Tired after Turkey? Don't Blame the Tryptophan

November 03, 2017

We all look forward to that Thanksgiving dinner with plenty of trimmings. But what happens after the feast? Turns out when you’re at your most stuffed and sluggish, the body is busy taking care of business.

Calorie-rich holidays like Thanksgiving tax your digestive system more than average meals, and the body responds accordingly. Because it simply takes more energy to break down a larger meal, the body says: let’s slow everything else down so we can move forward with digestion. Blood flow shifts to the digestive tract where all the action is happening, and the body powers down as the digestive system powers up.

Inside the stomach, a complex mix of food is broken down into pieces a little thicker than the tip of a pencil. That takes some time. In fact, proteins and fats take longer to process and leave the stomach, so tend to leave you feeling fuller longer.

Carbohydrates like bread, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie are easier to process and empty from the stomach more quickly. So if you eat mostly carbohydrates, you’ll feel hungry again sooner. It’s much like being hungry an hour after eating Chinese food.

Meanwhile, a complex interaction of hormones goes into play to tell the body how to metabolize these foods into nutrients the body can use. Proteins, fats, carbohydrates and sugars are handled differently. Proteins are converted into amino acids, which make up the body’s cells, muscles and tissue. Fats are broken down and become a short-term energy source or are stored as body fat for later use. Carbohydrates are turned into blood glucose which causes insulin spikes that can increase fat storage. Sugar is metabolized as both a carbohydrate and a fat.

All this cellular activity keeps you in the fog of post-meal fatigue, or the food coma we all joke about. Many blame it on the tryptophan in turkey, but it’s more than that. Your body is working on a concentrated task that requires energy, and it can take 24 or even 72 hours to fully complete.

So how to have your holiday pie and enjoy the rest of the day, too? Some tips:

1. Take steps. Enjoy a pre-meal walk or family football game. Then plan an activity for after dinner. If you know there’s something to do after the meal, you might not eat as much.

2. Plan ahead. Most people have one or two favorites. If turkey is your preference, have more turkey but less of something else. If your goal is dessert, literally save room for it.

3. Find balance. Level out your plate with less bread, potatoes and stuffing and jelly. Proteins are great, so have more turkey, lots of vegetables, a little fruit, fewer of the starches and watch out for the sugar. The fat is actually not that bad for you, but don’t overdo it.

4. Crunch away. Keep up the big servings of vegetables and fruits for two reasons. First, most of us don’t eat enough vegetables. Secondly, most vegetables can help fill you up without adding a lot of calories.

5. Drop the pop. Avoid all sugary beverages. They are about the worst thing for you because they’re just empty sugar and no nutrients. So avoid all sodas and juices, including orange juice.

6. Pause often. Take time during the meal. The fork is not glued to your hand. When you set your fork down for a little bit, you allow yourself lag time between feeling full and being full.

7. Pay attention. Stop eating when you’re not hungry -- don’t wait until you’re full. Avoid mindlessly eating while watching television.

8. Sit up. If you want to nap, make sure you’re upright to avoid acid reflux. Think of your body as a well, and the meal as rocks thrown in the well that raise the water level. If you tip yourself sideways, that “water” is going to slosh over, and you’re more likely to have acid reflux.

9. Hold firm. It’s not just the meal, it’s all the leftovers that can be a problem. So think about what you’re consuming and try a turkey sandwich without the bread or another low-carb approach.

10. Just say no. You don’t have to eat everything that’s offered to you. And if you’re already working on weight loss, be careful during the holidays. Think of it this way: If you’re in debt, spending $100 makes a big difference. So if you’re working to lose weight, the holidays are a time to avoid indulgences. Make healthy eating a habit before Thanksgiving rolls around and you’ll have more willpower when it’s time for those big dinners.