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Avoid the Thanksgiving Food Coma

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People falling asleep in recliners the minute Thanksgiving dinner is over has given the holiday a bit of a reputation. Sleepiness or extreme lethargy induced by the consumption of a large amount of food has been dubbed the Thanksgiving food coma.


But why does eating a big meal make you feel sleepy?


The science behind the post-Thanksgiving meal food coma is complex.


“People think Thanksgiving turkey has tryptophan and that's what's making them sleepy, but it's not that," says Grace Derocha, a dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and health coach with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.


Derocha says what's really happening is the carbs we digest – such as mashed potatoes, stuffing, mac and cheese, and sweet potato casserole – increase our blood sugar, produce insulin and create tryptophan in our brains that converts to serotonin and melatonin. “Serotonin is really that chemical in the brain that says, 'hey, you're sleepy, slow down, take a nap,'" says Derocha.


“Melatonin is the other "sleepy hormone" that causes drowsiness post-meal," says Sarah Harris, a dietitian, health coach and founder of Simpletic Nutrition.


“I could tell you to avoid poultry and carbohydrates, but we all know the odds of that," says Harris.


So what can you do to avoid the Thanksgiving food coma this year?

  • “Take a pre-Thanksgiving dinner power nap before the big meal," says Harris.

  • Keep the protein-to-carb ratio 2 to 1, advises Derocha. That's a serving of turkey (no more than 3 ounces without skin) with a serving each of your high-carb side dish favorites like stuffing and potatoes (up to half a cup, about half the size of a woman's fist). This ratio gives you a better shot at alertness later on.

  • Get active before or after the meal: go for a walk, toss a football or take the dog outside. Derocha says even helping the host clean up can keep you from zoning out on the sofa.

  • Fill up on salad or soup with a lot of vegetables. The liquid volume and fiber from the veggies will help you feel a bit fuller before you dive into the sweet potato casserole and creamed corn.

  • Skip the dairy. "Eating dairy is like having a warm glass of milk to help you sleep," says Derocha. Go easy on mac and cheese or milky gravy.


If you do want some quiet time, and you want everyone to fall asleep after Thanksgiving dinner, serve cherry pie with whipped cream for dessert. Like milk, cherries are rich in tryptophan. If you want everyone to stay awake, however, go for apple or pumpkin pie sans ice cream.

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