Want to gain weight, feel bloated and tax your bodily systems, potentially causing long-term problems? Then you should consistently eat more than your body requires, time and time again.

Of course, that’s not what you want. At least, we hope not! But most Americans seem to be following that plan, with nearly 71% of us now categorized as overweight or obese.

Thanksgiving is coming up, an American holiday often associated with eating until we can’t take another bite. As food for thought, let’s examine what happens to our bodies from a scientific, physiological standpoint when we overeat. Spoiler alert: it’s not pretty.

  • Your stomach swells. You know how Dad always sits on the sofa after Thanksgiving or any big meal and has to unbutton his pants? That’s because the stomach swells like a balloon when we overfill it with food. It crowds the other organs in your abdomen, and that’s why you feel the need to loosen those pants.
  • That burpy, bloated, gassy feeling. As you swallow, air enters your digestive tract with every bite or sip. Carbonated beverages amplify the effect. All of that air and gas in your digestive tract builds up and must be released: thus that bloated, burpy, gassy feeling. It’s not pleasant, is it? But we have no one to blame but ourselves!
  • Heartburn. Hydrochloric acid is produced by the stomach to digest food. When you overeat, your stomach is taxed by producing excess hydrochloric acid to break down the excess food. Some of that acid can back up into your esophagus, causing heartburn. When we choose difficult-to-digest foods―such as alcohol (which relaxes the esophageal sphincter muscle and practically invites acid in), beef, cheese, fried or spicy foods―we increase the likelihood of experiencing heartburn.
  • Organs are taxed. Just as you may feel overwhelmed when facing that mountain of dishes after the Thanksgiving meal, your body gets overwhelmed when trying to digest a huge meal. Organs must work overtime, secreting extra enzymes, acids and hormones to digest all of that food. While you won’t likely cause long-term harm if it happens just once per year, overeating on a regular basis can mess with your metabolism and endocrine functionality. Insulin resistance—a precursor to diabetes—and increased cortisol levels can be the result.
  • Excess calories are stored as fat. Eating all of those extra calories means you’ll store lots of extra fuel for that Zumba class on Friday! But if you don’t work them off, permanent weight gain occurs.
  • Yawn! You get sleepy. During the process of digestion, insulin is released by the pancreas to signal muscles, fat and liver cells to absorb energy into the bloodstream in the form of glucose. Insulin signals other hormones to be released, including melatonin and serotonin, which are “feel-good hormones” that may make you feel sleepy and content. In other words: it’s nap time!
  • You may feel nauseated. When your body realizes you’ve had enough to eat, your fat cells produce the hormone leptin, which signals the brain that you’re no longer hungry. Unfortunately, there’s often a time lag between when you’ve eaten enough and when the brain gets the message that you are full. When we eat too fast, we almost always miss that signal in time to prevent overeating. What’s worse, if you have excess fat cells in your body, you are subject to forming leptin resistance, which makes it still harder to recognize the feeling of fullness. Eating too much can make you feel nauseous!

What strategies help prevent overeating?

  1. Eat a healthy, light breakfast. You might think that skipping breakfast would lower your overall calorie count for the day, but that’s not true. If you sit down to the Thanksgiving meal feeling famished, you’ll almost certainly overeat.
  2. Incorporate exercise into your Thanksgiving celebration. Whether it’s a local 5K “Turkey Trot” in the morning, yoga class, a family football game or a group walk around the block after the meal, make sure to get out and move! This will ramp up your metabolism, and hopefully, after making a smart choice by exercising, you’ll be less likely to go back for seconds on Grandma’s pumpkin pie!
  3. Drink water with your meal. This will help slow down your eating pace and fill your stomach without adding extra calories.
  4. Be mindful as you eat. As you sit down at a table full of friends or family, be grateful for the experience, not just the food itself. Choose the foods you truly enjoy and pass on those you don’t. Be mindful with every bite – chewing food thoroughly and savoring the taste and texture of each mouthful. Between bites, talk to your family and friends to slow down and let your body tell you when it’s full. Be sure to obey that signal!
  5. Don’t be a Clean Plate Club lifetime member! As growing kids, our parents sometimes encouraged us to clean our plates so we would grow up big and strong. As adults, that behavior results in growing “out” rather than up. Listen to your body’s signals and stop eating when you’re full, no matter what may be left on your plate.

We hope you will enjoy a wonderful, healthy Thanksgiving!