The holiday season is here and you know what that means for many people: soul-stirring food galore.
I’m not sure why society decided to limit the yummiest meals to just a couple of holidays each year, but I feel like that unfortunate reality has contributed to many of the hallmark holiday eating behaviors — multiple servings; heavy sighs of painful satisfaction; unbuttoning the pants to “make room” for more.
You should definitely enjoy these special meals if you celebrate. But it’s worth at least knowing how your body may respond if you overdo it (especially if you have certain health conditions).
I asked nutrition experts about some of the most common holiday food-related issues, including what happens when you overeat, why big meals can make you so sleepy, and what, if any, risks there are if you skip all your meals in anticipation of a large dinner on Thanksgiving.
Read on to find out all the answers.
What happens when you overeat?
It’s not uncommon to feel like you might explode after eating a large meal, especially when you ignore hunger cues and eat with your eyes.
But your stomach is literally built to stretch for this reason, so the risk of it actually exploding (more like tearing) after overeating is “incredibly rare,” said Dr. Benjamin Schmidt, a gastroenterology fellow in Missouri who spends his free time using comedy to educate people about medicine.
He estimates that the stomach can more than double in size after eating.
However, the more food you eat, the more your stomach stretches, and the more nauseated, lethargic, and groggy you may feel, Schmidt said.
“That discomfort you feel from eating too much is your body’s natural response to how stretched your stomach is,” Schmidt said. “It acts as feedback to tell you, ‘Hey, you should probably stop eating, you’ve had enough.’”
The overstuffed stomach can push against your surrounding organs and encourage gas to form, creating pressure that can force stomach acid up your esophagus. This acid reflux can result in heartburn, which is the burning sensation in your throat and chest. Consuming coffee, chocolate, alcohol, citrus fruits, and fried foods can worsen the sensation if you are prone to acid reflux.
If you also finish your meal too quickly, you’re more likely to overeat because you’re not giving your stomach enough time to tell your brain you’re full, said Emily R. Blidy, a clinical registered dietitian nutritionist at the Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.
So it’s important to eat slowly and listen to your body.
People with diabetes have to be extra careful when eating big meals, Schimdt said; certain foods can cause blood sugar levels to spike rapidly. If you have type 1 diabetes, you may need to adjust your insulin to handle the additional intake of carbohydrates. If you have type 2 diabetes, you also need to remember to take your medication (if you use it to control blood sugar) and, if possible, you can also make an effort to get active after the big meal, like going for a walk, to help lower it.
Anyone with high blood pressure, kidney disease, or heart disease, among other conditions, should avoid excessive salt intake, which is why balanced portions are key, Blidy said. Still, “that’s not to say you can’t enjoy certain foods with your family and friends on Thanksgiving,” she said.
While the chances you experience anything beyond mild discomfort from overeating during holiday meals are slim, the experts I spoke to said there are some unusual but more serious consequences such as food impaction: when food gets stuck in your esophagus.
It’s rare, Schmidt said, although Thanksgiving is “famous for this kind of issue.” Hospital emergency departments get these types of calls and visits, traditionally around 9 p.m. after most people have had dinner.
About 13 cases occur per 100,000 people each year, and it most often happens to older people with conditions that affect the esophagus.
Chest pain and the inability to swallow saliva are the most common symptoms. If the food doesn’t dislodge itself over time, however, the only option to clear it is to have a GI doctor manually remove it during a procedure called an endoscopy. One 2017 study of people undergoing these types of endoscopies found that during holidays or national sporting events, about 37% of patients had the procedure to treat food impaction compared with 4% of patients at other times of the year.
Dry, dense foods like turkey, pork, and bread are mostly to blame. It happens more frequently in people with health conditions who don’t chew their food enough, eat more than usual, or don’t cut their food into small enough pieces, Schmidt said — so avoid doing any of that!
Tips on the best way to enjoy your Thanksgiving meal
- Avoid distractions, such as watching TV, when you eat, so you’re more aware of when you’re full.
- Eat slowly.
- Drink water before, during, and after meals.
- Take over-the-counter medicines if you feel acid reflux or painful gas. Schmidt recommends speaking with your doctor about it first.
- When it comes to sweets, don’t restrict yourself too much, Blidy said: “Sweets are going to be there whether you eat them or not. Restriction can lead to overconsumption or bingeing later on. Satisfy those cravings to prevent overdoing it at once.”
Why do big meals make you sleepy?
Are holiday gatherings really complete without at least one family member falling asleep on the couch? It’s not their fault; digestion is a laborious process, and the more nutrient-dense, high-calorie, or processed the foods are, the harder it is on the body, Blidy said.
Digestion, because it requires so much energy, pulls blood away from other important parts of the body like the brain and muscles to help break down food, which can make you fatigued and sleepy. (This is why people have traditionally been told to avoid swimming after eating, although people don’t actually drown because of a full belly, Schmidt said.)
On a more evolutionary level, big meals may tire you because our ancestors, after an energy intensive hunt for food, were finally able to relax after eating, Schmidt said, so our bodies may be automatically primed to rest as digestion takes place.
There’s a popular myth that turkey makes you sleepy because it contains tryptophan, an amino acid found in high-protein foods like chicken, eggs, cheese, nuts, and more. It’s important in infant growth and is a building block used in making neurotransmitters and proteins, including enzymes, as well as other molecules in the body.
Studies suggest that tryptophan plays a role in inducing sleepiness in people with mild insomnia, but Schmidt said the notion that turkey alone is behind our holiday drowsiness is a “misnomer.” Turkey actually contains less tryptophan than other holiday favorites.
If you get the urge to dive into bed right after Thanksgiving dinner, by all means, go ahead. You may just want to consider waiting at least two to three hours because laying down after a big meal can trigger acid reflux; your stomach acid can more easily travel upwards because it doesn't have to fight gravity.
You’ll also want to avoid a vigorous workout after a big dinner, Blidy said, because it could cause nausea or vomiting. (So make sure you run that Turkey Trot before you eat.) If you feel too full, she suggests walking around a bit to help the digestion process.
Is it safe to fast before a large meal?
You should probably avoid skipping meals before a large one at the end of the day for several reasons, Schmidt said. One is that blood sugar levels can drop too low, which may make you feel light-headed, shaky, irritable, or tired — in other words, “hangry.”
Fasting before Thanksgiving dinner may also encourage you to overeat because you’ll likely eat more quickly to satisfy your hunger.
“Stick with your normal eating schedule as much as possible so you can stay a little bit more balanced with your portions,” Blidy said. “That way you can enjoy the foods you like but not go overboard.”
Schmidt also said there’s no real advantage to skipping meals to give your stomach more space for a hefty dinner later on.
“In the short term, just doing it on one day for a regular healthy individual would not cause too many problems, but I don't think the benefit is there,” Schmidt said. “If you're eating a reasonable diet, your stomach usually clears the vast majority of what you eat after about four hours. So if you're eating dinner at a normal time like 6 or 7 p.m., then skipping lunch or breakfast completely is significant overkill.” ●