What Happens to Your Body When You Eat Too Much
No, your stomach will not explode. Read on to find out what happens in your body after a really big meal.
You can probably guess what happens if you eat too much over time. But what about when you overeat at dinner? Beyond fully a little bit stuffed, there are some things happening in your body. We interviewed two dietitians to get the deets on what happens to digestion and your body when you eat too much. Plus, tips for what to do when you feel stuffed.
What Happens After a Meal When You Eat Too Much
Short-term effects of eating too much
- Acid reflux or heartburn
- Feeling sluggish
- Stomach discomfort
- Elevated blood sugar
When you eat, your stomach expands to hold what you have consumed. A stretched, or full, stomach sends signals to the brain that you are full. Eating too much can cause the stomach to stretch past its normal capacity, leading to feeling overly full. This can lead to pressure and discomfort as the contents of the stomach pass into the small intestine.
"In the short term, an extra large meal can cause digestive discomfort and possibly acid reflux which can be very unpleasant," says registered dietitian, Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., RDN, founder of NutritionStarringYOU.com and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club. Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid flows back into the esophagus and causes a sour taste or burning sensation. "This is especially problematic when the meal is consumed close to bedtime because laying down will worsen the effects and interfere with sleep," says Harris-Pincus. (Learn more about the best and worst foods for acid reflux.)
Speaking of sleep, "Eating beyond your point of satisfaction can also cause a sense of drowsiness or feeling sluggish as the body is redirecting its attention to digesting the excess food," says Harris-Pincus.
Your blood sugar can also become elevated, especially if you eat a large amount of carbohydrates, says Lauren Manaker, M.S., RDN, LD, a Charleston-based registered dietitian and owner of Nutrition Now. Blood sugar (glucose) rises after a meal, but refined carbohydrates spike blood sugar the most, compared to high-fiber carbs or carbs paired with protein and fat. When blood sugar rises, the pancreas releases the hormone, insulin, which brings glucose from your blood to your cells for energy. Extra glucose is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. After that, any extra glucose is stored as fat. (Here are 10 healthy foods to eat every week to help with weight loss.)
What Happens Long-Term When You Eat Too Much
Long-term effects of eating too much
- Weight gain
- Increased risk of type 2 diabetes
- Insulin resistance
- Leptin resistance
- Elevated triglycerides
"Eating more calories than you expend will cause weight gain in the long term," says Harris-Pincus. "It can also cause your blood sugar to spike, especially if the larger meals are heavy in processed carbohydrates and sugar."
Research shows that overeating, even in the short-term, can cause insulin resistance, in which cells are resistant to taking up the glucose that insulin is trying to deliver. This in turn keeps blood sugar levels high and over time can lead to conditions like obesity and type 2 diabetes. A 2017 study found that one day of binge eating led to impaired blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity in young, healthy adults.
Eating too much over time can also lead to leptin resistance. Leptin is a hormone produced by fat cells that tells the brain you are full. The more body fat someone has, the more leptin they will have. However, in leptin resistance, the brain doesn't receive the signal from leptin to stop eating. Therefore, appetite remains high leading to a vicious cycle of continuing to overeat, which can lead to more fat gain. Overeating can also raise triglyceride levels, especially if you consume too many high sugar foods or drink too much alcohol.
In regards to your stomach, "One big meal like Thanksgiving won't cause your stomach to 'stretch' [permanently] because it is meant to expand and contract to accommodate your daily food consumption," Harris-Pincus says, but, "consistently eating beyond when you are satisfied can cause your stomach to expand to handle the chronic extra food. This will require you to eat more food to become satisfied on a daily basis. The best way to avoid this is to listen to your body and its hunger and fullness signals to avoid overeating."
What To Do When You've Eaten Too Much
First things first, don't beat yourself up about it, says Manaker. What you do most of the time matters more than what you do every once in a while. "To get some short-term relief, you can chew on some ginger, sip on ginger tea, or take some black licorice root. Taking a walk can help offer some relief too. Staying upright and avoiding lying down can also be a good step to reduce the risk of experiencing heartburn. Don't drink carbonated beverages, and instead stick with flat water," she says.
"If you find that you are constantly overeating, pay attention to whether anything is triggering this behavior," says Manaker. For example, are you physically hungry or eating because you are stressed? Often people will overeat in the evening because they didn't eat enough throughout the day, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Aim to get protein, fiber and healthy fats at each meal and to eat every 3-4 hours. Show up to meals hungry but not starving. If you show up starving, you are likely to eat quickly and then overeat because you don't give your stomach time to tell your brain you are full. You are also more likely to reach for simple carbohydrates first because your blood sugar has dipped so low that your body is craving the quickest source of energy—sugar. Use a hunger scale of 1-10 that goes from not hungry to feeling stuffed to help you assess hunger and fullness throughout the day. Slow down while eating and try to take 20 minutes to finish a meal.
"Being mindful of portions can help prevent this behavior from continuing. Having a snack, like a handful of nuts, before a meal can help you feel less ravenous at mealtime and possible help you manage your portion sizes," says Manaker.
Related: What Is Intuitive Eating?
Overeating can cause discomfort in the short-term but eating too much long-term can lead to weight gain, along with other metabolic issues such as insulin and leptin resistance, high triglycerides and increased risk for obesity and diabetes. Don't beat yourself up for overeating every once in a while but if it becomes a habit, talk to your doctor or work with someone like a dietitian who can help you determine the root causes and provide solutions.