There’s no denying that Thanksgiving dinner is the most caloric tradition of the holiday season. Between the turkey (and turkey gravy), green bean casserole, stuffing, candied yams (don’t forget the mini marshmallows), mashed potatoes (because you can never have too many taters), and pumpkin pie, some day you can expect to pack away an extra five pounds of food before your Thanksgiving day food coma sets in.
And while you can definitely eat five-plus pounds of food on turkey day—your stomach can actually stretch to hold nearly a gallon of food—it’s next to impossible to actually gain five pounds of fat in one day, says nutrition and food scientist Danielle Starin, M.S., R.D., director of nutrition at Nutritionix nutrition database. After all, to gain five pounds during Thanksgiving dinner, you’d have to eat upwards of 18,000 calories during in a single sitting. Not going to happen. If you’re really pushing it, maybe you’ll hit close to 4,000.
“If the scale has gone up five pounds after Thanksgiving dinner, that’s because you have the actual weight of the food you just ate sitting in your digestive tract as well as extra water weight that your body is holding onto,” Starin says. “After you overeat, your body pulls excess water toward your digestive tract to help break down the food and absorb the nutrients from your meal as well as dilute excess salt in your system.” And we all know Thanksgiving dinner can be chock-full of sodium.
All of the extra water weight from sodium, plus even more water weight gained from eating way too many carbs (when carbs are stored in your body as glycogen, they are stored with water molecules), can mask your six pack, while the stomach distention due to the pure food volume can make men look like they have a beer belly, even when they don't!
The good news: It's a short-term effect—so long as you go back to your regular healthy diet immediatly after indulging. After a few days of eating normally, the water weight will fall off, and as you digest the meal, any stomach distention will be gone.
A day? Or a season?
To drop the water weight and reveal your abs once more, Starin has one simple piece of advice: “Step away from the leftovers!”
After all, although one day of overindulging won’t ruin all of your hard work, if you snack on leftovers until you hit the bottom of those Tupperware containers, you could be risking some serious fat gain as well as poor long-term eating habits, she says. Hence why most people end up gaining about a pound every year over the holidays, and then never lose it, according to research published in The New England Journal of Medicine.
However, if you get back to your usual healthy eating and exercise routine by Black Friday, you’ll easily work off any water hanging around your gut within a few days—and set yourself up for healthier months ahead. “Remember, you still have the rest of holiday season ahead of you,” Starin says.