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How to Avoid the Dreaded Food Coma and Keep Your Energy Up This Thanksgiving

These five tips will help you make the most of time with love ones while also enjoying your Thanksgiving feast.

Avoid food coma this Thanksgiving

Eating with loved ones is a major cornerstone of the Thanksgiving tradition. But party-hopping and plate-cleaning can result in a common phenomenon known as the “food coma”—that overwhelming sense of fatigue that hits once you’re past the point of fullness. 

Experts share what food coma is, why you experience it, and what you can do so you don’t snooze through the Thanksgiving holiday.

What Is Food Coma and What Causes It?

“A ‘food coma’ generally refers to the sleepiness that follows a larger-than-typical meal,” explains John Christie, RD, CSCS, Tonal’s Director of Applied Training Science. “Research suggests this is caused by a release of gut-brain hormones and neural signals that activate sleep centers in the brain.” 

Some foods are good to eat before bed, because they help you sleep. But the classic signs of a food coma can include sleepiness, lethargy, and poor concentration. These symptoms may be a buzzkill, but there are several reasons why you experience them.

“It can affect anyone, and shows up a bit differently across people, but some research suspects that post-meal sleepiness is an evolutionary imperative with sleep serving as an ideal environment for coding memories and learning,” Christie says. “It’s thought that this post-meal sleepiness is your body’s way of logging field notes on a successful hunt or forage.”

Tonal coach Tim Landicho, who is also a certified nutrition coach, says there are a few varying biological theories on why that sluggish feeling seems to set in after consuming large quantities of food. 

“Blood sugar rises, blood flows away from the brain and towards the digestive system, and, depending on the time of day, all of this can coincide with natural dips in energy thanks to our circadian rhythms,” he says. “And of course, our friend tryptophan, an amino acid (a building block of protein) which is plentiful in turkey, is thought to play a role in the drowsy feeling associated with food comas as well,” Landicho says.

Tips to Avoid Food Coma

So how do you keep your energy up to enjoy the festivities with your loved ones while still partaking in the traditional Thanksgiving comfort foods you love? Here’s what the experts have to say about sidestepping the infamous Thanksgiving food coma.

1. Try to eat on your regular schedule.

While holidays can often be chaotic, Christie says his number one tip for maintaining energy throughout the day is to stick as closely to a typical schedule for your meals as possible—and don’t skimp on portions just because you know you’ll be eating a bigger dinner. 

“Consistency in meal timing is a great way to avoid disrupting your normal energy levels,” he says. “Preserve your typical fueling rhythm before and after the main meal(s). This has two benefits: 1) You won’t enter a feast famished and end up eating more than your fill, and 2) you’ll have acknowledged finite bounds to the celebration, and one meal won’t become a multi-week mishap.” 

So if you’re a regular breakfast eater, don’t cut out your morning meal in an effort to “save up” for later—this may just backfire and leave you totally starving, grumpy, and primed for a food coma later in the day.

2. Start your day with a workout if you can.

Exercise can help you avoid food coma.

“If you’re planning on exercising on Thanksgiving Day, I’d highly recommend starting your day with it,” Landicho says. “Once Thanksgiving Day is underway, it’s nearly impossible to make time for it. Starting the day with exercise has tons of benefits, including an elevated mood, boosting energy levels, and improved insulin sensitivity, which is just a fancy way of saying that your body is in a much more receptive state for all the food you’re about to eat.”

Dr. Jaime Schehr, ND, RD, a naturopathic physician and registered dietitian, agrees, adding that a Turkey Day workout needn’t be super intense for you to reap the rewards. “…Movement on Thanksgiving morning will have a significant impact on your metabolism throughout the rest of the day,” she says, which supports a higher metabolic rate and helps with digestion.

If your schedule is packed from morning to evening, take heart: workouts needn’t be long to be effective. In fact, there are tons of benefits to exercising for short periods of time—even taking 20 minutes out of your hectic day can be a major gamechanger. If you’re traveling and away from your Tonal, try these on-the-go bodyweight workouts or take a brisk walk. Bonus points if you can convince your loved ones to join you.

3. Pace yourself

“Hunger and fullness cues exist for a reason, and while it’s pretty much a cultural norm on Thanksgiving Day to eat until you can’t breathe, definitely check in with your fullness levels as you’re eating,” Landicho says. “Eating beyond 100 percent fullness in any one sitting is a surefire way to experience big dips in energy, so remind yourself to space things out (if needed), and remember that the food is not going anywhere if you want more later.”

But “pacing” doesn’t have to mean restricting yourself. Landicho explains that the intention is to tune into your body’s natural cues, act accordingly, and fully enjoy the act of celebrating. 

“Nothing has to be off-limits,” he says. “It simply requires you to slow down a bit and be present with the sensations in your body. And the best part about this is that it allows you to savor your food a lot more.”  

4. Load up on vegetables.

“Rather than restricting foods, try everything, but fill up on the foods that have the greatest thermogenic effect—that means more veggies,” Schehr says. A higher percentage of calories in vegetables go toward digestion, absorption, metabolism, and storage, and are burned off as heat when compared to other types of foods. “Try all the things, but only go back for seconds on the veggies,” she advises. 

That said, there’s no need to  obsess over macronutrients or calories—especially not on a holiday. Approach your meal with the intention to feel good throughout the day and try not to stress over the fact that your food intake will probably look different on Thanksgiving than it does on a non-holiday. 

“Remember, food is meant to be enjoyed with people you love,” Landicho says.  “The key takeaway is this: moderation is everything. Get your protein and veggies where you can (as there are likely going to be plenty of opportunities to do so), and enjoy everything else guilt-free.”

5. Stay hydrated.

Dehydration has the greatest impact on how we feel and how we digest,” Schehr says. “If you skip the water, you are more likely to feel tired and [experience] sluggish digestion. Staying hydrated before and during holiday festivities is essential to feeling your best throughout the day and may even help manage your appetite.” 

While everyone’s hydration needs are different, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine define an adequate daily fluid intake as about 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) of fluids a day for men and about 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) of fluids a day for women. And those numbers include fluids from water, other beverages, and food, which can account for about 20 percent of daily fluid intake. In addition to drinking more water, try these tips for making sure you stay hydrated. 

Bonding over food can be a big part of enjoying the holidays—so give yourself a break and find some self-compassion if you overdo it. 

“Your body is constantly talking with you, and breaks around holidays create great opportunities to listen intently,” Christie says. “While you’re relating with your loved ones, love yourself just as much and give yourself what your body needs; that includes foods that fuel, fluids, rest, recovery, and time to train. Being responsive to the signals your body is sending is often the best way to prevent any surprise visits from the post-meal sandman.” 

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