Thanksgiving is a national holiday established in part for reflecting on the bounty of the past year’s harvest. Over the past few decades, it has also become synonymous with stuffing as much of that harvest into one’s self as possible.
You’ve likely heard all the justifications and are perhaps guilty of doling out a few of them yourself: “I only eat like this during the holidays,” or “every once in a while doesn’t hurt,” or even “this is why sweatpants were invented.”
According to the American Council on Exercise, Americans consume more than 3,000 calories during an average Thanksgiving meal. That figure leads to an average intake of 4,500 calories on Thanksgiving Day, more than double the recommended daily caloric intake for an average person.
That begs the question: does binge overeating – even just a few times here and there – have negative ramifications on your body or overall health?
“There’s a clever saying, ‘Don’t worry about what you eat between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, worry about what you eat between New Year’s and Thanksgiving,” said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D. “The gist of the saying is rooted in truth. Are you going to become obese or have serious health concerns from one big meal? Quite simply, no.”
Prescott said the real impact of overeating comes in the long term, and sensible eating on a consistent basis is far more instrumental in maintaining a healthy weight and fending off certain diseases than avoiding the occasional splurge. In fact, it takes up to 3,500 extra calories over what your body naturally burns per day to gain a single pound of body fat, so the average American intake on Thanksgiving shouldn’t result in more than an extra pound.
But that’s not to say there aren’t potential drawbacks from overeating during the holidays.
“One of our scientists at OMRF, has just shown that if you overfeed mice and rats with a high-fat diet for a short time – just a matter of a few days, actually – you see changes in those animals,” said Prescott. “Those changes are associated with negative outcomes like insulin resistance and changes in the energy production of the cells that look like they’re on their way to obesity and diabetes. And it happens surprisingly quickly.”
As Prescott said, overeating on occasion isn’t detrimental to your health but negative effects can take hold in short order if the behavior is allowed to continue. And therein lies the rub. Even a one-time splurge can trigger a cycle of overeating as your body comes to anticipate a higher food intake the next time around.
“It’s almost an addictive behavior,” Prescott said. “If you’ve ever been on a serious diet, there’s a period where it’s quite unpleasant and you’re hungry all the time and your body is screaming, ‘This isn’t right!’ It’s hard to push through that phase, but ultimately your body adapts. This exact thing can happen as a result of binge overeating.”
Prescott said this is a major drawback to the holiday splurge, as the average person will have a difficult time accepting a return to a normal calorie intake on the heels of the holidays, often resulting in substantial weight gain over the following months.
“It’s a larger-scale version of the diet response. Your body rapidly decides this is the new normal. But you’ve got to consciously get away from that and make a willful decision to prevent it from becoming a repeating issue,” said Prescott.
If you choose to stuff a little more on your plate than usual this Thanksgiving, it won’t result in immediate disaster but, should you opt for moderation this Turkey Day, it will be your body’s turn to give thanks, and it could save you some tough days in the process.
“One meal isn’t going to put you on the path to serious illness like diabetes or heart disease,” said Prescott. “So if Grandma talks you into a third helping of sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie, don’t despair. Just be mindful of your food intake afterward and get back on the right track. Your body will thank you for it.”