Picture this: It’s Thanksgiving Day, and your family has savored a bountiful feast of roasted turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, and green bean casserole.
Your Uncle Jeff retreats to the couch, falling into a postmeal slumber to the lull of a football game on the television. Your cousins retreat to their rooms, phones in hand, for midafternoon naps.
The clamor of the house is reduced to a restful calm, and everyone blames the turkey for their lethargy. Should the humble fowl still get all the blame? Metro Minute turned to Alicia Romano, a registered dietitian and nutritionist at Tufts Medical Center, for answers. (Comments are edited for length and clarity.)
What’s the latest research about turkey and sleepiness?
The research doesn’t really support that turkey itself is what makes you sleepy. Tryptophan, an amino acid found in turkey, promotes the creation of serotonin and melatonin [in the body], and these two components are linked to getting a more restful sleep. The amount of tryptophan present in turkey is extremely small and is not fully linked to the sleepy feeling we get after eating turkey or that heavy Thanksgiving feast.
Why the misconception? What’s the culprit?
The heavy carbohydrate intake is much more linked to the sleepy feeling that we get as opposed to turkey. Everything on the side of the plate — the potatoes and stuffing and pie and rolls and all those really heavy, simple carbohydrates in large quantities — tend to spike your insulin levels. It sets off a chain reaction leading up to an increase in melatonin production. I think the combination of all these things — not just the turkey, but the whole shebang on Thanksgiving — gives us more of a sleepy effect.
What about other meats?
If you look at tryptophan in turkey compared to chicken or beef, it actually all lines up very similarly. We’re eating chicken and beef during the week and not blaming that on our sleepy slumbers. It’s more so the combination of all the carbohydrates, alcohol, and volume of food that goes along with it. Also, many people won’t eat all day until the Thanksgiving feast, which is a really big meal that can play a role in our sleepiness.
What can people do to combat sleepiness?
It’s really the volume. If having more balance is important to you, try to be more mindful about portion sizes. Don’t fill your plate with all the carbohydrates and a third piece of pie. Try to dig into some fresh greens or veggies to balance out the meal itself a little bit. Thanksgiving gives you the best pieces of leftovers, and you can certainly divide up that plate into multiple servings. Remember that good healthy nutrition is a balance of eating what you enjoy and eating the foods you should eat.