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November 20, 2018

Here's what eating a huge Thanksgiving meal does to your body, according to experts

TLDR: don't worry about it

Healthy Eating Thanksgiving

A big meal isn't all that harmful to your healthy eating goals — once a year, at least.

Thanksgiving is known for many things,  but a gluttonous meal filled with turkey, mashed potatoes and all sorts of sweets easily tops the list.

But what does eating a huge meal actually do to your body, aside from making you bloated for a few hours? Can you gain tons of weight from one meal? Do you have to start your healthy eating goals back at zero after one big meal?

TIME talked to the experts on exactly this issue, and first things first: if you only overeat once a year, don’t worry about it.

As for the short-term effects a huge meal has on your body, here's what to expect:

The first big thing is your stomach expanding to accommodate all the food you just put in it, and that’s why you begin to feel bloated and generally uncomfortable.

And since a standard Thanksgiving meal consists of tons of starchy dishes, a spike in blood sugar as carbohydrates are converted into glucose is to be expected.

You can also expect a raise in blood pressure and fluid retention as your body processes fats and salt, says Dr. Stephen Juraschek, an internist and primary care physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

All of those issues typically subside in a few hours for folks without any major health. However, people with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes or hypertension should more carefully monitor their intake.

RELATED READ: This cauliflower chicken pot pie sounds like the perfect Sunday dinner

Plus, eating a large meal requires extra energy to be called to your digestive system, which is likely the cause of your post-meal grogginess, that’s often blamed on a chemical in the turkey. Registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner says you might even notice your arms and legs getting cold after the meal as extra blood is diverted to the digestive system.

The long-term effects are likely to go unnoticed, so breathe a breath of relief on that one — even despite the calorie surplus. 

“What you’re doing for a holiday here and there is not going to have any lasting impact on health and weight if you’re getting back to your normal healthy-ish eating afterward,” Blatner says. Really, there’s a statute of limitations, so to speak, on what your body can absorb — even in the event of an extreme calorie surplus, Juraschek assures. “It’s really more of a longer-term pattern of eating that we worry about,” he continues.

Obviously, healthy versions of holiday classics and portion control would negate the need for any sort of worry. However, it’s important to live a little and even doctors and register dietitians know that, so they have some tips for damage control this Thanksgiving:

  1. Resist the urge to skip breakfast, since eating a light morning meal may kickstart your metabolism and keep you from getting ravenous before dinnertime, Juraschek says.
  2. “Slower rates of eating result in a greater sense of satiety from the brain,” Juraschek says. “If you slow down the rate of consumption, you’ll feel full faster, before you go back to get more.” Plus, it’ll give you more time to digest, which might reduce bloating later. 
  3. Speaking of digestion, Blatner also recommends drinking plenty of water, which can aid digestion and flush out excess salt.
  4. It’s also a good idea to take a stroll after dinner, Juraschek says — not only because you’ll burn a few calories, but also because it’s a nice activity to do with loved ones.
Oh, and if you're still looking for a healthy addition to your Thanksgiving table, here are five healthier versions of holiday classics including pie, bread and mashed potatoes. 

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