Avoiding the Thanksgiving food coma

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan

We’ve all experienced the feeling of exhaustion that inevitably follows a filling Thanksgiving meal. For years, people have named turkey and L-tryptophan, an amino acid found in turkey, as the culprit of midday naps, early bedtimes and the dreaded “Thanksgiving coma,” but the science behind holiday eating actually disproves this common misconception.

So, why is it that we feel more tired than usual after Thanksgiving dinner?

In short, it’s the amount of food we are eating, specifically our carbohydrate intake with the tryptophan. The overconsumption of carbohydrates causes the body to release more insulin, which gives tryptophan a quick pass to get through the system, from the bloodstream to the brain. The combination of tryptophan and carbohydrates increases serotonin levels and a by-product of that is melatonin, which acts as a sleep aid in the brain.

Adding to that, people consume approximately 4,500 calories throughout the course of Thanksgiving day. To accommodate all of this food, our bodies direct more blood to the digestive system, which results in less blood flow to the brain and other parts of the body leading to a sluggish, sleepy feeling.

So, how can we better support our bodies while still enjoying the holiday splurge? Here are a few tips to consider:

Stay hydrated
Not only is water a healthy alternative to a sugary drink, it can also help keep overeating to a minimum. Water assists in the digestive process by adding fluids to the colon and preventing foods from getting stuck. It pairs with fiber rich foods to allow for regular bowel movements, while cleaning out the waste from the gastrointestinal tract. Adding a glass of water to dinner and refilling it throughout will help keep us energized to enjoy the day with family.

Make time for activity
Though Thanksgiving can be a busy day, especially for those cooking, fitting in exercise is easier than many people might think. Cooking and cleaning up as a family allows us to burn calories while also being productive. In addition, a friendly game of backyard football or basketball can also serve as a good source of physical activity. To sneak in some extra activity and continue working off the calories, try taking an extra lap around the mall or store while shopping the next day as well.

Eat your veggies first
We all know that vegetable dishes like green bean almondine or spinach salad are healthier than carbohydrate-heavy foods like mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese and bread. But the order of consumption also matters. Loading up on veggies first will help reduce the impact of carb-driven serotonin influxes which can affect sleep patterns.

Portion control
While it’s easy to get carried away at Thanksgiving dinner, one of the best ways to limit intake is by managing portion sizes. A simple, but impactful adjustment, is using a smaller plate. It takes 20 minutes for the stomach to tell the brain it’s full, so slow down and chew thoroughly. Remember, our stomachs are only about the size of our fist. Overeating stretches the muscle and can ultimately result in unnecessary weight gain.

For more health tips, go to AHealthierMichigan.org.

(Grace Derocha is a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and certified health coach at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.)