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Ask An Expert: What is the cause of my Thanksgiving food coma?

Thanksgiving dinner plate

Every year millions of families gather around their tables to enjoy delicious Thanksgiving dinners. For students, it’s a great chance to get a home cooked meal (turkey, stuffing, potatoes, and pie!) and interact with family members they haven’t seen in a while. But once the meal is done and the table is cleared, suddenly you feel quite tired. The dreaded food coma. Was it the tryptophan in Grandma’s turkey that’s the culprit, or could the extra three slices of apple pie have been the source of this sleepiness?

Expert Response
Donna G. Duffy MS RDN CDN, campus dietician at University at AlbanyName: Donna G. Duffy MS RDN CDN
Capacity: Campus Dietitian/Nutritional Counselor
Campus: University at Albany

Q: What is the cause of my Thanksgiving food coma? (Is it the tryptophan or the overeating that makes me tired?)

A: Truth be told, the cause of the “Thanksgiving food coma” is none other than over eating at the holiday meal.

Mrs. Duffy explains:

Although tryptophan has been commonly blamed for inducing the sluggish effect many claim to experience post consumption of their festive turkey dinner, the fact is your turkey consumption does far less to cause you to want to take a nap post meal than does the actual amount of food you ingested during the traditional feast.

Keeping it simple, there is indeed a link between tryptophan and a chemical produced by the brain called serotonin. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that the body cannot make itself and is found in poultry (like turkey), meat, dairy products, fish, and eggs. Serotonin affects mood as well as producing the hormone melatonin, which helps to control our sleep and wake cycles. This association between tryptophan and serotonin is not the sole culprit of that groggy feeling that beckons many to crawl off to the nearest sofa right after dessert on these holiday occasions. Increased carbohydrate intake, whether it’s a second serving of mashed potatoes or another slice of pie, also has a supporting role in driving the need to catch a little shut-eye once the banquet table has been cleared.

The real deal is that this lazy feeling is more directly related to over indulgence. Let’s be honest. Thanksgiving is a time that many people tend to over eat. Simply put, overeating causes the digestive system to slow down. And then the belt loosens to accommodate the expanding waist due to processing of all the food and the eye lids get a bit heavy… You get the picture, right?

One solution to avoiding this pressing desire to sleep and the uncomfortable over stuffed feeling can be practicing a bit of portion control. Knowing what your suggested serving sizes are for carbohydrates before you plate up can be a tremendous guide when it comes to putting food on your plate. For example, a single serving of mashed potatoes is half a cup or about half the size of your fist. It’s also useful to budget your calorie salary for the day. What? You don’t know what your calorie salary is? No worry. Check out the free downloadable MyFitnessPal app for help with calculating yours.

Here are some more suggestions for keeping within your calorie salary not only on Thanksgiving but throughout the holiday season. Practice these useful tips for a successful holiday diet plan:

  • Scope it out: Grab a sparkling water with some fruit and survey the buffet table before plating up. Wait 30 minutes before hitting the buffet line. This allows you time to get comfortable so you can carefully make wise choices.
  •  Skip the appetizer: Choose veggies and fruit or a small handful of nuts to nibble on.
  •  Alternate between alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages: ‘Tis the season for cheers! Holiday drinks like eggnog are loaded with calories. Switch to seltzer or water between alcoholic drinks.
  •  Watch the trimming: Shave off extra calories by limiting nuts, cream cheese, gravy, butter, and whipped cream. You’ll feel less stuffed but still satisfied.
  • Take the focus off food: Getting together over the holidays is more than just eating and drinking. Find ways to add some fun with family games such as charades or rent an instructional dance video followed by a dance-off.

So it was those extra slices of pie. Now you know to pace yourself when indulging in your holiday feasts, so you don’t over indulge and find yourself in a post dinner slump!


Atiba Archibald

Written by Atiba Archibald

Atiba was an intern with SUNY’s Office of New Media, who became a University at Albany graduate in English with a minor in Communications.

November 20, 2014




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