Tis the Seasoning

Issue 7, Volume 113

By Olivia Zheng 

From roasted turkey to casserole to pie, holiday dinners have plenty of rich and heavy dishes to load up with—perhaps too many. The average Christmas dinner in the U.S. weighs in at nearly 3,300 calories—around 1,000 more than the recommended daily caloric intake. This level of consumption can seem shocking when looking only at calories. In fact, a 2021 study of 2,000 respondents found that the average American adult expected to gain eight pounds over the holiday season. However, the belief that a few days of eating too much food can cause sudden and even lasting weight gain is a common misconception.

In reality, it takes an excess of 3,500 calories to gain a single pound of fat. To gain eight pounds, one would need to consume 28,000 extra calories over the holiday season. Most people evidently do not do this, as a 2016 New England Journal of Medicine study found that the average American adult gains just 0.4 percent of their body weight during the holiday season. This amounts to less than a pound for both men and women—far less than the expected eight pounds.

If weight gain isn’t a terribly big concern in the short run, does that mean that going all out during the holidays does not come with any immediate consequences? Not necessarily.

To overeat is to consume an inappropriately large amount of calories under a given energy expenditure. Overeating at the holiday table often produces varying levels of discomfort. In a 2022 study, 39 percent of respondents indicated that they had eaten until they felt sick during a holiday season. This discomfort results from changes that the body must make to accommodate the intake of abnormally large volumes of food.

First, the stomach must expand, causing it to push against other organs. Excessive gas production in the stomach can further increase feelings of tightness. Holiday meals often have foods that are higher in fat than what one might usually eat for dinner. Fat, being insoluble in water, takes longer for the stomach to digest, and thus contributes to bloating. Consuming carbonated drinks (even those with low or no calories) and eating too quickly, which causes air to enter the digestive tract, also worsen the problem.

After overeating, the body also secretes higher levels of various hormones and enzymes to increase metabolism and digest food faster. Expansion of the stomach produces gastrin, a hormone that stimulates the release of hydrochloric acid and other digestive enzymes. During overeating, hydrochloric acid can flow back up through the esophagus, which causes heartburn. An increase in metabolism can also cause feelings of sweating and dizziness.

While the physiological changes that occur after one incidence of overeating eventually pass, chronic overeating can still lead to unhealthy weight gain and its effects, including slowed digestion, hormonal and circadian imbalances, and other health issues.

However, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t enjoy yourself during the holidays, though you may want to consider your physical comfort before indulging in every holiday dish. Taking the time to savor every bite can make holiday meals a lot more comfortable. It takes about 20 minutes from the onset of a meal for the brain to react to the hormone leptin released by fat tissue, at which point, the brain sends out signals of satiety. Eating slower gives your body enough time to recognize when you are full, limiting how much you overeat. It can also reduce bloating by decreasing how much air you swallow.

To limit overeating, avoid fasting before a holiday dinner. Sitting in front of a feast while feeling extremely hungry may cause you to eat more just for dinner than you might have eaten for a whole day if you hadn’t fasted. It may also help to not think of decadent holiday foods as strictly limited to the holiday season. Knowing that you can enjoy, say, candied sweet potatoes in reasonable portions anytime in the year might make it less tempting to eat an unhealthy large quantity of them at the holiday dinner table.

Ultimately, the holidays are a time to appreciate those around us, and showing everyone’s dish some love is a great way to demonstrate this gratuity. However, you can still be mindful of how your body is feeling as you pile on your plate. That is, you may find yourself enjoying the holidays more by feasting less.