Every Thanksgiving, Americans gather to celebrate family, give thanks, and stuff our faces until we all feel sick. Tragically, filling up too fast on a good holiday meal means you won’t manage to grab seconds or thirds of all the best dishes on the table. You need to maximize your food intake—here’s how.
Note: This advice is not conducive to a healthy everyday diet. But then again, neither is Thanksgiving.
Getting ready for the big meal is a matter of balance. To consume as much as possible, you’ll need to start on an empty stomach. But if you’re starving, you’ll eat too quickly instead of pacing yourself.
“Fasting is typically not a good idea,” says registered dietician Leslie Bonci. Instead, she recommends that you follow your regular meal schedule, but stop eating four to six hours before the main event.
Exercising earlier in the day is also a good idea. Physical exertion can stimulate the appetite. And a brisk walk or run helps move food through your digestive system and empty out your stomach in preparation.
Finally, it’s easier to eat a lot if you’re relaxed. So immediately before the meal, take some deep breaths, think calm thoughts, and avoid confronting your ornery uncle (you can argue with him after you’ve defeated your turkey).
Once you’ve girded your loins for the overeating challenge, there’s nothing to do but begin. The choices you make now will determine whether you fill your stomach to maximum capacity, or give up long before dessert. That’s because certain types of food make you feel more full than others.
An over-full feeling isn’t just caused by a stretched-to-capacity stomach. Your body also triggers feelings of fullness by releasing hormones and enzymes as you eat. For example, the more you chew, the fuller you will feel. (That said, do not chew less in an attempt to reduce fullness. It will increase your odds of choking, and death by asphyxiation is not a fun way to end a Thanksgiving meal.)
Because of this, certain substances, such as the fats and proteins in turkey, will make you feel full sooner than others. “Once you start eating protein, the secretion of enzymes and hormones starts that satiety cascade,” Bondi says, “and having fat as part of the meal triggers satiety. If you’re trying not to over-consume, front-load with protein.”
And if you are trying to over-consume?
“Potatoes, stuffing, rolls require minimal effort,” Bonci says. “You can do maximal damage with those things because they layer nicely—you can pack in more without feeling too full.”
So you start with the carbs, and only then load the turkey onto your plate. While you’re at it, you should also delay your consumption of fiber-rich foods like veggies and whole grains. They fill you up faster because that fiber soaks up water and takes up more room.
Liquids also occupy precious stomach real estate, so don’t consume a large glass of juice or bowl of soup right away. That said, fluids will help food move through your stomach as you eat, so sip some water or other liquids throughout the meal.
Take a break
The human stomach is stretchy. If you cram food and drink into it, it will expand to a maximum volume of two to four liters—the equivalent of one or two 2-liter bottles of soda. Once you’ve filled your gut to capacity, the meal is over—right?
Not so. As fast as you put food into it, your stomach processes that content and starts moving it into the intestines. So when you feel like you can’t eat another bite, press pause. If you’ve been loading up on simple carbohydrates, you’re in luck: The stomach can empty itself of low-fiber carbs in a mere 30 to 90 minutes.
But veggies and whole grains will throw a wrench into the process. “Something with fiber takes longer to leave the stomach because the fiber holds fluids,” Bonci says. Thirsty fiber not only makes you feel fuller faster, but also moves more slowly through your system, making that feeling of fullness last longer.
And protein like turkey sticks to your ribs for much longer: It will take closer to four hours to pass through your stomach.
Luckily, you don’t have to wait for your stomach to empty out entirely before you go back to the buffet. Even a little reduction in food volume can help. Give yourself half an hour to recover, and you might find that you’re ready to pack in more chow.
At this point, you probably feel bloated and sick. All you want is to curl up on the sofa, holding your stomach and groaning. Ignore that instinct and get to your feet.
“Part of the digestion of food is movement,” Bonci says. “If you take yourself from a sitting to a standing position, you’re going to move food more quickly and feel less uncomfortable sooner than if you just sit down.”
You don’t have to start running laps around the living room, but even a slow walk can make you feel better. The nerves around your stomach are the ones that complain to the brain about how full you are. Once your body pushes that food from your stomach into your intestines, the uncomfortably full feeling should ease up.
Adding liquid will also speed up this process. “Drinking will help to move things down,” Bonci says, “instead of everything sitting there going nowhere like a traffic jam.”
Sweet foods don’t make you feel full as quickly as savory ones do. So after the meal, dig in to some pumpkin pie—after all your hard eating, you’ve earned it.