ASK A TOP DOC: What Does My Thanksgiving Gobble Fest Do to My Body?

Surprise! The calories in your T-Day dinner won’t kill you, but this hidden culprit could. A Top Doctor clues us in.

Q: I’ve heard that eating too much at once can stretch your stomach out. Is eating a big meal on Thanksgiving bad for you?

A: The average, moderately portioned Thanksgiving dinner clocks in at a whopping 3,000 calories. But believe it or not, feasting on Thanksgiving isn’t going to cause you to pack on holiday pounds or hurt your health — it’s what you eat in the days before and after T-Day, and the large amount of salt hiding in your favorite holiday dishes, that can cause you trouble.

“Humans are very well adapted to having a feast,” says Arthur Chernoff, MD, chair of the division of endocrinology at Albert Einstein Medical Center. “Hunters and gatherers used to go for long periods of time where they were eating insufficient calories until the harvest came in, they got lucky on a hunt, or they finally found that berry patch. At that point, they’d have a feast. But in our current society, the only hunting we have to do is in the refrigerator. It’s not the one big meal that’s going to hurt you, it’s the overeating all of the time.”

But hold that extra scoop of gravy: Even though your body is built to deal with extra calories, it’s not built to handle extra salt. “A typical Thanksgiving meal can hold up to 4,500 milligrams of sodium, which is more than you need in an entire day” says Dr. Chernoff. In the past, salt was a very valuable commodity and was used sparingly. Today, we regularly have too much salt due to processed and packaged foods. Downing a day’s worth of sodium in one meal — blame the pie crusts, veggie casseroles, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy — can not only make you feel bloated the following day, but may harm the health of those with underlying heart conditions. “Often these people seem fine, but then a big holiday meal puts them over the edge,” cautions Dr. Chernoff. “The overload of sodium can cause them to go into heart failure.”

So how can you get through Thanksgiving without gaining weight or harming your heart? Mimic our ancestors, says Dr. Chernoff. Reach for fresh, unpackaged foods before and after the big day to curb salt intake, and cut about 200 calories per day in the week leading up to Thanksgiving and the week after to accommodate the T-Day feast. “By cutting a few hundred calories before and after, you’ll make room for the additional 1,500 calories or so that you won’t burn off on Thanksgiving,” says Dr. Chernoff.