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One Thanksgiving Meal Packs More Than 4,500 Calories

Thanksgiving meal with turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing and other dishes

Thanksgiving started early in the office today with our annual potluck.

On two large tables in the lobby, we laid out the usual holiday fare, including: Mashed potatoes loaded with cream and butter, green bean casserole filled with more cream, topped with fried onions and, of course, the deliciously salty stuffing and gravy. The stars of the show were two hand-carved turkeys and a large ham.

Then, of course, after loading our plates and stomachs with all this wonderful food, the pies and cheesecakes were put out, and we do it all over again.

Overindulgence is as much a part of the Thanksgiving tradition as the stuffing and cranberry sauce, and Americans do it with gusto consuming an average of 4,500 calories and 229 grams of fat – or about seven McDonald's Big Macs in one sitting. My best friend and I used to visit her family for Thanksgiving prepared with bottles of Pepto Bismol each year.

But alas, there is a price to pay for self-induced food comas, and it usually comes in the form of heart problems. Beginning with Thanksgiving, the months of December and January are the deadliest months for heart disease.

What Happens to the Body After Unusually Large Meals?

The unusually large holiday meal affects the body in a number of ways, pushing it past its normal limits. The copious amounts of carbohydrates, fat and salt force the body to work hard to digest them.

The heart is particularly vulnerable, according to Dr. Marvin Lipman. Just this one traditional Thanksgiving feast "quadruples the chance of having a heart attack within the next two hours," Lipman said in his article "Heart Attack on a Platter."

It can take up to six hours to digest the food and the heart is pumping more blood to the intestines to help digest the food, diverting blood from the heart and brain — that's the equivalent of putting your body through six hours of moderate exercise.

The extra fat, carbs and salt can do several things to the body:

  • Spike insulin, which places stress on arteries
  • Spike triglycerides, which inflames coronary arteries
  • High blood pressure caused by overeating can rupture inflamed arteries and trigger a heart attack
  • Excess salt can also trigger a heart attack in people with a history of heart disease
  • Extra alcohol may lead to atrial fibrillation and trigger heart attacks in people with a pre-existing history of coronary artery disease

Overindulgence may lead to headaches or stomach problems, and people often reach for pain relievers such as Tylenol or stomach aids like Pepto Bismol and antacids. Overdoing the over-the-counter meds can also result in terrible side effects.

For instance, too much Tylenol can result in acute liver failure — a condition that can be fatal if not immediately treated. Pour in the holiday alcohol and the risk of liver failure increases.

Overeating also leads to the development of so-called lifestyle diseases like high cholesterol, high blood pressure or Type 2 diabetes. Prescription drugs to treat these conditions may also carry serious health risks.

People who use statins like Lipitor, especially older women, can develop Type 2 diabetes. These drugs also carry a risk of muscle degeneration and damage. Drugs that treat high blood pressure such as Lisinopril or Cozaar can damage the kidneys.

One group of Type 2 diabetes drugs called incretin therapies has been linked to inflammation of the pancreas and pancreatic cancer, both can be fatal. Another Type 2 diabetes drug called Actos is linked to bladder cancer.

Don't Deprive Yourself, Enjoy in Moderation

The holidays are still about spending time with family and friends and yes, enjoying good food. Thanksgiving and holiday dinners (or lunches) don’t have to be overeating competitions where people sit around and joke about how "stuffed" they are or how they "can’t eat another bite."

In fact, a recent article in Time showed that nutritionists and dietitians recommend giving in to some temptations as opposed to abstaining, which can actually lead to consuming unhealthy foods more often. For instance, one study showed people who had a bit of sugar every morning while dieting actually lost more weight than those who completely gave it up.

In the end, portion control is still king when it comes to good strategies for keeping healthy. But there are some tips for avoiding a gastronomical disaster this holiday season.

  • Use a smaller plate
  • Check out all the dishes and be selective, instead of just blindly piling it on
  • Cut back on the main course or skip dessert
  • Drink a glass of water between servings of alcohol
  • Cut back on salty appetizers
  • Have a snack before the main event
  • Eat to savor, not gorge
  • Eat slowly
  • Get some exercise in before feasting

This season, many of us have things to be thankful for. Good health should be one of them.