Thanksgiving Meal Science: Does Turkey Make You Tired?

When many people think of Thanksgiving, the first thing they think of is eating a lot of food and usually there is turkey involved. There are also a number of associations with the holiday, such as getting sleepy after the meal. I remember hearing lots of people talk about how eating turkey makes you sleepy, but is this really true?

This belief comes from the fact that turkey contains an ingredient called tryptophan, which can make you sleepy. However, that is far from the whole story. Tryptophan is a naturally occurring amino acid, which are the building blocks of protein and tryptophan is just one of the many amino acids that are contained in turkey. It actually makes up only about 2% of the amino acid content in turkey. For comparison, this is similar to the amount found in many other foods, including eggs, lentils, peanuts, and pork. 

Additionally, amino acids have to compete for binding sites within the body, so when there are many amino acids present, it becomes more difficult for any one amino acid to fill all the sites, especially one that only makes up about 2% of the total. Tryptophan is most effective for making you sleepy when it is taken as individually, without other amino acids (protein) being absorbed at the same time. This doesn’t happen when eating turkey.

The science is pretty clear that getting sleepy from the tryptophan in turkey is not very likely to happen, so why do so many people associate turkey with sleepiness. This has much more to do with the Thanksgiving meal itself than it does with the turkey. The main reason for getting tired after eating a Thanksgiving meal is simply the large amount of food many people eat during the meal. 

It is not uncommon for people to eat more calories during a Thanksgiving meal than their body needs in one or two whole days. The body is not designed to handle that many calories at one time and it takes a lot of work for your body to process all that food. All the unnecessary extra calories have to be converted and stored as fat.

 For these calories to be stored as fat, your body has to release a lot of insulin into your system. Your insulin level will increase drastically at first, but when your insulin level returns to normal, your energy level crashes and you get tired. If fewer calories are consumed during the Thanksgiving meal, less insulin will be released into your system, and you will not be nearly as sleepy after the meal.

Personally, I encourage people to enjoy Thanksgiving and eat what they want, without judging themselves. However, if you are worried about your weight, there are a couple things you can do to have Thanksgiving take less of a toll on your body. For one, spread out your calories throughout the day, instead of having so many of them during one meal. This will ease the digestive burden, decrease fat storage, and make you less tired. 

Even if you don’t change your Thanksgiving eating habits at all, it’s still not that big of a deal in the long run. It’s only one day and you can absolutely recover from it, usually within a week. The more important thing is to not continue excessive overeating throughout the rest of the year. If you give yourself a pass to eat whatever your want, make a commitment to yourself to get back to your regular healthy eating habits the next day. 

It’s your daily habits more than anything that create your long-term success, so enjoy the holiday and all the wonderful food this Thanksgiving. Just don’t make it a new habit, because it takes significantly more time and effort to recover from that.

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