Anatomy of a Holiday Pig-Out

A typical Thanksgiving meal contains more than 3,000 calories. What does it do to your body? Michele Meyer reports.

blond woman at table in dark kitchen reaching for raw chicken
(Image credit: WeAre Adventurers)

The good news is that it takes 3,500 excess calories to gain a pound — so you might escape from your holiday feast with little to show for it.

The bad news is that at least 40 percent of the excess calories you've eaten probably come from fat. Fat is the most calorically dense (nine calories a gram versus four for protein and carbohydrates), and it converts most easily into fat on your hips.

Your stomach and intestines burn off about 20 percent of the calories in the process of converting excess carbohydrates and proteins into fat. However, your body doesn't burn a single calorie when it is converting nutritional fat into body fat. Your small intestine simply dumps it straight into your bloodstream.

"If you eat 100 excess fat calories, most of the 100 are stored as fat," explains Franca Alphin, R.D., L.D.N., administrative director of Duke University Diet & Fitness Center. With 100 calories of excess carbs, about 20 go to fat storage.

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Mixed nuts and crackers, 289 calories, 23 g fat

Sour cream and spinach dip, 108 calories, 9 g fat

Small salad with dressing, 173 calories, 16 g fat

Dark and white turkey meat, 239 calories, 10 g fat

Herb stuffing, 292 calories,10 g fat

Cranberry sauce, 200 calories, 0 g fat

Gravy, 84 calories, 7 g fat

Sweet potato casserole, 309 calories, 9 g fat

Green beans almondine, 124 calories, 8 g fat

Cornbread with butter, 338 calories, 23 g fat

Two glasses white wine, 201 calories, 0 g fat

Pumpkin pie with whipped cream, 321 calories, 24 g fat

Pecan pie with whipped cream, 568 calories, 43 g fat

TOTAL: 3,246 calories, 182 g fat (50 percent of total calories come from fat).

Prepare for the Big Feast

You can minimize the damage with a little forward planning:

Eat light, low-fat, high-fiber meals beforehand, and don't skip whole meals in advance. "You'll be so famished, you'll eat way too much when it comes to the feast," says Anne Dubner, R.D., of the American Dietetic Association. When you're hungry, your body compensates by lowering your metabolism to guard against starvation. "It acts like a dry sponge — and will just soak up more fat."

Drink less alcohol beforehand. Alcohol douses your resolve, ignites hunger, and adds to your calorie load.

A half hour before the meal, fill up on water and calorie-free beverages, such as sugar-free soda, iced tea, or coffee. Eat a small snack high in hunger-satisfying fiber, perhaps an apple, carrot, small salad, or yogurt topped with bran. Or have some soup. A study conducted by Baylor College of Medicine in Houston found that people who consumed a bowl of hot soup before meals ate less, lost more weight (about a pound more yearly), and kept it off longer. "It's hot, so you have to eat it slowly and pay attention," says John Foreyt, Ph.D., director of the Nutrition Research Center at Baylor. "Soup also fills your stomach, so you eat less later."

Increase your workout days in advance. Take a hike, play Frisbee, or go jogging. You may be too tired to gorge, and you may burn off enough calories to compensate for those you'll be bulking up on later. "Physical activity is the currency with which you pay for food," says Pamela Peeke, M.D., author of Fight Fat After 40 (Penguin USA, May 2001).

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Read on for tips on how to survive (and enjoy!) the holidays without gaining a pound.

While You Eat

Be aware that friendship is a dieter's enemy. A study by Pennsylvania State University found that when people ate among friends or family, they consumed about 50 percent more than if they were alone or among strangers. Barbara J. Rolls, Ph.D., professor of nutrition at Penn State, theorizes that drinking and watching others indulge lowers our resolve, and that conversation prolongs the meal and distracts us from calorie counting.

Tighten your belt. If you are wearing fitted clothing, you have a constant reminder not to overeat.

Go on a reconnaissance mission. Once you've checked out the buffet, you can pick out what you'll succumb to and what you'll ignore. Then serve yourself (if possible), so you can control portion sizes. Avoid sauces, cheese toppings, and nuts. You also might choose pumpkin pie over pecan pie (the latter has far more calories than the former).

Perfect the "platter pass." To further thwart temptation, make sure a low-fat dish lands by you when you pass dishes around the table.

Follow the "three quarter rule": Fill your plate three-fourths full of lower-calorie foods — salad, vegetables, turkey — and one-fourth full of higher-calorie choices, including stuffing and mashed potatoes. A further visual aid is making your plate appear fuller by creating a river of space, about an inch wide, between different foods.

Downsize your portions — and forget seconds. "The greatest pleasure comes from the first two or three forkfuls," says Peeke. She suggests putting a money value on each dish, with the more caloric ones being the priciest. "Tell yourself you have a budget, and decide where you'll spend it." A good place to splurge: the foods you only eat at holidays.

Prolong your pleasure. Eat slowly and take breathers. Get up from the table during the meal and leave the room. You need to get yourself out of an unconscious "food coma," which is when you eat and eat without realizing what's going on.

Make a point of signaling the end of your meal. When you've finished, have a mint or piece of gum to clear the taste of food from your mouth — it'll make post-meal nibbling less appealing.

What happens to food after you've eaten it?

When you put down your silverware, your body has only begun a major production, eight hours in the making. When food enters your mouth, saliva breaks down each morsel. "The rate at which you eat and swallow affects how quickly you fill up," says Barbara J. Rolls, Ph.D., professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University.

First to be metabolized is alcohol, which is sent directly to the liver to burn up within minutes. Liquids follow, and over the next few hours the body breaks down solid foods, disposing first of carbohydrates, then protein, leaving fats for last. Why? Because fats are more complex to break down. This is another reason why, after overeating, it's so often the fat calories that will be left over.

"A 3,000-calorie meal takes about two hours to be digested in the stomach, and another four to six hours for nutrients to be absorbed in the intestines," says Kenneth Koch, M.D., gastroenterologist and professor of medicine at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, Penn State. The food stimulates the release of hormones to alert the brain that you're full. "The higher the fat content and larger the meal," Koch says, "the more slowly food passes through the stomach, and the longer those satiety signals take to get their message across."

By morning, everything has been absorbed or disposed of. All that remains are the extra calories your body stores.

Watch what you drink

Alcohol makes the calories add up faster than you think. Though the majority of our calories come from solid foods, "fluid calories also add to your caloric intake, but with little effect on your satiety," says Richard Mattes, Ph.D., a nutrition professor at Purdue University.

Alcohol also slows the breakdown of fat. In one study, people drank 100 grams of alcohol — about six drinks — and their ability to burn fat dropped more than 30 percent. "We burn fat in our liver. But when we drink alcohol, the alcohol burns instead of fat," says Charles Lieber, M.D., director of alcohol research, Bronx Veterans Administration Center.

Beer (12 oz.), 138 cal.

Light beer (12 oz.), 96 cal.

Champagne (6 oz.), 121 cal.

Red wine (6 oz.), 123 cal.

Dry white wine (6 oz.), 114 cal.

Manhattan (2 oz.), 145 cal.

Vodka and tonic (8 oz.), 169 cal.

Coffee liqueur (2 oz.), 191 cal.

Vodka martini with olive (2 oz.), 149 cal.

Why Am I Hungry the Morning After?

You were as bloated as a balloon when you rolled into bed. So how come you wake up ravenous the next morning?

"Your gut is empty and begging for more food to fuel your body's daily functions," explains Bettye Nowlin, R.D., spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. A large meal also makes your digestive system work overtime, raising your blood sugar. Once the meal is digested — usually while you sleep — your blood sugar drops, triggering greater secretion of insulin, which further whets the early morning hungries.

"There's also the effect of great expectations," says John Foreyt, Ph.D., director of nutrition research at Baylor College of Medicine. "If you eat a large meal, your mind tells you to do it again. It's a psychological phenomenon."

Post pig-out

Don't berate yourself and start a downward spiral. "If you dwell on it, you may get depressed, which only leads to more eating," Alphin says.

Avoid the scale: You might get a scare since all that food makes you bloat — temporarily. You'll also retain water for a day or two (less if you drink more water during the meal and afterward).

Don't deprive yourself the next day to compensate. Your body will go into starvation mode — your metabolism will plummet so your body can hoard nutrients. Think of your dining splurge as a shopping one: Pay it off gradually with exercise and healthy eating.

Take your time to undo the damage — at least a week. You'll be less likely to binge as a reaction.