You know what a belly full of turkey, mashed potatoes and pie feels like: You’re a little uncomfortable and, if you’re doing it right, still quite content. You also know what it looks like: say,…
You know what a belly full of turkey, mashed potatoes and pie feels like: You’re a little uncomfortable and, if you’re doing it right, still quite content. You also know what it looks like: say, maybe you need a bigger pair of pants.
But do you know what it looks like on the inside — that is, the impact it has on your intestines, heart, pancreas and other organs? Understanding that, health experts say, may help you make more thoughtful choices on the big day, and others. One day of gorging is OK, but a whole season or year is problematic, says Dr. Jennifer Caudle, a family physician and assistant professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford, New Jersey.
Here, she and others reveal what’s actually going on in there, one body part at a time:
Why do so many of us go overboard on Thanksgiving, despite every intention not to? Blame your unconscious brain, which has likely become habituated to ignoring your natural hunger and satiety cues, says Shelly Wegman, a registered dietitian at UNC REX Healthcare in Raleigh. “We skip right over that and eat what’s in front of us, whether we want it or not.”
That’s especially the case when the foods in front of us are rich in carbs, which make the brain extra happy. “Around the holidays, you have all of these literally favorite foods and just seeing them or just thinking about them is enough to get the brain going and saying, ‘I want that, eat that,” Wegman says.
Retraining your brain takes practice and time, but you can start by taking time to ask yourself how full you are on a scale of 1 to 10 before and during meals. A 3 ( starting to get hungry) is a good time to eat and a 7 (full but not uncomfortable) is a good time to stop, Wegman says.
You can also dupe your brain into thinking you’re eating more than you are by using smaller plates or baking a smaller pie cut into the same number of slices, Wegman recommends. “There are lots of ways to trick the brain,” she says.
Those first few bites of buttery mashed potatoes don’t just seem to taste the best, they actually do. “Your taste buds are hit with the first couple of bites, but after that, it’s mostly a memory,” Wegman says. Yet another reason to savor them instead of chasing a taste that won’t return.
What happens physiologically when food hits your mouth is also reason to chew your food completely before swallowing, says Dr. Scott Gabbard, a gastroenterologist at the Cleveland Clinic. “There is (the digestive enzyme) amylase in the salivary glands that starts to break down carbs, even as soon as you put things in your mouth and chew,” he says. Skimping on that stage can raise the risk of distress down the digestive road.
Your Upper Stomach
After you chew your food, your tongue pushes it back and the esophagus squeezes it down (better known as swallowing), into the upper part of your stomach called the fundus, which should relax and expand, Gabbard explains. People who eat competitively, as well as those who stuff themselves silly often, have trained their stomachs to really expand.
While back in the day, the belly’s flexibility helped humans load up and survive between famines, today, the stomach’s malleable capacity is a liability that can lead to weight gain. “The stomach does way too good of a job being stretched,” says Gabbard, who recommends drinking a glass of water before your Thanksgiving meal to start to take up some of that space.
Your Lower Stomach
About 30 to 60 minutes after a normal-sized meal, the fundus “slams” the food against the bottom part of the stomach, which breaks it down into smaller particles with the help of more digestive enzymes, Gabbard says. After about four to six hours, those particles are small enough to move through the pylorus — aka the road to the small intestine. After a large Thanksgiving binge, however, “I would estimate that it probably takes six to eight hours in a normal individual for the stomach to empty completely,” Gabbard says. So if you want to be able to enjoy breakfast on Black Friday, take it easy the night before.
Once the former food enters the small intestine, “bile and pancreas juice” enters the intestines to help break down the fats and proteins further. “Once they’re broken into very small molecules, that’s where the small intestine can absorb all the nutrients,” Gabbard explains. Because the small intestine is so large — it would stretch across two tennis courts if unraveled out of your body, Gabbard says — it can take up to four hours to pass all the way through. And that’s a normal meal.
Next up is the colon, or the large intestine, a 4 foot-long tube whose job it is to absorb water from what’s left of the food. One to three days later, you’re left with the stool.
Back when the small intestine absorbed the nutrients, those nutrients went to the liver, which detoxified them before sending them to the rest of the body. “The pancreas senses this and secretes insulin,” Gabbard says. While a spike in insulin is a natural reaction to meals, overeating high-sugar, high-carb foods on a regular basis can lead to insulin resistance and, eventually, diabetes. “The worry of most internists is what binge eating does to the pancreas and your body’s resistance to insulin,” Gabbard says.
To temper that effect, try to balance your plate with at least as many vegetables (not in casserole form) as carbs and protein, Wegman recommends, and plan to take a walk or play a game of pickup football after the meal. “If you do overindulge, it’s not the end of the world,” Caudle says. “You get back on track.”