Thanksgiving is here again, and if you’re one of the people who use the holiday as an excuse to stuff your face silly, we’re not judging. But we are curious about what happens to your body on Thanksgiving.
Giving in to cravings—and then subsequently dozing off on the couch with your top button unfastened—is what the holiday is all about. But after the big meal enters your stomach, the situation inside is anything but serene. In fact, your entire body goes into overdrive the second you smell the holiday spread.
Here, Leah Kaufman, MS, RD, CDN, a New York City-based dietitian, and Lisa Moskovitz, RD, founder of The NY Nutrition Group, explain exactly how your system deals with the Thanksgiving dinner overload.
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“The second you walk into the kitchen and get a whiff of the turkey and other holiday fare, gastric fluids and other enzymes needed for digestion begin to secrete inside the stomach, priming the digestive system for the meal ahead,” says Kaufman.
“Once you start chewing the first bite of food, the stomach immediately begins to expand because it knows more food is on the way that will need to be digested,” says Kaufman. The gastrointestinal (GI) tract also perks up a bit because it knows more food is on the way. “This prompts more digestive enzymes to release from the stomach, pancreas, and the intestine,” says Kaufman. “Insulin, the hormone that helps glucose move from the blood into the cells, is also released when you begin to nosh and sugar from the food enters the bloodstream. This subsequently triggers a release of the hormone, leptin, which helps the brain register that we’re eating and allows for more insulin secretion.”
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“Once you start digging into carb- and sugar-laden dishes like mashed potatoes and stuffing, your body releases serotonin, the feel-good hormone,” says Kaufman. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for all month: carb-o-bliss.
“The serotonin then activates the reward system in the brain, which tells you, ‘This tastes awesome, I’d like some more’ when you eat something delicious,” says Kaufman. “This explains why it’s so hard to say ‘no’ to Turkey Day seconds.”
“When you start feeling full, sensory nerves in the stomach and appetite-controlling hormones like ghrelin activate the satiety centers of the brain, telling you you’ve eaten enough. However, those signals are easy to ignore if others around you are still munching away or the spread looks particularly appealing,” says Kaufman. Plus, if you ate super fast, your brain may not get the signal that you’re full until you’ve already served yourself seconds.
After your last bite of pie, “the stomach secretes enzymes and acids that help break down your meal into smaller pieces so it can eventually fit into the small intestine,” says Moskovitz. “Starchy and water-based foods are then broken down further into liquid, but fatty foods like Grandma’s buttery mashed potatoes stick around in the stomach because they aren’t able to break down as quickly, causing that uncomfortable, bloated feeling.”
“By now, all your food has made its way from the stomach down into the small intestine. Once it’s arrived, it signals the release of enzymes from the pancreas and gallbladder that helps to digest carbs and proteins and break the food down into amino acids and simple sugars to be absorbed into the bloodstream,” says Moskovitz.
Feeling tired yet? Yup, that’s what we thought. “While many people get sleepy after eating their Thanksgiving dinner, the turkey is not to blame,” says Moskovitz. “There just isn’t enough tryptophan in a standard serving of the meat to have that kind of effect.”
Instead, the fatigue is most likely a result of your stuffed stomach. “Blood rushes out of the extremities into to the abdomen to assist with the digestion process, which causes feelings of fatigue,” Moskovitz says.
Your liver is beginning to break up your dinner into nutrients that your body can absorb and use to stay healthy. “At this point, your body will also begin to use the food you’ve eaten for energy. Anything you don’t burn off later tonight will be stored as fat,” says Moskovitz.
Finally, you’ve excreted your Turkey Day meal. Anything that’s been sitting in your stomach giving you a bloated midsection should finally be out of your system. Only 363 days till next Thanksgiving!
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