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I love Thanksgiving. It's my favorite holiday. People “heading home” from all over to make it the biggest American travel holiday. Family and friends around a meal. The commencement of America’s end-of-year holiday season. What I don't love is reading the same, tired articles this time of year about Thanksgiving and nutrition, holiday season weight gain, and good ole tryptophan! So, here is a new one.
First, let's just get this out of the way, and put a certain urban myth to rest. Tryptophan from turkey does not make you sleepy on Thanksgiving, or any other day. The reason so many people nod off after the Big Meal is a sharp rise in insulin, which results from the insane amount of carbohydrates and fat we eat. As a teenager, I prided myself on “competing” at the Thanksgiving dinner table with my older, male family members. Now, we all look at nutrition a little differently.
For nutritional and enjoyment reasons, I would like to see the shopping day after Thanksgiving be replaced with a second day of Thanksgiving like the Shannon family from Connecticut does - they host a party they call “Schleggo Night.” For Schleggo night, Jamie and Gary Shannon first prepare an overly large Thanskgiving meal. Then, the next day, they prepare a ridiculous number of sandwiches using the leftovers to feed family and friends. Jamie and Gary should get an award for their genius. Perhaps I’m too biased towards a two-day Turkey Day, but we do not get to eat these foods (in their Thanksgiving Day state) all year long (for obvious health reasons). Everything in moderation..
Regardless, with the number of “45 Healthy, Alternative Thanksgiving Dishes” articles popping up all over the web, I feel we are turning the proverbial corner on Thanksgiving nutrition. Maybe some day, Sligo (the other spelling) Night will be for everyone, and we will replace “discount” shopping with an extra day spent around the table with family and friends.
Anyway, back to nutrition. Let us discuss Tryptophan. According to Young (2007) and others, exercise increases Tryptophan availability in the brain. So, there is a hypothesis out there that fatigue from or during exercise is correlated with elevated brain tryptophan and serotonin synthesis. But remember, this is tryptophan and serotonin being made within the brain and affecting our mood, resulting from exercise. Not eating Thanksgiving dinner and passing out on the couch. Tryptophan and serotonin crossing the blood-brain barrier from the outside (as in, from things we ingest) is an entirely different challenge. According to Wurtman et al (1980), purified tryptophan increases brain serotonin, as in a drug formulation or dietary supplement of tryptophan, assuming it is properly absorbed. This can help improve our moods, but does not really have much to do with sleepiness post-turkey-consumption.
However, foods containing tryptophan do not increase brain serotonin. Translation: this urban myth has been busted, long ago. Time to let it go. Besides, foods like cheeses, nuts, chicken and turkey have plenty of tryptophan in them without making us sleepy on any other day.
Now, back to overeating and insulin. Insulin is like an overeager kid at a birthday party, mixed with a squirrel (in other words, an anxious hoarder). If you give it sugar, it runs to store it (in excess, not good). If you give it amino acids (protein), it runs to store them via repairing and rebuilding tissues of various types, including your organs and muscles (a good thing).
Nonetheless, the big difference on Thanksgiving is with total calories, fat, and especially, sugar (carbohydrates). Look at the composition of all of the foods on the table. Carbs would be the most, then fat, then protein in terms of total count. Unlike with protein feeding, over time, the more you give your body sugar, the higher insulin goes. Insulin follows sugar and has a propensity to stay high, for our survival. There is also a genetic factor at play here. People who have a family history of diabetes are genetically more likely to follow suit.
But, more of this destiny is in our hands than is popularly believed. With increased sugar intake and increased sugar floating around your bloodstream, you have two effects. First, excess sugar gets turned into triglycerides and stored in fat cells throughout the body. Second, excess sugar continues floating around your bloodstream as your body uses it for energy production. This second number leads to your HbA1C measurement. It is the one people refer to when their doctor says, “Your sugars are high.” Like the overeager-birthday-party kid, insulin follows sugar.
As said above, when sugar goes and stays high, so does your level of insulin. Insulin is a major driver of nutrition, and should be considered when reading articles here in the future. In terms of things inside your body which you can acutely and repeatedly affect with your nutrition, insulin is one of the two greatest long-term predictors of health. The second would be triglycerides.
So, what do we suggest you do for Thanksgiving and Wellness? Eat all you want. It is just one day. If you are on a committed nutrition regimen, then stick to it over the long haul. If not, then Thanksgiving certainly will not be the day you start, unless you are a super-appreciator of irony.
On a more serious note, though, there are plenty of 5K/10K races out there to simultaneously promote good causes and physical activity the morning-of. If you are not attending one of those, then hit the gym before it closes early to stimulate your appetite. Or go outside and throw the football around. Have a big- or normal breakfast to break your fast and keep your metabolism going. Just live a normal day, enjoy dinner, and make a beastly sandwich the next day with the leftovers.
Young (2007). J Psychiatry Neurosci; 32(6): 394-9.
Impact Factor: Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience - 5.861 (2014)
Wurtman RJ, Hefti F, Melamed E. Precursor control of neurotransmitter synthesis. Pharmacol Rev 1980;32:315-35.
Impact Factor: Pharmacological Reviews - 18.39 for 2015 with a 5-year Impact Factor of 22.8 and a Cited Half-Life of >10. (http://highwire.stanford.edu/cgi/journalinfo?qNum=all&journal_set=pharmrev&sendit=Submit )