Dear Ali: Can We Eat the Whole Box of Cookies?

November 21st, 2012 | Posted by Alison Spath in Dear Ali

My dear friend The Kegel Queen left a question on Project Weight Loss: Week 8 that required me to do a bit of leg work to answer.  I realized that some of you might have wondered something similar before too, and so I decided to turn it into a blog post.  Then I realized that I kind of liked answering questions Dear Abby Style, and maybe I want to answer more questions like this.

And so Dear Ali was born, kicking and screaming and trying to tell you what to do.  Basically, I’m going to give advice and you can take it or leave it, Nosy-Stranger-Eavesdropping-On-Your-Conversation Style.

The Kegel Queen wrote:

Hey Alison, I know there’s more to weight loss physiology than calories in, calories out, but I am not well educated about it. I don’t need to lose weight, but I do need to stay at my current size because I recently got a whole bunch of really great clothes.
Here’s my question: if the goal is to lose weight, or at least avoid gaining it, I am under the impression that when one is going to indulge in fattening food, it’s better to binge occasionally rather than have small, frequent amounts of fattening food. More to the point, is it better if I eat the entire box of Trader Joe’s Kona coffee shortbread cookies at one sitting, or have 2 every day for a week?
I’m interested in your comments. Thanks!

Based on my own understanding of calorie math, I’d recommend you eat a couple cookies each day instead of having one wild night of cookie overindulgence if weight maintenance is what you want.  I looked at a few studies about overfeeding and calorie surplus.  Sadly, I did not find a single study that showed excess calories are ignored by your body when consumed during a binge, even if you made your body a promise that you’ll never do it again.

There is indeed more to weight loss physiology than calories in < calories out.  I found a number of related studies concerning leptin (the satiety or “fullness” hormone) and what happens when you eat too much out of pleasure.  This shizz gets complicated quickly. The make up of the macronutients (carbs, fat, protein) of whatever you’ve eaten plays a role in the way your body responds, as well as whether or not you are already overweight and the state of your metabolism.  And in some cases, we might need to ask the question why one is eating an entire box of cookies at once, and whether or not there is a jerky boyfriend or controlling boss who needs to receive a semi-threatening Dear Ali letter.

But if we look at it simply and take the most basic scenario for cookie overindulgence, i.e., you’ve eaten your daily calorie allowance for weight maintenance and then OOPS!  You’ve polished off an entire box of cookies in one sitting.  In this case, you’ll be at a calorie surplus and it is widely accepted that you will store those extra calories as body fat.

One study says that if you “overfeed”, you’re likely to be naturally inclined to eat less the next day to compensate for your excess cookie consumption.  Ideally your calorie intake will average out over the course of a couple days and you should still be able to button your new pants tomorrow – unless of course you start to make a habit of knocking back boxes of cookies night after night. Another study done on healthy, lean females concluded that overfeeding of carbs increases energy expenditure and leptin levels, where overfeeding on fat does not.  I interpret this to mean that in the case of lean, healthy females – eating a box of cookies (sugar = carbs) is probably going to leave you feeling plenty satisfied and ready to run and/or vacuum the entire house and/or do 12 loads of laundry.  Sounds like those cookies are going clean up after themselves.

BUT, this NPR article makes a compelling case for NOT overeating as it can actually impair body function.

Overeating “sets your body chemistry sort of into red alert,” says Dr. Sasha Stiles, a family physician who specializes in obesity at Tufts Medical Center. “The kinds of hormone and metabolic processes that normally will try to metabolize food will go into overdrive to make sure they get rid of this huge food load,” Stiles explains.

This means that much of what you eat will be stored as fat rather than converted into healthy byproducts.

Excess food can trigger an unfortunate cycle: The pancreas produces extra insulin to process the sugar load and remove it from the bloodstream. It doesn’t stop producing insulin until the brain senses that blood sugar levels are safe. But by the time the brain stops insulin production, often too much sugar is removed. Low blood sugar can make you feel tired, dizzy, nauseous, even depressed — a condition often remedied by eating more sugar and more carbohydrates.

This feeling of low blood sugar sends many people after more carbohydrates, says Stiles, and they go for high-sugar foods to bring their blood sugar back up to normal and make them feel better.

This is not an inspiring, Day-Before-Thanksgiving-Gluttony read. (Or maybe this is exactly what we should be reading before we Americans belly up to the table on Thursday.)

The Verdict?

Two cookies a day for a week seems to be the better choice in my mind, based on these studies and articles and the desire to spare your metabolism and endocrine system from a tailspin while it works to recover from sugar/cookie overload.  In a perfect body weight world, you would eat two cookies every day and work them into your daily calorie allowance to maintain your weight.  Or you could work the entire box of cookies into your calorie allowance, but at 2400 calories a box (see below) that’s all you’d get to eat all day (and you’d need to go for a 4 mile run too).  This is not exactly “ideal” or sound nutritional advice.

That said, if (when) you do over do it, (so many of us do!) you won’t out grow your pants overnight. It takes an excess of 3500 calories ABOVE your daily calorie allowance to gain a pound of fat, and it’s probably going to take more than one pound of excess fat to change the way your clothes fit, so don’t despair.  These particular cookies are 200 calories per serving, 12 servings per box.  That’s 2400 calories in the entire box of Trader Joe’s Kona coffee shortbread cookies.  2400 calories could mean adding on more than a half pound of stored fat, but if you make up for it the next day or days by eating less (as that study above suggests you will) and/or increasing your activity, then that fat won’t hang around for long.  This has the potential to turn into a vicious cycle of overeating and overexercising, then it’s going to be time to have a little talk, After School Special Style.

Most importantly though, we simply must know more about these cookies that are so good one might feel compelled to eat them all at once.

Kona Coffee Creamy Half Dipped Shortbread Cookies

Good news!  My Thanksgiving shopping had us stopping by Trader Joe’s this week.  Sampling these cookies was an important and crucial part of my research.  All in the name of science, of course.

The verdict?  Not too shabby!  When I asked Zak to do his part for science and sample one (two), he said he would be happy to eat the whole box if I needed him to.  Personally, I’m more concerned about the box of Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies on the top shelf of my pantry.  I have not opened that Pandora’s Box just yet.

So there you have it.  My first Dear Ali post has come to a close.  Got a burning question about health, food, fitness, running, eating or your finger felon that you want me to take a stab at?  Lay it on me.  I promise not to pull all my answers out of thin air, but please don’t ask me for advice on fashion, politics or what color you should paint your dining room.  I got nothing.

And if I don’t hear from anyone, be warned that I will make up my own questions and/or get my mom to send me questions so I don’t feel stupid.  More stupid, anyway.

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10 Responses

  • jen says:

    My experience concurs with the chemistry part – if I eat stuff like that then I crave more stuff like that… but and I know it’s contradictory, I find that it’s better to take the hit and have one bad day and then start over the next day, than to have cookies every day because cookies every day will make me want to eat more. I think halloween would have been better off if we ate as much candy as we wanted in one day and then threw out the rest! haha. I have to eat a few cookies, and then make the box disappear. I will call Zak if needed 😉

    • YES I’ve certainly been there too. I find that if I can break free from eat sugar regularly, I stop craving it, and so sometimes it really does seem easier to just eat them and be rid of them. I’ve been known to throw stuff out when I’m having a hard time resisting the thumping cookies under my floor boards. Nevermore.

  • Leslie says:

    I love your blog, so glad your back to frequent post. I missed you. Today I learned a lot, biggest lesson is to pass right by those cookies at Trader Joes.Ha! I’ll think about a question for dear Ali.
    Happy Thanksgiving. Thanks for all you do to make this a fun spot to visit.

  • Dear Ali,
    Thanks for the juicy post!
    Please tell me more. I know the Abs Diet includes one “eat anything you want” meal a week. Tim Ferriss, in The Four Hour Body, recommends an entire binge day once a week. Both of those books are based on research, so there must be some out there to support the idea that an occasional binge can help with weight loss (or maintenance).
    I’m curious about whether the studies you quote leave room for the “an occasional binge is OK or maybe even beneficial” philosophy, or whether there are two warring schools of thought on this subject.
    I am pretty disciplined about my daily eating habits, but after Thanksgiving yesterday, I’m especially hoping for the green light for an occasional day of indulgence. That cornbread stuffing was GOOD!

    • I haven’t read The Abs Diet, but I have read The 4 Hour Body and Tim’s reasoning behind “a binge day” is mostly psychological. The diet he prescribes is pretty rigid, (no grains, no sugar, tons of meat, beans, lentils and vegetables, “slow carbs” only) and he says that knowing you get to have a cheat day will 1. allow you to stick with this strict diet and 2. you’ll feel so crappy after overeating on everything that you want, you won’t even want to LOOK at anything covered in sugar or fat for another whole week.

      Personally, I found #2 to be so true that I didn’t want to do it EVER AGAIN. A crazy meal is much better. (Like Thanksgiving, or even a fun night of some favorite foods with your family or friends!) Finding moderation among the madness is much more enjoyable than coping with a food hangover the next day.

      BUT, from a weight loss/calorie restriction perspective, a high calorie day does seem to be hormonally beneficial. From The 4 Hour Body, Tim writes:

      “Paradoxically, dramatically spiking caloric intake in this way once per week increases fatloss by ensuring that your metabolic rate (thyroid function and conversion of T4 to T3, etc.) doesn’t downshift from extended caloric restriction.”

      That doesn’t answer the question for people maintaining their weight though.

      When I skimmed through Bob Harper’s The Skinny Rules a few weeks ago, he too recommends a “cheat meal” for similar reasons, so that you know you’ve got one meal where you can eat whatever you want… whether it’s pasta or pizza or some rich dessert.

      As far as weight loss is concerned, I know there are schools of thought about “calorie shifting” or “calorie zig zagging”, i.e., having a high calorie day every once in a while to keep your metabolism guessing. I don’t have any studies to site (yet), but I know I’ve read this in more than one place. I also know that carb binging can be beneficial for athletes going through a very rigorous training regime to refill glycogen stores. In my own experience, the occasional high calorie day certainly doesn’t seem to halt weight loss or effect weight maintenance either.

      The occasional bagel or bowlful of corn bread stuffing is definitely not going to effect your physique. Your habits over the long term are what count the most, the same way that one day of healthy eating and exercise doesn’t make you fit and healthy over night. And I can say anecdotally that I DO actually feel better with a high calorie day or meal thrown into the mix, especially when restricting calories for weight loss. Whether it’s physiological or psychological or both, I can’t say for sure – but from where I stand, it does seem beneficial to loosen the reigns once in a while go a little wild!

  • Kimberly says:

    Dear Ali, (I thought you’d get a kick outta that :-))

    This post was well timed, as I just had a couple of unplanned binge meals, and was concerned with how to recover from them. Given the results of your research, I choose to take your advice, and will simply revert to my healthier eating plan and not obsess over ‘WHAT DID I JUST DO!!!!’. I look forward to also still being able to button my new pants in a couple of days. 😉

    ~ Panicked Meal Binger

  • Jean says:

    What I am trying to correct now and I think is the hardest part for me is the habitual overeating. Twin pregnancy and nursing really threw me in terms of recognizing and being satisfied with normal serving sizes. Eating many cookies makes the next time facing just a regular serving harder for me. Easy enough to reset with discipline over time, though. Just a bit annoying to have to measure everything to get back into it.

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