Nutrition

Food Coma? How to Bounce Back from a Big Meal

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Reminder: The holidays come around once a year—and from our POV, that time is best spent connecting with loved ones, indulging in delicious food and drink, and otherwise luxuriating in all the magic the season has to offer.

What’s not so festive? Our tendency to feel guilty after the noshing comes to an end. Whether it’s because of that too-stuffed-to-breathe sensation some of us get after a big meal (post-Thanksgiving dinner nap, anyone?), or simply the predilection society has for diet culture (no, thank you), we could all use some practical tips in this arena.

Luckily, we’ve got two. First, instead of being hard on yourself, consciously choose to savor every bite and sip, sweet or savory. Second? Follow the advice below. You’ll be back to feeling like yourself in no time.

But first… What is a food coma? Do they really exist?

Good question! It depends how technical you want to get. In terms of the science, there’s actually not much that shows the food coma effect is “real”—at least not in terms of a universal phenomenon (or well-understood underlying mechanisms). Like most things when it comes to our bodies, post-meal drowsiness is individualized; it can vary greatly depending on the person, the foods and beverages being consumed, and a variety of other factors. (1)

That said, the term is often used colloquially to describe the onset of drowsiness following a large meal—think traditional holiday spreads filled with starchy, carbohydrate-rich dishes, like pasta, mashed potatoes, and stuffing. Chances are, you’ve encountered the tell-tale effects before—drowsiness, sleepiness, bloating, low energy… They can all be par for the course after consuming an increased amount of food, but one thing’s for sure: When you’re feeling it, you know. (1)

Tip #1: Do some gentle stretching.

Overeating can be taxing on the body, and stress can wreak havoc on our digestive system. One helpful method to help restore calm to the mind-body connection? Yoga—a traditional practice that often includes a spiritual element, but has become increasingly lauded for its functional purposes in recent years. In addition to scientific literature that suggests it may support healthy habits (like balanced eating), recent research also indicates that yoga has measurable positive effects, both psychological and physiological. (2)

Yoga for Digestion

Some light yoga poses that may be helpful following a meal include:

  • Seated Side Bend (Parsva Sukhasana)
  • Seated Twist (Ardha Matsyendrasana)
  • Cat-Cow (Marjaryasana-Bitilasana)
  • Supine Spinal Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana)
  • Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)

Tip #2: Embrace the shorter days.

For many, the holidays coincide with daylight savings time—it gets dark, early. If you’re a night owl, use the accelerated sunset as an opportunity to turn in early and “reset” your circadian rhythm, since skimping on sleep can have not-so-nice effects. We recommend aiming for adequate sleep to support wellbeing, which for most, means at least 7 hours of shut-eye a night. (3, 4)

→ Essential Reading: 6 Science-Backed Ways to Improve Your Sleep

Tip #3: Fill up on fiber and prioritize protein.

Let’s be clear: The best way to bounce back from a night (or season!) of overindulging is not to restrict yourself—it’s to go back to regularly scheduled programming. (FWIW, skipping meals can actually backfire, leading to overeating later on.)

Rather than cutting back, make it a point to emphasize balanced meals, instead. Fill your plate up with whole foods, and focus on incorporating high-fiber foods in particular. Dietary fiber has many benefits, from supporting digestive health and regularity to satiety, and can help keep—or get!—things moving. If you’re short on time, struggle to consume enough fruits and veggies, or just prefer an easier route, fiber supplements can also be helpful.*

Don’t forget about protein, either. Not only is this macronutrient integral for supporting muscle protein synthesis, but it’s also great for supporting satiety. There are plenty of protein sources out there, from black beans and chia seeds to protein powder—the latter is an especially easy way to mind your macros, especially if you’re into smoothie recipes. Tip: Look for a high-quality protein powder that features a complete amino acid profile.*

→ Essential Reading: 6 Tips to Help Stay Fuller Longer

Tip #4: Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

We all know staying hydrated is important, but when the temps drop and our sweat sessions slow, many of us forget to keep sipping throughout the day. Water is essential for the functioning of our bodies, and like sleep, thirst can be mistaken for hunger. That's not to mention that large quantities of water are secreted into the GI tract during digestion, which may help soften stool for those who aren't adequately hydrated. (5, 6)

→ Essential Reading: What Can Poop Reveal About Digestive Health?

Tip #5: Go for a long walk.

Moving your body can aid digestion by enhancing gastrointestinal motility—a scientific way of saying that exercise helps move food through the gastrointestinal tract (including the stomach and small intestines). So whether you use it as solo time to recharge from the holiday chaos or as a moment of connection with a family member or friend, lacing up your sneakers after filling up can go a long way. (Even just 10 minutes can have a positive impact!) (7, 8)

→ Essential Reading: How to Start Working Out When You Don't Know Where to Begin

Tip #6: Slow and steady wins the race.

Ever heard of the 80/20 rule? It’s all about tuning into the experience of eating, rather than just the mechanics—being mindful of how full your stomach is feeling (and how quickly you’re chowing down!), then putting down your fork before you reach the point of being stuffed. In Japan, they call this method hara hachi bu, which essentially means “eat until you’re 80 percent full.” (Fun fact: Residents of Okinawa, Japan—one of the world’s Blue Zones—abide by this mantra, too.) (9, 10)

→ Essential Reading: What We Can Learn from Blue Zones—Five of the Most Healthful Regions in the World

References:

  1. Orr, W.C., Shadid, G., Harnish, M. J., & Elsenbruch, S. (1997). Meal composition and its effect on postprandial sleepiness. Physiology & behavior, 62(4), 709-712.
  2. National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2021). Yoga: What You Need to Know.
  3. Luyster, F. S., Strollo, P. J., Jr, Zee, P. C., Walsh, J. K., & Boards of Directors of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society (2012). Sleep: a health imperative. Sleep, 35(6), 727–734.
  4. Greer, S.M., Goldstein, A.N., Walker, M.P. (2013). The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain. Nat Commun. 4, 2259.
  5. Mattes R. D. (2010). Hunger and thirst: measurement and prediction of eating and drinking. Physiology & behavior, 100(1), 22–32.
  6. Popkin, B. M., D'Anci, K. E., & Rosenberg, I. H. (2010). Water, hydration, and health. Nutrition reviews, 68(8), 439–458.
  7. Kim, Y. S., Song, B. K., Oh, J. S., Woo, S. S. (2014). Aerobic exercise improves gastrointestinal motility in psychiatric inpatients. World Journal of Gastroenterology, 20(30), 10577–10584.
  8. Hamaguchi, T., Tayama, J., Suzuki, M., Nakaya, N., Takizawa, H., Koizumi, K., Amano, Y., Kanazawa, M., & Fukudo, S. (2020). The effects of locomotor activity on gastrointestinal symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome among younger people: An observational study. PloS one, 15(5), e0234089.
  9. Mishra, Badrin. “Secret of Eternal Youth; Teaching from the Centenarian Hot Spots (‘Blue Zones’).” Indian Journal of Community Medicine, vol. 34, no. 4, 2009, p. 273., doi:10.4103/0970-0218.58380.
  10. “Don't Just Eat in Moderation, Make Better Food Choices, HSPH Researcher Says.” News, 9 Jan. 2014, Retrieved from Harvard School of Public Health

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