Ah, the holidays. It feels like it was just summer and I was just filling up a water balloon with Gatorade. How time flies.
Frankly, it is the food that I most enjoy about the season. Don’t you? I even like turkey, which is controversial in some quarters. I use the holidays as a free pass to stuff my face like the country is right on the verge of a famine and I am a physical granary. But from a health perspective, is eating a full holiday meal the right thing to do? Aren’t you supposed to eat five small meals and have a snack of an apple and almond butter? But how do you physically spread almond butter on an apple? Doesn’t the almond butter kind of roll into tiny balls and fall off the apple? Everyone acts like it is the easiest snack to make when it is actually the hardest!
"The stomach is an interesting organ."
Anyway, then I got curious. What does a huge holiday meal actually physically do to your body? What happens to you if you do not have the five small meals and maneuver the almond butter correctly and instead eat one huge meal, which no one recommends? Does your body go into a secret low-level panic that it conceals until manifesting years later in a big, cranberry sauce-garnished gotcha?
“The good news is that overeating as a one-off doesn’t have any detrimental long-term consequences,” says nutritionist Janine Higbie of JH Wellness (also my neighbor!). Thank god!
But what actually happens to you in the short term? The answer: a lot of bloating.
“The stomach is an interesting organ,” says Dr. Murray Orbuch, assistant professor of gastroenterology at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. “Everyone thinks digestion happens in there, but the purpose of it is to crush the food down. You feel discomfort because of the action of crushing the food down.” Especially if you eat a lot of food.
After the food is crushed, “The liver and the pancreas work harder to break the food down,” Higbie says, “and excess gas is often produced.”
Now I know why I need to wear sweatpants before I even get to dinner at my mom’s.
However, when you are done eating, and are lying down watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade — that’s where it can get especially uncomfortable, and here’s why:
“Lying down when the stomach is full overcomes the sphincter at the lower esophagus and permits gastric contents and acid to wash up into the esophagus,” Orbuch says. Aka, you can get acid reflux.
And that is not all.
I am not going to use orange juice in my sweet potato casserole because I actually hate the taste of orange juice in a sweet potato casserole and now I get to decide because I am the decider!
“If you eat too close to bed, digestion can interfere with sleep by disrupting hormonal influences on your circadian rhythm,” Higbie says.
This is all well and good, but I still need a more specific and scientific answer to the question of what happens to your body after a huge holiday meal. Is it really just bloating and gas? To find out, I decide to cook a holiday meal with all the fixings, eat it, and then get checked by a doctor right afterward to see what was happening to me. I'm willing to use my body for science, as is my wont.
There is something ghoulishly festive about cooking holiday foods very far away from the holidays. It is also, interestingly, an experiment in cooking a “holiday for one,” as all of my friends and husband are busy at work and my baby hates turkey, which she calls “dicka da” for no reason that I can see.
I am not a masochist. I am not going to make myself eat a whole turkey, just a turkey tenderloin. I am not going to use cut-up bread for my stuffing, I am going to use pre-cut Pepperidge Farm stuffing, and I am not going to use orange juice in my sweet potato casserole because I actually hate the taste of orange juice in a sweet potato casserole and now I get to decide because I am the decider! But aside from that, I really commit: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and sweet potato casserole with marshmallows. I even get a pumpkin pie from the store.
I make the dinner during my baby’s nap, and I realize something. It is really the cooking of the whole turkey that makes Thanksgiving dinner (or any holiday dinner for that matter) so arduous. If you just cook a turkey tenderloin, the whole thing is actually fine. You can make the whole thing during the nap of one baby.
I vividly picture my most essential blood vessels totally impassable due to blockades of pumpkin pie filling. It seems like not the worst way to go.
I’m hungry and so I eat a lot, a lot, a lot. The turkey tenderloin is both drier and better than real turkey. The Pepperidge Farm stuffing is far better than the torn bread stuffing I was making in my pretentious yet short-lived gourmand phase. When I am finished, my pants don’t fit because my stomach is crushing a lot of food. I can barely concentrate on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade of 2013, during which the Goo Goo Dolls performed and Carrie Underwood nervously discussed preparations for The Sound of Music Live. When my baby wakes up, my acid reflux is so bad I can’t even sing the Ghostbusters theme song, which is what I usually sing to rouse her from slumber. I am a mess.
An hour after dinner is over, I rush to the doctor and get a full lipid panel. I had decided this was the test to get after visiting my primary care physician and asking his advice about what to measure. Apparently, it tracks the great building blocks of artery plaque, triglycerides, and cholesterol. I vividly picture my most essential blood vessels totally impassable due to blockades of pumpkin pie filling. It seems like not the worst way to go.
The next day I get the results back — and guess what? A holiday meal does nothing whatsoever to your body. Not on a molecular level, at least. All my lipids are shockingly normal.
In conclusion, holiday meals are not for the faint of heart or, actually, of the whole trunk region. You may bloat, you may experience acid reflux, but nothing deeply bad at all will actually happen to you, not even for an hour! So eat up!
Janine Higbie, nutritionist at JH Wellness
Dr. Murray Orbuch, assistant professor of gastroenterology at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine