Article Thumbnail

The Stomach-Turning Science of a Food Hangover

According to dietitians, overeating is a lot like drinking too much — your body is going to absolutely hate you for it in the morning

As a proud Italian-Chicagoan, I love eating to the point of feeling beyond full, but like getting wasted, I can only get away with doing it a few times a year. This wasn’t always the case. I used to be able to house a whole pizza, destroy a cheeseburger with a side of wings and generally go on a food bender whenever I wanted. But the older I get, the more I suffer the consequences the next day, groaning in bed, dehydrated with the dreaded food hangover — a condition that can be more embarrassing than a booze hangover because it makes it seem like I tried to have a hot dog eating contest with myself. 

“A lot of times when we eat past fullness we can feel a sense of nausea, a headache, fatigue and even disorientation,” registered dietitian Colleen Christensen tells me. Otherwise known as binging, eating beyond fullness is typically coupled with a rush of dopamine, followed by a loss of control and then the same sense of shame that comes with getting drunk. Beyond regret, the main common ground shared by food and booze hangovers is dehydration, which is usually caused by fatty, processed foods that are loaded with sodium. Likewise, eating too much sugar can also result in a glucose crash that causes headaches and nausea, comparable to hangover symptoms. And unfortunately, pivoting to healthier foods when you’re in the throes of a binge won’t save you from feeling shitty the next day. 

“It’s totally possible to get ‘hangover’ feelings from nutrient dense foods, too,” Christensen says. “Too much of a good thing is just too much of a good thing. Diarrhea, bloating and general indigestion can be seen with excessive fruit intake, for example.”

The headaches, sluggishness, gastrointestinal issues and other symptoms of a food hangover can last anywhere from a few hours to a full day. And although drinking enough water, engaging in light exercise and getting adequate rest can all help minimize the effects, there’s no cure once you’re in it. 

Overall, the best remedy for a food hangover is to not overindulge in the first place, and the only way to do that is to figure out what’s triggering you to lose control. Either way, if you ever start to feel numb while eating, that’s a good indicator that you should back away from the plate. “Possibly the biggest sign you’re overindulging is that you’re continuing to eat when you’re not hungry or beyond the point of fullness,” registered dietitian Kristin Gillespie says. If you struggle with knowing when you’re full or regularly eat past the point of fullness, meditation and mindfulness exercises can help you stay in the present moment and more effectively recognize hunger cues. But again, eating to the point of a food hangover repeatedly can be a sign of a deeper issue, and cognitive behavioral therapy can help individuals figure out what the root cause of the binging is. 

“Food can fill a void, much like drinking can fill a void for some people,” Morgyn Clair, a registered dietitian and nutritionist, explains. “Some people use food as a distraction in order to not feel the emotions that they have, in a similar way that some use alcohol to distract from unpleasant emotions or situations.”

And when you’ve been under an unusual amount of stress, let’s say from being stuck inside for a fucking year, then there’s a good chance you might be leaning on food as the lesser of two evils, and that is fair. Eating to the point of a food hangover every once in a while doesn’t harm the body in the same way abusing alcohol does, but overeating too frequently “can tax the body’s organ systems,” Clair warns. “For example, excess sugar has to be filtered out by the kidneys and consuming too much sugar on a long-term basis can cause the kidneys distress.”

Even though food hangovers aren’t as harmful as booze hangovers, they’re still an important reprimand from our bodies, letting us know we fucked up. “This is a result of signaling between your gut and your brain and serves as a warning sign regarding your intake,” Gillespie says. 

Although I was worried that I could no longer be trusted to get the food equivalent of a buzz, all three experts agreed that feeling satiated isn’t the problem — it’s continuing to eat thereafter. “Just because you’re full doesn’t mean you’ll end up with a food hangover,” Gillespie adds. 

It means it’s time to stop. Or at least switch to water, if you want to avoid a blackout.