Overeating During the Holiday Season

by Jessica Craig

We all know the feeling of the holiday food coma; the rush of exhaustion after a feast that sends us to the couch for the rest of the evening. What originated as a means of survival has transformed into a social activity and psychological behavior. We eat for entertainment, celebration, or to relieve stress or frustration. Many psychologists believe we eat for the wrong reasons, leading to unhealthy habits such as overeating, that become especially prevalent during the holidays.

It is easy to get away with overeating during this time of year because food consumption is the central activity for people during the holiday season around the world. We don’t think twice about having three plates of turkey, mashed potatoes, corn, broccoli, cranberry sauce, stuffing, rolls, and enough gravy to fill a small lake – not to mention the desserts. The holidays are a time of indulgence and luxury, and many of us will stuff our faces with as much food as we can before our stomachs pop.

Is this indulgence justified by the celebration of the holidays, or are we doing more harm than we think? What are the health risks of overeating? More importantly, how can we avoid overindulging while still enjoying the holidays? To understand the health risks of overeating, we must first understand how food is processed through our body and how eating is processed through our brains.

Hunger and satiation are controlled by an array of hormones, neurotransmitters and signals in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. Hunger is your body’s way of telling you that you need energy. The hungry sensation is generated in the hypothalamus, giving you the inclination to eat. As you consume food, you begin to feel the sensation of being full or “satiated” as peripheral signals that sense the consumption are sent back to and integrated in the hypothalamus. With this system in place, how is it possible to overeat?

Well, your body’s intuitive drive to keep eating can be traced back to hunting and gathering times when food was not always readily available, a striking contrast to most of our lives today. We evolved the ability to eat more when food was plentiful, despite being full, so our bodies could store energy in the form of fat, allowing us to survive during times when food was scarce. The abundance of food during the holidays makes it easy to get away having a second or third serving, even though your body most likely reaches its metabolic needs by the end of the first plate. Your brain registers the sight, smell, and taste of delicious holiday food, triggering your primal instinct to scoop more mashed potatoes and ladle on the gravy.

So that’s it? We are biologically programmed to overeat and there’s nothing we can do? Wrong. We can train our bodies and our brain to control itself and its “hunger.” Researchers, dietitians and psychologists offer tons of free advice online, but how much of it is true, and can help limit how much we eat during the holiday season?

The first tip to avoid overeating is to not skip meals before the Thanksgiving feast or Christmas dinner. Instead, eat healthy, low calorie meals throughout the day and drink plenty of water. In other words, don’t show up to your in-law’s house with a ravenous appetite because this will likely cause you to eat more than your body needs. Keep your digestive system working all day so when you do feast, your body can regulate itself and prevent a blood glucose spike that can lead to that food coma. Second, exercise in the days leading up to, the day of, and the day after feasting. Exercise helps to regulate your hormones levels, which in turn helps regulate your digestive system. And of course, exercise burns off some extra calories. Third, eat slowly; take breaks in between plates of food and in between dinner, dessert, and round two of dinner. Give your body a chance to digest your food properly.

So why should you care about overeating once or twice during the holiday season? Does one instance of loosening your pants after eating too much do that much damage? Actually, yes. Overeating at just one meal can negatively affect your overall health. It can cause shortness of breath, heartburn, extreme fatigue, and temporary onset diabetes. Temporary onset diabetes is caused when one consumes so much glucose in a condensed period of time that your body cannot process it all. People experiencing temporary onset diabetes experience symptoms such as extreme fatigue, extreme thirst, blurred vision, and headaches. This is a serious condition that can cause long-term bodily harm, such as damaging your pancreas, a vital digestive organ that secretes insulin. Insulin is the hormone responsible for removing glucose from the bloodstream and into cells for energy use. A sudden increase of glucose in your blood can affect the sensitivity of your pancreas, causing an isolated insulin production spike. In an attempt to avoid future insulin spikes, your pancreas may react by becoming desensitized to future blood glucose levels, impacting insulin production for the rest of your life.

So this holiday season, when you start to reach for a third slice of apple pie, stop and think about the damage you could be causing your body. Maybe take a break from eating, and go outside and play a game of flag football. Save your leftovers for lunch the next day and send some turkey home with your in-laws. Keep in mind the tips to prevent overeating and the health risks that overeating might bring. The holiday can still be a time of celebration, and you can still enjoy all the great food; just do so in moderation to avoid causing yourself bodily harm.