You'll arrive at a holiday dinner table wanting to do the right thing. You are just going to take a little bit of food on your plate. But you just cannot stop yourself from piling on the ham or turkey. Or the mashed or sweet potatoes. Or all the tasty pies. You eat and eat and eat.
And you know you'll end up feeling overstuffed. Why can't you stop eating? Some of the reasons are because that's the way the body works. But the good news is that with a little practice, you can control your eating.
The Washington Post reports what happens to your body during holiday meals. As you approach the table, you start with the sights and smells of good food. Your brain tells your stomach to get ready.
When you begin to eat, food goes down your throat and into your stomach. The top part of your stomach stores the food. Then the lower part of your stomach prepares to digest it.
Then your stomach muscle will begin squeezing open and shut about three times a minute. At this point, your stomach is shaped like a fist. It mashes the food further.
Most experts say the average stomach ordinarily holds about one or two cups of food. During the holidays, it may take on twice that amount. Sometimes the stomach will handle even more. As more and more food is eaten, the stomach stretches like a balloon.
And that feeling's going to stick around awhile. If you fill up with fatty foods, it slows down the digestive process. That fullness may be just the first problem you feel. If the stomach's too full, its contents may push up against the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the area just below your lungs. If your meal has been especially fatty, you might even taste acid in your mouth. The pressure and burning add up to what we call heartburn. Heartburn has nothing at all to do with your heart.
If you get so full your stomach can't hold any more, there are only two ways the food can go. The path of least resistance is up.
Walk it off.
So, how can you lose the "stuffed" feeling you get from overeating? You could take a gentle walk to help get things moving. But do not run. If you run, your heart will send blood to your leg muscles. To get rid of the uncomfortable feeling, you need blood to go to your stomach. The blood going to your stomach will help break down your food.
Running on a full stomach can also have another bad effect. It could cause your stomach to start working too hard. Your stomach may try to get rid of all the food at once and cause you to vomit.
Burping can help relieve the pressure built up inside you. Most of that gassiness results from your having swallowed air while eating quickly. When you eat your holiday meal, don't gulp. Carbonated drinks will not get rid of your gas problem. They simply add more gas that your body needs to release.
Joan Salge Blake is an American Dietetic Association spokeswoman and Boston University dietitian. She says that usually food is digested in about 12 to 24 hours. After holiday meals, it may take longer. That's because of all the fatty foods you ate.
Fool your stomach.
"You can outsmart your stomach," Salge Blake said. "That way, you will feel better after your meal." As we said earlier, fat makes food stay in the stomach longer. So, to reduce discomfort, trim some of the fat from the meal.
Adding lots of low-fat, vegetable-based side dishes will help, she said. Salge Blake also said you should eat foods with lots of fiber. Fiber passes intact through your system. So it will help move food through your system. Salge-Blake also said that liquid leaves the stomach faster than solids. So you could start your meal with a thin, broth-based soup.
Salge Blake has one final bit of help. She said to try not to put all the food on the table at once. Serve courses instead. Start with that broth-based soup. Then serve a vegetable-filled salad with a low-fat dressing. By the time you have eaten the first two courses, she says you'll feel fuller. So, you are not as hungry and less likely to overeat at one sitting.
Other problems with overeating.
So now we all know that the holidays are a time of overeating. All those good dinners, desserts, and drinks lead to weight gain. But many of us already know that. We can also see the weight gain in the mirror. Or feel the weight gain as the clothes we wear get tighter.
There are other things that happen to our body when we overeat. Things that we cannot see.
National Public Radio reports that the inside of your body changes when you overeat. Doctors and researchers say that overeating causes biological changes in the body. These changes can lead to more food cravings. The changes cause your stomach to send mixed signals about when it's actually full. As the years go by, those holiday pounds add up.
Dr. Rita Redberg is a cardiologist at the University of California at San Francisco. Each January, she sees many patients lugging around an extra five pounds. Or more.
"We'll have a very earnest talk in October about weight loss," Redberg said. "Then the visit in January after the holidays is generally a weight gain. And I see that commonly in my patients," she said.
Year after year, those few holiday pounds can add up to 15, 20, even 30 pounds. Every year of weight gain makes it more difficult to lose extra weight. People get discouraged when they realize at the end of the year they annually gained weight.
Overeating may change your body clock.
All of us have a biological clock. It is an internal mechanism that tells us when to sleep and when to eat. Scientists studied the biological clocks in mice. They discovered that when mice were overfed, their body clocks changed. The mice started overeating.
Dr. Joe Bass is a Northwestern University endocrinologist and molecular biologist. He has published numerous studies about the body clock and mice. He fed mice a high-fat diet. He discovered they actually woke up during normal sleep time to eat.
Dr. Bass described what the mice did in human terms. He said it would be like waking up every night during holiday season. Then you would eat all the sweets in your refrigerator.
Dr. Bass found the same results in all the mice that became fat. They gained weight from food consumed during what would normally be their sleeping time. This result suggests that people who eat less fat will sleep better. It also suggests they are not likely to engage in nighttime bingeing.
A vicious cycle
Dr. Sasha Stiles is a family physician who specializes in obesity at Tufts Medical Center. Dr. Stiles says overeating "sets your body chemistry sort of into red alert." She says the processes that normally will try to digest food will go into overdrive. Your body wants to make sure it gets rid of this huge food load.
This means that much of what you eat will be stored as fat.
Excess food can start a harmful cycle. For example, let's start with the pancreas. The pancreas is an internal organ in your body. When you overeat, the pancreas makes extra insulin to process the extra sugar load. Insulin is a chemical that gets rid of sugars in your body. Then the pancreas removes the sugar from the bloodstream.
The pancreas will not stop producing insulin until the brain tells it to. The brain can sense when blood sugar levels are safe. But by the time the brain stops insulin production, too much sugar has been removed. Low blood sugar can make you feel tired, dizzy, nauseous, and even depressed. Eating more sugar and more carbohydrates often cures this condition.
This feeling of low blood sugar sends many people after more carbohydrates. They grab high-sugar foods to bring their blood sugar back up to normal. Those foods make them feel better, but they also cause weight gain.
Sending mixed messages
This cycle of overeating can lead to a yo-yo effect. The yo-yo effect means your weight keeps going up and down. If you usually overeat, you trigger changes in your stomach. When the stomach signals the brain that it's full, the stomach starts to malfunction.
Dr. Stiles says that when you overeat time and time again, the signals get tired. "The stomach will not tell your brain that you're full anymore," said Stiles. "It may send abnormal signals and you may not even realize you're full."
Things get worse if you drink lots of icy beverages with your food. When you drink cold liquids, your stomach will start getting smaller. Also, the liquids will wash the food out of your stomach quicker. So your stomach will be empty sooner, and you will be hungrier sooner. This means you will eat more often.