On Thanksgiving Day, we give thanks for all that we have and enjoy as free Americans. My thought recently was why, and when did the holiday turn into a day of overindulgence when many people find it necessary to eat until they have to undo the button on their pants, followed by indigestion, flatulence and Rolaids? Consuming big meals raises the risk of a heart attack, gallbladder pain and a drowsy drive home.
Many look at Thanksgiving Day as the start of the gluttony season that continues through New Year’s. It is estimated that the average American consumes 4,500 calories and 230 grams of fat throughout Thanksgiving Day. The average stomach holds about eight cups, and can be stretched to hold up to about 12. When the stomach is stretched, it sends a signal to the brain, “Hey, we’re full down here.” However, quite often the signals go ignored as diners head back to the buffet table for more mashed potatoes and gravy and just one more spoonful of stuffing, and maybe just a little bit more of the sweet potato casserole.
Research tells us that the ability to ignore satiety signals is an evolutionary adaptation that allows us to build fat stores during times of plenty. Luckily, our bodies can overrule us and will eventually put a stop to overindulgence. After consuming about 1,500 calories in one feeding, the gut will release a hormone that causes nausea, signaling “enough already.” Most people can’t override the nausea signal. Your stomach may feel like it will burst, which rarely happens but is possible.
What exactly does eating a big meal do to your body? It causes your body to work harder. To assist digestion, the heart has to pump more blood to the stomach and intestines. A usual meal takes about two hours to leave the stomach, but a large meal high in fat can take several hours.
Heart attack risk increases with consumption of large meals. Dr. Francisco Lopez-Jimenez, a cardiologist and researcher, found a fourfold increase in heart attack risk in the two hours after eating a big meal.
Many people think the drowsiness they feel after eating turkey is caused by tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid — meaning the body can’t make it — that is used by the body to make the B vitamin niacin. Niacin is necessary for digestion, skin, nerves and the brain chemical serotonin. When we have high levels of serotonin, we sleep better, are in a better mood and have a higher pain tolerance. Tryptophan is needed for the body to be able to make serotonin.
However, turkey does not contain any more tryptophan than other kinds of poultry; it actually has a little less than chicken. So if you think you are sleepy at Thanksgiving because of the turkey, then you should have been sleepy or sluggish last summer at the BBQ where you ate that chicken breast. Face the facts — you’re sleepy because you ate too much food.
So this Thanksgiving — through the New Year — I challenge you to try something new. Listen to your body; it will tell you when you have had enough. Your mind will tell you to keep eating because it tastes so good, but your body will let you feel the fullness instead of following your mind’s desire. When we eat food so fast that we don’t really taste it, our brain doesn’t register it. It thinks it hasn’t been fed so will continue to seek out food until it feels full and nourished and you have overeaten. Slow down. Start with smaller servings and give yourself permission to eat more if you are still hungry.
You’ll thank me when you step on the scales in January and find you don’t have a few extra pounds on board.
Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes educator at Penobscot Community Health Care in Bangor. She provides nutrition consultant services through Mainely Nutrition in Athens. Read her columns and post questions at bangordailynews.com or email her at GeorgiaMaineMSRDCDE@gmail.com.