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Food Coma -Your Body on Thanksgiving

The Science of Eating and the “Holiday Food Coma:

Thanksgiving is a time for family and friends, reflections of gratitude, great food, and for too many of us-the Thanksgiving food coma.  After the seconds of turkey, too many delicious sides, and helpings of your aunt’s infamous pumpkin pie, it’s difficult to overcome the overwhelming sense of sleepiness that ensues.  

Known scientifically as postprandial somnolence, food coma is a state of sleepiness and lethargy following a big meal. Physiologically, however, the effects of a large, often fatty meal has greater health consequences than just falling asleep at 8:00 p.m.

How does food coma work?               
The most common explanation for postprandial somnolence is a shift in nervous system activity.  The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the system which controls involuntary action of organs, heart, and glands.  It is divided into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS, commonly known as responsible for the “fight or flight” response), and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS, lesser known as responsible for the “rest and digest” response.)  After a meal, as the turkey enters the small intestines, the ANS shifts towards the PNS, resulting in an overwhelming sense of lethargy. Typically, the larger the meal, the larger the parasympathetic response.

In addition, hormonal responses to meals rich with starchy carbohydrates can also add to the post-meal slump.  When digesting meals with a large amount of carbohydrates, the body breaks them down into its component parts of sugar (glucose) molecules.  The simpler the carbohydrates (think pecan pie and mashed potatoes), the easier and quicker the food breaks down and sugar rushes into your bloodstream.  To respond to this influx of sugar, the pancreas releases an equally large amount of insulin to clear the sugar from the bloodstream and into waiting cells. However, in healthy people, insulin can do such a great job at removing the sugar it causes blood sugar to plummet below resting levels, leaving you sleepy and lethargic-adding to postprandial somnolence. Later, it can also cause a second surge of ravenous hunger, making you eat more even if you are already full.

Why is food coma bad?     
Each person digests and absorbs macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates, and protein) differently.  It is these differences that can determine one’s risk for conditions such as cardiovascular disease, heart disease, stroke and diabetes.  Research shows that even in healthy people, the endothelial cells lining blood vessels are temporarily weakened after a very large meal.  It is at these weakened points, where blood vessels are more prone to rupture, creating problems such as strokes and aneurisms. In addition, cholesterol and triglyceride levels also peak and may begin lining blood vessels with fatty plaques that can lead to future atherosclerosis (narrowing of blood vessels).  High triglycerides are also associated with risk of heart attack and stroke.

How can we prevent food coma?               
Enjoying yourself at Thanksgiving does not have to mean gorging yourself and feeling sorry for it later.  Follow these simple tips to keep your metabolism up, and your brain awake on Thanksgiving:

 1. Don’t fast.  In preparation for a large dinner, some try to fast and skip eating breakfast and lunch.  This can lead to overeating and binging later in the day.  Instead, keep your metabolism burning by eating small, sensible meals including protein and healthy.

2. Include some exercise.  In the morning before starting to prepare your Thanksgiving meal, go for a morning workout.  Research has shown that even a 30 minute walk in the morning is enough to reduce triglyceride peaks 12 hours later.  Also, encourage your fello dinner guests to go on a walk between courses and after dinner is complete.  Light exercise will begin burning off some of the calories you consumed and aide digestion.

3. Pace yourself. Remember, this is not your last meal.  Take your time and savor the dishes that most likely took hours to prepare.  Research shows that we eat less if the dish is smaller, making the portions look bigger, or if you have to get up for seconds instead of just asking to pass the cranberry sauce. Also, the belly-brain connection akes about 20 minutes to register how full you are. So, take your time to tune into your body’s sense of fullness so you don’t have to unbuckle your belt.

4. Heavy on turkey and light on the mashed potatoes. Try to eat more of the foods with protein with lower glycemic indices than those with higher glycemic indices (white bread, white potatoes, white rice).  Avoid carbohydrate foods with high glycemic indices which cause blood sugar spikes. If you do eat something sweet look to balance the glycemic index of that meal by matching it with a good protein source on your plate.

5. Drink Plenty of Water. Before meals, water will partially fill you up. In addition, drinking more water will flush out salt to avoid water weight gain. Water will also aide digestion, and will help prevent constipation by keeping the food moving through the digestive system to be eliminated.

6. Don’t deprive yourself.  While planning your nutrition plan may seem daunting, putting pressure on yourself to be “perfect” can often become an even worse punishment leading to overeating the next day or regret for not partaking in the holiday.  Instead, choose one or two things that are “treats” and limit yourself to a few bites.  Savor and enjoy those bites and stop.

by Rachel Suson, EP, http://www.phase-iv.net