Food, the patron saint of Thanksgiving, is great and delicious and nom nom nom. What’s not great is discomfort. What’s also not great is talking to your mother (or anyone else for that matter) about portion control.
For a non-extracurricular activity we’ve all done since day one, eating remains shockingly difficult for a shocking number of adult humans. Pepto-Bismol exists because we’re bad at it, and we’re bad at it because it’s complicated for our brains. Food feedback comes at us from several directions and synthesizing the data is tough, especially when the cranberry sauce is winking from across the table.
“The act of digestion is not something that just magically happens — it’s a process that our body has to make happen,” Drew Hays, a registered dietitian and a lecturer in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Texas, Austin, told Inverse. “But that sensation — feeling just so full — it’s not only your stomach expanding. There are hormones that are released that tell us, ‘Hey you’ve had plenty, time to quit eating.’”
It takes about 30 minutes for the hormones released by digestion to hit your brain, which basically means there’s a window of time during long meals when the people at the table don’t know whether or not they’re still hungry. When the hormone peptide tyrosine hits the brain, we know we’ve had highly caloric meals and need to stop, but before that we’re all just driving without GPS. The question becomes whether or not we can learn to navigate without our advanced systems providing chemical cues.
Hays points out that everyone has a different relationship with food and while general guidelines say we’re all supposed to be on a 2,000 calorie diet, hardly any Americans stick to that. The average person makes over 200 decisions about food every day and studies (as well as the sweatpant racks at Target) have shown that not all of those decisions are smart.
“You see that huge plate of food and you think, well I’m just going in,” says Hays. “I know it’s going to make me feel terrible but it’s so delicious.”
In a study led by Brian Wansink of Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab, researchers looked to find whether altering visual cues related to portion size would influence how much people ate. Subjects were set up with either regular bowls of soup, or bowls that self-refilled. People who were unknowingly slurping out of the latter ended up eating more soup than the control group, causing researchers to conclude that if people aren’t self-monitoring by visual clues like empty bowls they’ll just keeping eating and eating.
One must conclude that there is an advantage to using the same bowls and plates regularly. They are a mark of civilization (or whatever), but they’re also teaching tools.
“There’s a psychological component to eating as well, and that’s really broad,” says Hays. “Consumption is also directly tied to the relationships with food you developed as a child.”
This is doubly true when food is tied to a sense of nostalgia, which is why Thanksgiving can be so problematic for people who aren’t skilled eaters. That special dish makes us feel special. Physical stimuli, chemical feedback, and emotional impulses start battling it out in our heads even as we try to steer conversations with our kinda loved ones away from the subject of race.
Turns out those conversations — stilted as they may be — are the best hope for the holiday: They slow down consumption to the point that the hormones can come and save us.
In her tome on competitive eating Columbia University professor Priscilla Ferguson wrote: “Even though Thanksgiving dinner is not an occasion for competitive eating, it certainly celebrates ritualistic overeating…. The second helping invariably urges diners to further honor national abundance.” That’s a nice way of thinking about it so long as that second helping doesn’t come immediately on the heels of the first.
“I think one big point is that if you fall off the wagon on Thanksgiving, it’s okay. It happens,” says Hays. “If you feel discouraged about overeating and are thinking about how much you failed, it’s not really true. You were just having a party.”
The key isn’t to feel bad about what happened, just to understand why it happened.
This article has been updated.