For many Americans, Thanksgiving is a holiday that’s centered on eating — and eating, and more eating. You get the point. We just can’t help but go for a second or third helping of something that’s especially delicious, whether that’s cornbread stuffing, green bean casserole, or your aunt’s famous pumpkin pie. But eating all of this food can really put your digestive system through the ringer.
“Around the holidays, people’s diet often change because we’re consuming a lot of fun holiday foods and not a lot of nourishing foods,” says Julie Stefanski, RDN, a dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Anything that is a higher-fat food takes longer to be digested, so it’s more likely you’ll feel full and overextended,” she adds.
Of course, Thanksgiving isn’t the only occasion where overeating happens. Many of us do it as part of our daily lives — at restaurants, dinner gatherings, and even (or especially) when we’re eating alone. And that means more opportunities for overeating to stress out and overwhelm our digestive system.
Here’s what you should know about how overeating can affect your gut, along with some strategies to help avoid the unpleasant symptoms you may experience when you push the limits of your stomach.
What Is Overeating, And Why Do We Do It?
Overeating doesn’t have an exact definition, such as eating a specific number of calories or going over standard portion sizes. “Overeating is specific to each person,” says Stefanski. “People’s perception of how much food they need to feel satisfied really varies.”
Since overeating is somewhat subjective, that means it’s defined in large part by how you feel after you eat. If you feel pleasantly satisfied but not stuffed, chances are you’re not overeating. But if you feel uncomfortably full or experience symptoms like heartburn, gas, or abdominal pain or cramping after you eat, you may be overwhelming your digestive system.
There are a few reasons why people might overeat even when it leads to misery, according to Stefanski. “The taste, the feeling in your mouth, the pure enjoyment of food can help override” signals sent to your brain that you’re full, she notes. And since it can take a bit of time for your digestive system to send these signals after you eat, eating quickly can contribute to overeating.
In some people, there may be differences in the levels of certain hormones that play a role in feeling satisfied after you eat — meaning that you might feel less full than someone else after the same meal. One of the many hormones that play a role in satiety is known as GLP-1, and semaglutide (Ozempic, Wegovy, Mounjaro), a synthetic version of this hormone, is now a popular drug due in part to its appetite-suppressing effects, notes Chris Damman, MD, a gastroenterologist and clinical associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle and editor-in-chief of Gut Bites MD, a blog that provides evidence-based tips for gut health.
For many people, Stefanski says, it’s possible to retrain yourself to feel full after eating by starting with a smaller portion, then waiting and trying to notice signs that you’re getting filled up before taking more food. But it can take some time for this strategy to change how you feel after you eat.
Overeating Can Contribute to Acid Reflux
One immediate — and sometimes long-term — problem related to overeating is acid reflux, also known as heartburn.
“When we eat a lot of food, digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid are produced,” Stefanski explains. “And that plus the volume of food can cause the stomach contents to enter the esophagus, burning it” due to the acid content of the reflux. “Uncontrolled reflux can lead to esophageal cancer and other serious issues, so it’s important to work with a physician” to get it under control, she adds.
Dr. Damman notes that in a healthy gut, food is mostly emptied from your stomach after three hours. But some people have a condition known as gastroparesis, per Harvard Health, in which the muscles in your stomach don’t process ingested food as they should, leading to a delay in stomach emptying. Diabetes is a common cause of gastroparesis.
“For people with gastroparesis, the general recommendation is to eat smaller meals and eat them more frequently,” says Damman. “That helps prevent reflux of the contents of the stomach into the esophagus.”
Even if you don’t typically have delayed stomach emptying, eating a very large meal can lead to food staying in your stomach longer, according to Damman. That’s because it takes longer for your stomach to break down the food enough before emptying it into your small intestine — which can increase the risk of reflux in the meantime.
Nighttime can be especially bad for reflux, since lying down can make it easier for your stomach contents to enter your esophagus. “Wait at least three hours after eating a meal before lying down at night,” Damman suggests, adding that some people with reflux also benefit from using a wedge between their mattress and box spring to raise up the head of the mattress.
Bloating, Gas, and Diarrhea From Overeating
Even if you don’t experience acid reflux after eating a large meal, overeating can still cause problems lower in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract like pain or cramping, excessive gas, or loose stools.
When you eat too much, “the GI tract can be overwhelmed by all of the nutrients, and it can lead to relative malabsorption,” says Damman. “You have a lot more unabsorbed nutrients making it into the lower GI tract, where microbes can have a feast” and produce excessive gas as a result.
Eating an excessive amount of fatty foods, in particular, can overwhelm your body’s ability to digest and absorb the fat you consume, leading to a type of loose stools known as steatorhea (increased fat in stools), per Cleveland Clinic. While steatorrhea is common in people with fat malabsorption disorders, it can sometimes happen to healthy people if they eat an excessive amount of fat at once, Damman says.
Eating a large and fatty meal can also cause a painful gallbladder attack if you have a history of gallstones, Stefanski notes, which happens when the gallstones get stuck in the gallbladder neck as bile is released from the gallbladder. Your gallbladder constricts to release bile, a digestive fluid that helps break down fat in your food.
Damman notes that eating too many low-fiber foods can contribute to constipation — feeling “backed up” or having infrequent bowel movements. That’s because fiber helps keep the contents of your gut moving along at a healthy pace.
Everyday Strategies to Avoid Overeating
Certain behavioral strategies can help you avoid overeating if you eat too much on a regular basis, Stefanski notes. Even though it sounds basic, starting out by putting less food on your plate can help, she says.
“We might serve ourselves based on what our eyes want, or what we expect we need, but it might not be what our stomach needs,” Stefanski explains. “If you see food on your plate, you’re going to continue eating because it’s there.”
Damman notes that including enough protein and fiber in your meals can help prevent overeating, since these food components help you feel full and satisfied. Eating healthy fats can also help. You should also try to stay hydrated throughout the day, since you may eat more when you feel thirsty, as well as drink plenty of water with your meals. And don’t worry that drinking lots of water during or after a meal could interfere with digestion — in fact, it helps digestion, according to Mayo Clinic.
Slowing down while you eat can also help, since this gives your stomach more time to send signals of fullness to your brain. This can be easier if you’re eating with other people, since talking often slows down the process of eating — but you can also focus on doing this when you’re eating by yourself. How long you should take to eat depends on what you’re eating — just try to savor every bite of your food, and take a moment after swallowing before you take another bite.
Keeping Your Gut in Check at Thanksgiving
Even if overeating isn’t typically a big concern for you, you may want to take certain precautions to avoid feeling like a stuffed turkey after your meal.
At Thanksgiving, “It’s smart to put smaller portions on your plate the first time, then go back for more if you want it,” says Stefanski. “Try to take time enjoying your food, talking to people. You can still enjoy your food even if it’s a smaller portion.” She also suggests avoiding foods that you can eat any day, like rolls or potato chips, and serving yourself foods that you really enjoy for Thanksgiving in particular.
Damman notes that if you experience sluggishness or tiredness that some people experience after a Thanksgiving meal, turkey may not be the main culprit. “When you eat lots of carbs” — like mashed potatoes, stuffing, or candied sweet potatoes — “that can inflammatory signals, blood sugar, and insulin to spike, leading to biochemical changes that impact the brain,” he explains. Instead of loading up on these foods, he suggests eating more fiber-rich foods such as nonstarchy vegetables (like green beans and Brussels sprouts).
And after you finish your main course at Thanksgiving, consider a pause before reaching for the pumpkin pie. “In my family, we always enjoy the main meal, then we take a little bit of time to catch up or play a game,” says Stefanski. “Then we go back for the dessert later. I think that allows your digestive system to work on the first part of the meal before having the next part added on.”