

      Mark Sisson wrote on June 26th, 2010
  4. Mark, regarding de novo lipogenesis (your comment on “excess (carbs) goes into fat cells, where it is stored as fat”) I might refer you to comment on this full text by Jequier & Tappy, in which the authors mention:

    “Although it is commonly believed that hepatic de novo lipogenesis is a mechanism by which fat accumulation occurs in humans, recent evidence indicates that only a few percent of glucose carbon atoms are converted into fatty acids and leave the liver as very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) triglycerides. The de novo lipogenic response to a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet is stimulated as compared with a high-fat diet but the total amount of de novo fatty acids synthesized remains low and does not exceed 12 g/day. Furthermore, during carbohydrate overfeeding, the hepatic de novo lipogenesis was found not to exceed 5-10 g fatty acids synthesized per day.”

    “Net lipogenesis, corresponding to accretion of lipid stores from carbohydrate, can be documented by the presence of respiratory quotients higher than 1.0. Such a net lipogenesis has been observed in humans only during periods of forced massive overfeeding, a condition which does not occur in everyday life.”

    …and we have an illustration as well on how the body ramps up carb oxidation into energy after an overfeeding under hypercaloric conditions – while on the contrary most if not all ingested fat is stored into fat desposits without added oxidation under the same conditions:

    While reading your article above, a less informed reader may start to believe that all excess carbs are indeed stored as fat, which is simply not the case. This leads me to believe you may be “simplifying” other facts to your advantage as well, to make your “story” more interesting to the reader.

    Juhani wrote on June 27th, 2010
    • @juhani, appreciate the detail. The article you cite is a review piece over 60 pages long, written eleven years ago. Much has changed since then. The authors seem to restate CW “assumptions” that are now being seriously questioned by many, including me. I stand by my post above, as do thousands of MDA readers who have altered the composition of their diets (ie lowered carbs) and have lost significant body fat…or who have failed to gain fat even in the face of increased fat intake and no reduction in overall calories.

      Mark Sisson wrote on June 29th, 2010
  5. There´s a lot of evidence as to why carbs would not compromise a weight loss diet. Most if not all long-term (over 6-> 12 month, at least semi-controlled) dietary interventions show no significant difference in body fat reduction between low-carb and low-fat.
    I´m sure you´re familiar with the studies.

    Carbohydrates are also the most efficient ghrelin suppressant. Your readers who have lost body fat by removing carbohydrates from their diet have most likely also cut calories while doing so.

    Could you point me to a study / review that challenges what I quoted above regarding higher oxidation of carbs after overfeeding?

    Juhani wrote on July 1st, 2010
  6. Oh man, this article makes me want to sing “killing me softly with his words, killing me softly, with his song.”

    I’ve been eating primal for a while now. I slipped last week. Not quite sure what the heck I was thinking but yes, I ate pasta, bread at my mother in law, had a cappuccino, had way too much fruit and have been paying big time for it.

    I can’t sleep at night. Keep on waking up. Am sluggish as heck (no surprise there), feel depressed (and I mean depressed), bloated and the likes…


    I have noticed that I am also sensitive to dry fruits and bananas. I made these cookies with dates, dried apples, almond flour and dried coconut and guess what? I crashed just as badly as I would had, had i eaten a piece of cake. Well, with the exception that I did not get a bloated stomach.

    Hmm maybe I just ate too many cookies… they may be primal but too much is too much.

    Carla wrote on July 19th, 2010
  7. Mark,
    If there happened to be a day when I were to eat more carbs than I normally would ( which would be anywhere from 50-100) and carb load, would IF for 24 hours be more beneficial to my body rather than going back to eating primal the following day?

    Miles wrote on September 29th, 2010
    • @miles

      Better than IF would be to do a 45 minute intense workout. Otherwise, just go back to Primal.

      Mark Sisson wrote on October 1st, 2010
  8. @miles and Mark

    Yesterday I had a day that involved way more carbohydrate than intended. Now that it is 12 hours later (still haven’t eaten), is it best to do an intense workout, or to continue this into an IF? I understand that intense workout directly post-carb would have been best here, but I went to bed (and slept like crap) instead.

    Mark, you rock my world.

    Ashley wrote on October 17th, 2010
    • @Ashley, no right answer, but the intense workout is my choice, simply because it uses up the glycogen. Today, tomorrow or in a few days. On the other hand, no harm, no foul doing it once in a while, because the worst that happens (after not sleeping well) is that you have topped off glycogen stores for a few days. Don’t sweat it (or do sweat it) either way.

      Mark Sisson wrote on October 17th, 2010
  9. Mark
    I just have a question, can the primal blueprint diet be tailored to build muscular bodyweight vs just losing weight and getting lean? My current bodyweight is 240 lbs at 10% bodyfat and my goal is to reach 265 lbs while maintaining my current bodyfat percentage or even lowering it if at all possible while I gain muscular bodyweight. I’m currently following Lyle’s UD 2.0 and I’ve had great success with it but I want to follow a healthier approach that doesn’t make me so sick during the weekend carb ups. I understand Lyle’s reasoning for the carb ups which is necessary to recover the muscle lost during the diet phase and gain muscle as glycogen over compensation and some other nice metabolic tricks to be able to burn fat and gain muscle every week. The diet work wonders if you ask me but at times especially during the carb ups it makes me feel so sick that I just want to quit it. Following the primal blueprint diet probably won’t be very different to what I’m currently doing during the diet phase which has me eating 1 to 1.5 grms of protein per lbs/lean bodyweight, no more than 20% carbs although I opted for almost zero carbs, and the rest of the calories comes from fat which I eat an ample amount of it in the form of steak and salmon. All I would need is to add the veggies and some fruits and skip the weekend carb ups, but would it be enough to help me reach my goal? I’ll be looking foward to hearing from you. Thanks a lot and great book by the way, I’m almost finished reading it, lots of great info.
    Sincerely Will.

    Will wrote on November 14th, 2010
    • Will, you probably need extra carbs to get to 265. But that’s just going to go to added muscle glycogen and stored water, which won’t add to body fat, but will give the size you want. You won’t be any stronger as a result of the bigger muscle either…just bigger. If that’s what you want, go for it. I prefer to drive power-to-weight ratios.

      Mark Sisson wrote on November 19th, 2010
  10. I feel like i can’t stop/turn down sugars and carbs (doughy soft breads, rolls, cakes, cookies, duck sauce, tea with LOTS of honey) I need to because I know it’s so bad for my health and I have an autoimmune disease that I want to keep at bay. After I read this I am so ready to kick this habit/addiction. I’m just scared of going cold turkey.

    Liz wrote on January 31st, 2011
    • Then don’t go cold turkey. Just make steps in a positive direction the best you can.

      Need sweet? Eat fruit. It’s good for you 😉

      Grok wrote on January 31st, 2011
  11. I have a huge problem with carbs, sugar over eating. I just has two spoonfuls of peanut butter and my heart is racing. I can eat fruit and bananas, even anything with zero preservatives and I am fine. Anything like a burger or yummy bread, chocolate ( I can eat dark cocoa), I suffer for hours, even the smallest exertion after I eat crap my heart goes crazy for about an hour and I even get terrible heart burn. I have a healthy heart and they say I am healthy. I feel fabulous when only eating primal. It sucks when I see people enjoying that birthday cake….gawd would I enjoy a slice. I sure do miss it :)

    Banana rama wrote on March 3rd, 2011
    • Try almond butter or peanut butter without added sugar and they aren’t as bad on carbs. The nut butters I buy have two ingredients: nuts and salt.

      Jackie wrote on July 19th, 2013
  12. Mark-

    I am 100% Primal under 50g of carbs everyday. But I also can’t eat fruit, seeds, nuts, or dairy without having an acne breakout with all of the sugar-rush symptoms you described. Heart palpitations anyone?

    As satisfying as my current meals are, my psychological craving for something else just keeps getting stronger… and I’ve been primal 6 months. Will I never be able to eat a piece of fruit (even berries) again without having some sort of crappy symptom? Or does the body eventually attain optimal health forgiving a higher allowance of carbs?

    As decent as I feel, I’m about ready to toss my hat in, eat whatever the hell I want, and succumb to a sickly state of death.

    Salacia wrote on April 3rd, 2011
    • Salacia, much depends on the extent of the “metabolic damage” you had before you went Primal. It can take months to repair, regenerate and reprogram. There is no reason that one day you can’t reintroduce fruit or other carb sources and be just fine. I’d say just experiment with a little extra once a week for a while. As I say, the maintenance range for most people (once they’ve repaired metabolic damage and hit an ideal body comp) is 100-150 grams/day

      Mark Sisson wrote on April 3rd, 2011
      • Wow, thanks Mark!

        I didn’t think anyone would actually respond, but that encouragement really helped. Honestly, thank you for the direction and hope. I was just about to cave. I guess I didn’t realize that it could take a few years for my body to get better… but when I can eat walnuts and blueberries without side effects.. I will be a happy person. :)

        Salacia wrote on April 4th, 2011
  13. I have lost 56 lbs. over the past year and feel terrific (via Weight Watchers)!! Got the sugar cravings out of my system within a month or so. Lots of veggies, fruits, whole grains, etc. Fast forward to today: I have a weakness for one particular sweet thing……black jellybeans. Happened to find a bag of locally made beans at our local market over the weekend. Just consumed almost the entire bag. I thought I was going to die from the sugar rush so Googled it and came upon this site. Thank you for it. It’s starting to subside and I am hanging onto your words that it’s not the worst thing in the world and the body will get back to normal. Never, never again will I do that. I had no idea what the body is doing to create those miserable symptoms. Can’t wait to go home and have a massive amount of fresh Asian slaw.

    Thanks for this information, Mark.

    Nan wrote on April 18th, 2011
  14. What an entertaining and informative thread, especially considering yesterday was a cheat day for me.

    I’ve been primal and loving it for 2 months now, and I know this is a life-long change, but I’ve still had 2 scheduled cheat days, because I’m just not ready to say goodbye to sugar for good. To somehow “make up for it”, this morning I had a hard hour-long workout and chose to skip breakfast, aiming for an 18-hour long fast. I’ll break my fast in 2 1/2 hours with some grilled chicken, homemade baba ghanoush, and veggies.

    It’s funny–even though I’ve looked forward to both cheat days, midway through each (after having consumed pancakes, bread, ice cream, other evil sugary items that shall go unnamed), I’m barely enjoying it, but I feel like it’s my one chance/month to eat these forbidden foods. I *know* my body is happier now than it has ever been (and I’ve been a fairly healthy athlete my entire life), but I think I’m slowly letting go of the emotional attachment I have to sugar.

    Anyway, thanks for the fantastic information and support you offer here Mark!

    FrannyPro wrote on June 11th, 2011
  15. In an ideal world… the U.S. Federal government would heavily tax carb-laden foods and use the funds to educate people on the dangers of consuming carb-laden foods, maybe even prohibit certain carbs from the markets.

    Vito wrote on June 28th, 2011
  16. hi i have a questian i have a normal diet with small amounts of food and exercise daily and as a once of thing i have a bindge if cholate and icecream and fwlt so sick after how will my body react to this will it add extra weight on?

    Leanne wrote on July 1st, 2011
  17. Leanne, don’t eat real small amounts of food, exercise, and not expect to binge. When your body doesn’t get adequate amount of calories your mind thinks about and wants junk foods (calorie dense foods).

    Grok wrote on July 1st, 2011
  18. I ate 4 spoonfuls of almond butter last night and went to bed with a racing heart (could not fall asleep for hours) and also incredibly depressed (not from eating the butter either) to the point of tears. After only 1 week of doing strictly PB/atkins (trying to do induction now) I was feeling pretty good. Amazing the change this butter bought about- even though it is considered safe for the lifestyle!!

    Catbreu wrote on July 31st, 2011
  19. Oh my gosh! This is so applicable to me right now. Last night at a bbq I over indulged not only in carbs (and alcohol) but also, inexplicably, SWEETS. There were sweets there for the children and I avoided them until a few hours in and then ate loads. Awful night’s sleep. VERY bloated stomach today. Feel full and I am dreading that I will not get rid of the contents of my stomach for days now (used to be a problem for me in my pre clean eating days..)I am also dreading becoming ill now and I haven’t been ill for YEARS because of eating clean. I am so annoyed with myself. Wish I had an undo button on my behaviour as I have a feeling I’ll be paying for this for days now…
    Going to devour your site now to try and stave off the depression!

    Nat wrote on August 6th, 2011
  20. If this article is full of *#$@ then why does sugar affect me so badly?
    My stomach swells up to resemble a beach ball and I feel like I am going to throw up. The worst of it, is the insomnia it causes. One little crumb of sugar and I am up all night long. A crumb I tell you! Depending on the amount of sugar sometimes I have insomnia for 2 nights.

    Why does this happen??

    Heather wrote on August 11th, 2011

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