I’m not a fan of overeating. In fact, I think consistent overeating is one of the unhealthiest things a person can do because it places you in a state of constant energy excess. Excess means you can’t handle the food you’re taking in. It means your cells are literally full, your organs are overworked, and hormones aren’t functioning the way they’re supposed to function. Overeating is actually inflammatory, so if you’re doing it every single day you are chronically inflamed. And that’s not even mentioning the impact it has on obesity.
But we are humans—we feast. Whether it’s for a holiday like Thanksgiving or a birthday celebration or just because we feel like it, sometimes we like to eat a big meal. Sometimes we like to overeat.
How do we make it safer? How do we mitigate the negative effects of overeating and possibly even turn it into a positive input?
Let’s find out:
A hard workout
A hard workout prior to a large meal will improve nutrient partitioning by several mechanisms. First, by clearing out the glycogen in your muscle cells, you will increase insulin sensitivity and open up safe storage space for all the carbohydrates you’re about to eat. Hard exercise prior to eating increases something called insulin-independent glucose uptake, which means you don’t even need to increase insulin levels to store the glucose as glycogen. You can store the glucose while still preserving lipolysis, or the release of body fat for burning.
Hard exercise also upregulates muscle protein synthesis so that any protein you eat is preferentially directed to muscular hypertrophy and recovery. In short, a big workout before you eat allows you to consume more food without incurring the same metabolic consequences you would otherwise.
The most effective workout for these purposes will be a full body one that incorporates strength training and cardio or metabolic conditioning. Think a CrossFit workout, a combo of sprints and lifting, or circuit training.
Try berberine 30 minutes before the meal. Berberine is a powerful anti-hyperglycemic supplement that improves lipid numbers, metabolic function, and, when taken before a meal on an empty stomach, postprandial blood sugar. You will improve blood glucose levels if you take berberine before eating. Another helpful effect of berberine is mitochondrial uncoupling, which means it increases energy expenditure and “makes room” for all the incoming energy during a big meal by increasing metabolic rate.1
Eating vinegar 20 to 30 minutes prior to a large meal containing carbohydrates improves glucose tolerance and reduces the usual glucose response.2 This is actually part of the reason why vinegary salads are traditionally consumed before meals. It’s not just because they taste good—although that’s part of it—but because it preps your body for better glucose utilization.
Eat lightly or not at all throughout the day leading up to your big meal—the best meals I’ve ever had have come at the tail end of a fast. It doesn’t have to be a full-day fast. It could just mean skipping breakfast and having a light lunch. And I wouldn’t recommend eating just one meal a day in perpetuity, as I think that can have negative long-term consequences for energy levels and metabolic flexibility. But if you’re about to eat a big meal and it’s a one-off, not eating in the hours leading up to it will help mitigate most of the negative effects of overconsumption while maximizing your enjoyment.
If you know you’re going to overeat, make sure to load up on protein. It’s Thanksgiving? Get plenty of turkey. Christmas dinner? Have your fill of lamb leg. Eat protein first, let fat come along for the ride, and then finish with carbs. Protein is the most satiating macronutrient, so starting with it means you’re less likely to overdo it on the rest of the food. Feasting is wonderful, but no one enjoys the feeling of overindulgence.
One study even found that overfeeding with low protein intake increased fat mass but not lean muscle, while overfeeding with a high protein intake increased the same amount of fat mass with extra lean muscle mass.3 No one wants to gain fat, but I’d argue that gaining muscle alongside the fat is better than gaining just body fat.
Eat gelatinous foods or collagen during the meal
Both collagen and gelatin are rich in glycine, an amino acid that’s been shown to reduce blood glucose levels.4 If you’re going to be eating a ton of carbs, far more than you usually do, including some gelatinous foods—like gravy, bone broth, skin, and connective tissue—or even just a few scoops of collagen will improve your glucose response to the meal. It will also offset the methionine load you’re getting from muscle meat.
Drink red wine with your meal
Red wine during a large meal has several health benefits, in addition to tasting great and improving the subjective enjoyment of your food.
It reduces the oxidation of your blood lipids and inflammatory gene expression that normally occurs after a big junk food meal.5,
It can reduce the rise in blood pressure that often occurs in overfeeding.6
It can reduce post-feast markers of oxidative stress.7
If you’re going to be eating a large amount of food, start the meal earlier than normal. Don’t have a giant dinner at 10 PM, then expect to fall right to sleep and get a great 8 hours. You need at least 3-4 hours after the meal to take your walks, digest your food, and get everything processed internally before trying to sleep. Everything digests better when you give yourself a few hours.
Drink coffee after
A cup of coffee or an espresso after the meal is a traditional way to boost digestion and settle your gut. Concerning coffee as a post-meal digestif—no, I wouldn’t tell someone with caffeine sensitivity to have an espresso after their meal, especially at night. If you know that coffee keeps you up, then don’t drink it then, or go with decaf (which works almost as well). But if you can enjoy a bit of coffee without it affecting your sleep, then after a big meal is the perfect time for it. The bitterness helps with digesting the food you’ve just consumed.
Go for a walk after
A 20 to 30-minute walk, or even just 10 minutes if that’s all you can spare, right after a meal aids digestion and reduces the spike in both blood glucose and blood fatty acids that normally occur after eating a giant meal.8 Personally, if I eat a big meal and sit around, I don’t feel great. I feel better if I go for a walk afterwards. That’s part of the appeal of the walkability of a place like Miami. When Carrie and I go out for dinner, we walk there and back, and that post-dinner stroll to our house is just right for triggering the beneficial effects on blood glucose levels, free fatty acids, and digestion.
There you have it: the ten things you can do before, during, and after a big meal to reduce the negative effects of overeating. Don’t make big meals a habit, but if you’re doing it for a special occasion, this is how to make it work for you rather than against you.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.