Holiday traditions vary from culture to culture, family to family, but one commonality seems to be universal among them all — a celebration centered around a feast: A meal shared with friends and relatives, consisting of a wide variety of appetizers, sides, entrees, and of course, dessert.
For the health conscious, the prospect of engaging in such a gluttonous occasion may spark some concern. I wondered how indulging in a holiday feast affected a person’s weight, blood sugar, and general health.
It’s no secret extravagant meals are often advertised as the culprit for inevitable weight gain. Although indulging in a feast carries this undesirable connotation, this doesn’t mean it’s a scientifically backed truth. With the hope that my research findings may grand some medically justifiable permission to feast, I set out to answer this question: For the person in average health, did eating a holiday feast really incur a negative impact on general health?
#1 Myth Busted
Dr. Stephen Juraschek, a primary care physician at Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center in Boston, breaks down the science behind what actually happens to your body when you enjoy a big meal. One common short-term effect includes the overstuffed feeling caused by your stomach physically expanding to accommodate large amounts of food.
Other short-term effects include spikes in blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol markers — the aftermath of eating starchy foods high in carbs as they convert into glucose. However, these spikes are temporary and “should come down, usually within a couple of hours,” says Dr. Juraschek. While these processes happen after the consumption of any meal, the effects are amplified the more we eat.
Dawn Jackson Blather, RD, provides some myth-busting insight on the long-term effects of holiday feasting, “What you’re [eating] 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.” And, as Dr. Juraschek adds, “It’s really more of a long-term pattern of eating that we worry about.” It seems then, one feast will not make or break your general health.
Instead, it’s the rest of the year, and all those days between holiday feasts that truly impact our long-term health, despite what diet culture may want you to believe.
#2 Move with Intent
While lounging on the couch after a Thanksgiving feast may seem like the best way to recover, prefacing your relaxation with a ten- to fifteen-minute walk can help your body recover even faster. A 2013 study published by The American Diabetes Association observed the effects of a fifteen-minute treadmill walk on the blood sugar levels of older adults at risk for Type 2 diabetes. The study, co-authored by Loretta DiPietro, a professor at George Washington Universitys Milken Institute School of Public Health, found that “short post-meal walks were even more effective at lowering blood sugar after dinner than a single 45-minute walk taken at mid-morning or late in the afternoon.”
As postdoctoral research fellow Andrew Reynolds explains, “The muscles we use to walk use glucose as energy, drawing it out of circulation and therefore reducing how much is floating around.” A short walk can combat the effects of blood sugar spikes. For those with diabetes or other medical conditions impacted by blood sugar, a walk is not sufficient replacement for doctor-approved medical treatments.
In addition to balancing your blood sugar, walking after your feast provides digestive benefits. Sheri Colberg-Ochs, a researcher at Old Dominion University explans, “Exercise stimulates peristalsis, which is the process of moving digested food through the GI tract.” A short walk helps your feast move through your digestive system, which could help relieve some bloating or the overfull feeling we experience after a larger-than-life holiday meal. Hopefully, this provides peace of mind — to enjoy the meal and focus more on what you can do after you put the fork down, rather than scrutinizing everything that goes on your plate.
#3 Stay Steady
Everyone has their own strategies leading up to the big feast. Some people fast all day, in an effort to save room for the big meal, while some boost their exercise in a preemptive strike against excessive calories. Still others decide to fully embrace the feast, complete with post-meal nap. So what’s the best strategy?
Registered dietitian Leslie Bonci says, “Fasting [before the feast] is typically not a good idea.” Instead of starving your body in anticipation, try to stick to your everyday meal schedule, “but stop eating four to six hours before the main event.” Staying as consistent as possible with your eating and exercise habits may be the key to holiday feasting without feeling too full to move.
A small study, led by University of Michigan graduate student Alison Ludzki, asked participants to consume thirty percent more calories for seven days while maintaining their normal exercise routine. The results of this early study aren’t enough for anything definite, however, researchers found that “a week of gluttony did not affect glucose tolerance” in participants who exercised regularly.
Additionally, the research showed that consuming excess calories “had no effect on markers of inflammation in volunteers blood or tissue samples…[and] no change in lipolysis, a chemical process by which the body breaks down fats.” This study and its initial findings support the notion promoted by many dietitians — consistency, more than anything, is key.
According to McKenzie Flinchum, RD, LD/N, “There is no need to add extra workouts to burn off calories or skip meals; just go back to your [daily] healthy diet and workout regimen.” It seems then, that consistent exercise promotes greater metabolism, enabling your body to better handle gastronomic anomalies like a holiday feast.
If you are feeling sluggish, Flinchum suggests focusing on “consuming a lot of veggies and lean protein the next day.” This acts to balance out what is already being digested in your system. Here, steadiness, balance and being kind to your body is paramount to feasting freely.
#4 Enjoy Every Moment
The holiday season is just beginning, so let us not forget the reason for our feast-centered gatherings. Raphael Konforti, Youfit Health Club’s national director of fitness, provides us with an important reminder to put it all in perspective, “One salad doesn’t make you healthy just like one delicious [holiday] dinner doesn’t make you unhealthy.” It’s with this in mind that we arrive at the crux of our findings — enjoying a holiday feast is not detrimental to overall health.
As Flinchum states, “Indulging on [a holiday feast] will absolutely not ruin your diet.” Flinchum expresses the most important sentiment as such: “Enjoying the holiday events and festivities is all part of living a balanced and healthy lifestyle.” So next time you feel a pang of guild for loading your plate at a holiday dinner, or someone throws a critical You’re-going-to-eat-all-that? comment your way, you can answer confidently, with a smile, “Yes, yes I am.”
Stay present in the moment and enjoy the feast, however you choose to celebrate it. After all, it’s occasions like this that we cherish as some of our fondest traditions, whether your holiday feast is a buffet of secret family recipes, ordered prepared from a grocery store or picked up curbside as takeout. No matter how your holiday looks, enjoy it and remember you have permission to feast freely!
Our daily diet and exercise routines affect our overall health more greatly than one day of all-out feasting. Enjoy the moment, stay consistent in exercise, and embrace the blessing of a holiday feast. As always, attend to individual health conditions as directed by your doctor. Happy holidays!