By Bonnie Berkowitz and Lazaro Gamio, Published: November 26, 2014
You know you’re full. Close to bursting, actually. You never would have piled your plate like that on a regular day, and you certainly wouldn’t finish it off.
But it’s the holidays, and it would be rude not to try every dish, and it all tastes so good, and some of it is healthful, and what the heck — pass the pie!
Research has proved what we already know: Our brains can easily override our bodies' signals to stop eating, even when we know the consequences will be unpleasant.
We’re not even talking about obesity, heart disease, diabetes or effects of long-term, habitual overeating. This is about the short-term awfulness that can follow a high-fat, high-calorie holiday free-for-all.
More than 2,000 MyFitnessPal users told us how they approached holiday eating. Here’s what they said:
What is your food philosophy during the holidays?I allow myself a few treats 1,669 I stick to my routine 254
What is your biggest holiday splurge?Snacks 711 Drinks 251
Do you exercise more during the holidays to work off the extra calories?Yes, I burn it all! 217
There is no such thing as an average dinner, said registered dietitian Jennifer McDaniel of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, but a varied meal of 600 to 800 calories fits nicely into the 2,000-calorie daily diet referenced on nutrition labels.
But a holiday dinner can easily approach or exceed 2,000 calories by itself, especially if you dig into the appetizers before dinner and wash it all down with a couple of glasses of wine. (One estimate put a typical holiday dinner as high as 4,500 calories, but that would be extremely difficult for most stomachs to stomach.)
Even nutrition-conscious dieters tend to give themselves a pass at the end of the year. In a November survey of MyFitnessPal app users that was done for The Post, 88 percent said they plan to relax their food rules at least a little during the holidays, and 10 percent said they planned to chuck the rules entirely.
How the foodfest sits with you depends on your genes, your body composition, your system’s response to certain hormones and your regular eating and exercise habits, said McDaniel.
For instance, regular exercisers who work out 12 or fewer hours before a big meal fare better than others. Their bodies tend to have a more sensitive insulin response, allowing them to more efficiently process the excess carbs, and a more robust circulatory system to weather the influx of fat circulating in blood. What can you do after the deed is done? Don’t lie down, or many of these problems may be exacerbated. Helping to clean up the post-dinner mess would be a 170-calorie-per-hour head start on recovering from the feast.
I ate all that. Now what?
One ridiculous meal won’t make you fat, but it can make you — and those around you — uncomfortable. Here’s what happens.
An overstuffed stomach can push up into the diaphragm, which encroaches into the lungs’ territory. They can’t fully expand, and you get short of breath.
Nausea may kick in if you’re eating fast and not chewing thoroughly. Extra food, especially greasy or unfamiliar dishes, can upset the stomach, releasing chemicals that trigger nausea or even diarrhea.
The avalanche of food sends the digestive system into overdrive, slowing other functions. Insulin and other hormones are released to break up the carbs. Blood sugar spikes, then plummets.
The digestive system hogs more than its share of blood, making your heart work harder. Triglycerides stick to blood vessel walls. The function of cells and blood vessels declines and heart-attack risk increases.
Bloated and gassy
As you scarf food and drinks (especially fizzy beverages), you swallow excess air. In addition, gut bacteria produce extra gas as they break down sugars and starches. It’s gotta come out somehow.
Blood rushing to the digestive system abandons less critical areas such as other muscles and skin, so some people feel cold.
How much did that food weigh? Two pounds? Three? The sheer weight of what you just shoveled in can make you feel sluggish, especially if you don’t eat that much very often.
After the first 750 calories or so, your body begins to store a larger percentage of food as fat. A 2000 study found that the average adult gains a pound during each holiday season, and many never lose it.
What data tells us about how we eat
How do holiday food splurges compare to consumption during the rest of the year? To get an idea, the weight-loss app Lose It!, which asks users to log what they eat every day, provided The Post with weight, calorie intake and exercise data for 2013. The calorie information is almost certainly well below the U.S. average — folks on Lose It! are trying to lose weight, after all, and people often underreport their consumption anyway — but patterns are still visible. Here's what was revealed by users who logged at least 1,000 calories and two meals on any given day:
Wild weekends, tame Tuesdays?
Average calories recorded by day of the week
Most weeks followed a pattern: Fewer calories consumed early (around 1,600 on Tuesday), followed by a steady rise from Wednesday to a peak on Saturday. However, holiday weeks tended to be outliers. The highest average for the year, 1,908 calories, was on Christmas Wednesday.
Average calories recorded per day
A yearlong graph line showing daily food intake rises at the end of the year, with tiny blips at other holidays, such as July 4th. LoseIt! data manager Paul Apollo said a surge in new and returning users probably explains the higher average intake in January.
Average calories burned through exercise per day
Apollo said use of the app drops off in July and August even more than during the holidays, but people who stay through the summer record more activity then. The average rises to about 200 calories per day, equals to about an hour of moderate walking or a leisurely half-hour bike ride.