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How Much is Too Much on Thanksgiving?

Is pigging out during the holiday a harmless indulgence or a real health worry?

4,500. That’s quite a large number. Would you believe that’s the number of calories the average American is expected to consume this Thanksgiving? According to research from the Calorie Control Council, a typical holiday dinner alone can carry a load of 3,000 calories. Nibbling through another 1,500 calories, by downing appetizers and drinks before and after the big meal, would bring the total to more than 4,500 calories and a whopping 229 grams of fat.

From an overall perspective, snacking and eating a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and all the trimmings is the equivalent of more than 2 ¼ times the average daily calorie intake and almost 3 ½ times the fat—with 45% of calories from fat—enough fat to equal three sticks of butter. “It’s like a tsunami of fat coming into the body,” says Dr. Pamela Peeke, assistant clinical professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

But is pigging out during the holiday a harmless indulgence or a real health worry?

First: The Food Journey

Every bite of food, whether it’s part of a huge Thanksgiving meal or a weekday lunch, travels through the body touching off a simultaneous release of hormones, chemicals, and digestive fluids. The average meal takes one to three hours to leave the stomach. But a large meal can take eight to 12 hours, depending on the quantity and fat content.

Average stomach capacity is approximately eight cups, although it can range from four to 12, says Dr. Edward Saltzman, an assistant professor of medicine at Tufts University. A stretched stomach prompts the release of chemicals that tell the brain it’s full. But some holiday diners, when faced with a savory buffet of mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie, keep eating.

Experts say the ability to ignore these signals is an evolutionary adaptation that helped build fat stores during times of plenty. Even so, the body eventually puts a stop to the binge. Susan B. Roberts, director of the energy metabolism laboratory at Tufts explains that after about 1,500 calories, the gut releases a hormone that causes nausea. It may feel as though your stomach will burst, but gastric rupture is extremely rare.

How the Body Reacts to Too Much Food

Your stomach may be safe from rupture, but overeating does make the body work harder. The extra digestive workload demanded by so much food forces the heart to pump more blood to the stomach and intestines. Eating too many fatty foods can also lead to changes that cause blood to clot more easily, says Dr. Francisco Lopez-Jimenez, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine.

As a result, heart attack risk appears to surge. Dr. Lopez-Jimenez led a study of 2,000 people that showed a fourfold increase in heart attack risk in the two hours after eating a big meal. “Someone who eats three times the normal calories of a regular meal will have an extra workload for the stomach and intestines and, therefore, the heart,” Dr. Lopez-Jimenez explains.

Some doctors think this digestive workout may also explain the “food coma” many people experience after a big meal. Although popular wisdom holds that Thanksgiving drowsiness is caused by tryptophan, an amino acid found in turkey, the amount isn’t actually significant enough to affect most people.

For most people, food fatigue just brings on the need for a nap, but for travelers it is also a safety risk. If Uncle Bobby wants to leave right after the meal, his food fatigue (along with a few too many glasses of wine) can make for a lethal combination behind the wheel of a car. Experts recommend we resist the urge to nap and go for a walk instead—we’ll burn up some of that food and increase blood flow to the body.

Blood sugar levels are also greatly affected after a large meal. The more you eat, the higher your blood sugar—this spike in means a crash will follow. These dramatic changes mean that you may find yourself once again reaching for leftover pie after the “food coma” wears off. An awful cycle that keeps repeating itself and can be hard to stop.

Not All Hope is Lost

Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be the beginning of the end of your healthy eating habits. “Regardless of the exact number of calories we consume at Thanksgiving, we probably eat much too much,” says Muna Siddiqi, a registered dietitian at Swedish Covenant Hospital. “But you don’t have to overeat if you pay attention. If you make thoughtful choices, you can enjoy your favorite foods without feaster’s remorse.

Here are five tips Siddiqi has successfully used to help her clients have a healthy Thanksgiving:

  1. Eat before you eat: Even on Thanksgiving Day, it’s important to plan for three meals over the course of the day, starting with a light but satisfying breakfast, like yogurt, fruit or cereal. “Saving up” all your calories for dinner will not only leave you feeling starved; you’ll be that much more likely to overindulge later.
  2. Exercise: Stick to your exercise routine. If your gym is closed, enjoy a brisk walk with family and friends. This is a good idea both before and after the big meal.
  1. Pay attention to portions: Fill half your plate with fruits and veggies. If there’s a buffet line, make only one trip. Check out all your options before making your final choices and make sure the calories you consume are worth it. Choose only those favorites you really want and keep your portions moderate.
  2. Think maintenance: Don’t try to diet during the holidays. Try to maintain your current weight. Given that the average person gains 10 pounds over the holidays, if you can stay where you are now, you’re doing better than most!
  1. Eat slowly—and enjoy: Savor your Thanksgiving traditions, and remember it’s not just about food. Enjoy family and friends and be thankful for all the day offers.

If you have questions about any healthcare issue, contact the primary care providers at Coastal Carolina Health Care by calling (252) 633-4111 or visiting

(Sources: Calorie Control Council; Mayo Clinic College of Medicine; The New York Times; Swedish Covenant Hospital; Reader’s Digest; and Self Magazine.)