Alan Frischer, MD, MPH
Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. It reminds me to focus on gratitude, and to spend time with dear family and friends. For most of us, it’s also about…the food.
Do you leave the table feeling tired, bloated, overstuffed? This holiday marks the beginning of a food glut. We bake cookies, pies, and fruitcakes; give gifts of chocolates; go to parties; and gather for holiday meals. Is pigging out during the holidays a harmless indulgence, or a real health concern?
Every morsel of food we ingest, whether part of a Thanksgiving feast or a small healthful snack, travels through the body and causes the release of hormones, chemicals, and digestive fluids. The average meal takes between one and three hours to exit the stomach. A large meal can take between eight and 12 hours! On a typical day, the average American consumes about 40 to 50 grams of fat in about 2,000 calories. I find it shocking that those figures can skyrocket to some 4,500 calories and 230 grams of fat on Thanksgiving Day.
The obvious side effects of overeating include indigestion, flatulence, post-meal fatigue (food coma), and perhaps that extra pound or two. However, there can be a more significant price to pay for eating vast helpings of turkey, stuffing, and candied sweet potatoes:
Overeating makes our bodies work harder. To process the extra food, the heart pumps more blood to the stomach and intestines. At the same time, heavy fat consumption may lead to a higher risk of blood clots. The risk of heart attack surges, with some studies showing a four-fold increased risk of heart attack, two hours after consuming a large meal.
As the stomach releases food into the intestines, the gallbladder squeezes out bile to help digest the fat. The extra demand for bile may result in a gallstone or sludge being painfully squeezed into the narrow duct that leads to the intestine.
A large meal can trigger the release of norepinephrine, a stress hormone that raises blood pressure and heart rate.
For a diabetic, a large meal will not only increase blood sugar levels, but will also impair the ability to process those sugars.
For those who are prone to heartburn, a large meal can lead to painful gastric reflux.
Consider that the average stomach holds about eight cups of food. When it is stretched, chemicals are released that inform our brain that we are full. Many of us ignore that signal and just keep on eating. At some point the body will send out nausea signals. Continuing to eat, and stretching the stomach beyond its capacity, can (but very rarely does) lead to an actual rupture!
Here are some classic suggestions for the upcoming holiday season: Don’t arrive at the meal ravenous. Eat slowly and consume lots of filling foods with a high water content, such as soups, salads, and other vegetables and fruits.
If you are hosting, use smaller plates. Keep the serving dishes in the kitchen, not on the table. Use smaller serving spoons and serving dishes. Serve foods that require utensils (as we tend to overeat finger foods). And finally…push away from the table before you feel completely full, and take a relaxing, sociable walk after dinner.