Overdoing it on the turkey and mashed potatoes might actually do more damage than popping your pants button.
One study even found that eating an unusually heavy and rich meal may quadruple an individual’s risk of having a heart attack, provided they already have other risk factors like high blood pressure and cholesterol.
“Yes, very big, very rich meals (like a holiday or Thanksgiving meal) have been known to precipitate heart events,” confirmed Dr. Scott Kahan, director of the National Center for Weight and Wellness in Washington, D.C.
Of course, don’t go cancelling your Thanksgiving dinner plans just yet. Experts say this risk is probably slim-to-none for most people, but it’s a good reminder not to really overdo it at the table.
Stress, higher amounts of alcohol consumption and already having poor heart health also likely play a big role in cases of meal-provoked heart attack, Kahan said. In other words, eating a big meal may be a potential heart attack trigger for those at risk, similar to extreme physical exertion or outbursts of anger.
Why eating too much stresses your body out
While researchers don’t know exactly how an overindulgent meal might trigger heart attack, there are a couple of theories. Primarily, eating a lot in one sitting causes an increased release of adrenaline.
“Eating a large meal is a type of physiologic stress,” Kahan said, at least as far as your body is concerned. And like any other physiologically stressful event, the body responds by releasing adrenaline, which causes blood pressure to spike and heart rate to increase.
“It’s the person who has a weakened heart to begin with who may be at risk.”
Another theory is that certain types of fat, when consumed, cause blood vessels to work poorly and lead to a blockage that potentially could trigger a heart attack, Kahan said.
There are previous studies that suggest that various types of fat can have such an effect on blood vessels, but the research does not specifically show that’s what happens when someone eats a large meal, he added.
For most people, there’s probably no risk
Most people without a history of heart disease or heart disease risk factors may feel groggy after a large meal or uncomfortably full, Kahan said, “but it’s the person who has a weakened heart to begin with who may be at risk.”
For those who are at risk, the best thing to do is eat moderately, get regular exercise and maintain regular check-ups with your doctor.
And for those at low risk, indulging a little bit around the holidays is definitely reasonable and psychologically healthy.
Kahan’s parting advice? “Maybe splurge in moderation ― that’s the bottom line here.”
Sarah DiGiulio is The Huffington Post’s sleep reporter. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.