Thanksgiving is a day where many Americans throw health and routine out the window. It’s a time when we feel entitled, and in some cases obligated, to be gluttonous. In fact, Americans eat around 4,500 calories on Thanksgiving alone.With everyone bringing a dish to the table, there tends to be too much food for just one family, and it’d be rude not to clean your plate, right? Plus, there’s always room for pie.
For some folks, it’s a fun break from the norm, and a delight to eat whatever they want. But the binge isn’t without consequences. So let’s talk about why we can eat so much on Thanksgiving, what the implications are, and what you can do to have a happy, healthier holiday.
Why We Overeat
Eating involves a number of chemical processes that take place in our body. For example, when we need food, we feel hungry because of a chemical called ghrelin. Ghrelin binds with neurotransmitters in your brain, stimulating those feelings of hunger. Similarly, when you’re full, a hormone called Leptin interacts with those same neurotransmitters to say, “Stop!”
Americans eat around 4,500 calories on Thanksgiving alone.
So why do we go for second, third and fourth helpings on Thanksgiving? One reason comes down to evolution. Scientists think that way back when we were hunter-gatherers, foods high in sugars and fats were difficult to come by and essential for survival. Because of this, we developed the ability to ignore those “full” signals when we did find that elusive sweet treat. Thousands of years later, snacks are everywhere, but that instinct to fill up, to stave off hunger and ensure survival has stuck with us.
Another reason we just can’t help ourselves is related to stress. Bad stressors, like a break in routine, travel frustrations, or dinner with your annoying cousin Larry, tend to make people reach for comfort. And with a whole table of your favorite comfort foods right in front of you, food is the obvious choice. Good stressors can encourage us to eat too! The social aspect of eating encourages us to keep going, especially when there are great conversations happening around the table.
The Health Impacts of Overindulgence
Unfortunately, even if you are paying attention to your body, some “full” signals may take up to 30 minutes to activate. By then, you could have eaten significantly more than your body was ready for, and the effects will set in pretty quickly. Some short-term health impacts of overeating include:
- The “food coma”: Many people think this is because of tryptophan in turkey, but the amount in the meat really isn’t enough to make you that drowsy. Instead, your body feels drained because of the extra effort it’s exerting to digest your big meal.
- Gas: It’ll come out one way or the other. Remember that when you eat, you also consume air– and the faster you eat, the more air you take in. Add some beer or soda to that, and there’s a ton of gas expanding uncomfortably in your stomach.
- Heartburn: When you eat, your stomach produces hydrochloric acid to help the process of digestion. More food = more hydrochloric acid. Too much can irritate the lining of your stomach and could get pushed into your esophagus, causing that awful burning sensation.
- Nausea: When you’ve gone overboard, hormones in your brain make you feel sick to your stomach. It’s your brain’s last resort, its way of saying “Stop NOW!” Plus, if you’ve eaten enough to expand your stomach, it can be pushing on other organs, making your whole abdomen feel uncomfortable.
Within 2-4 hours of an excessive, fatty meal, your risk of a heart attack can quadruple.
The food coma is especially important to keep an eye on if you’re traveling. If you leave the table to hit the road, the monotony, paired with the drain on your energy from digesting, can make it easy to fall asleep at the wheel. Combine that with any alcohol you’ve consumed and any stress that accompanies the holiday, and you’ve got deadly possibilities.
However, these aren’t the only impacts that the holidays have on your health. Scientists have actually found that after an extreme binge-type meal like Thanksgiving, risks for heart attacks go up immediately. Within 2-4 hours of downing turkey, your risk of a heart attack quadruples. Not only is your heart working to help your digestive system with an unusually hard workload, but the triglycerides from the fatty meal can stick to the sides of blood vessels, putting extra strain on your cardiovascular system.
Additionally, holiday weight gain can be an issue for many people. In the short-term, bloating from all that extra salt can make you retain water, adding a few pounds to the scale as early as Black Friday morning. But on average, Americans gain at least a pound over the holidays each year– and many never lose that weight.
A Healthier Way to do Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving is one of my favorite days of the year, so I’m not going to be the one to tell you to hunker down, eat a “normal” meal and ignore the delicious pie. But I do have some tips on how you can balance the special day to avoid feeling sick.
Take a walk before and after! Taking a walk in the 12 hours before a big meal can help jumpstart your metabolism and help you control what you eat. It’s also a great stress reliever. In the same way, taking a walk after dinner can help stimulate digestion. Encourage the whole family to take a walk and start a new healthy tradition!
- Don’t lay down. Even if you don’t walk, don’t crash onto the couch. It may feel good at first, but giving into the sluggish feelings won’t help your stomach– and depending on your relaxation position, it might make you feel worse.
- Eat slow! Enjoy the conversation, and take your time eating. This helps reduce the level of air you consume and gives your body time to send you “full” signals before you drastically overeat. You could also take a break between dinner and dessert, to give your stomach time to catch up.
- Choose a small plate. Seriously, it works. Research has shown that people who use smaller plates tend to eat less! We all feel the pressure to fill our plate and then clean it. Giving yourself a smaller surface area to work with helps mitigate that pressure, so we can feel better later. Similarly, you tend to eat less when using a fork than you do when consuming finger foods!
- Remember the pie. I mean, pies. ‘Cause you know there might be more than one. Apple, pumpkin, cranberry, pecan… you get the idea. If you’re like me, the pie might be the main event, so save room for it! Of course, if you hate pie, but love stuffing, make that your indulgence while cutting down a little on the other sides. Really, it’s just about prioritizing the meal.
This year, kick the post-Thanksgiving stomach ache and give yourself another thing to be thankful for. Wishing you a Happy, Healthy, Holiday Season, from your friends at ConsumerSafety.org.