You usually watch your diet, but it's a holiday party—and you love the holidays. The array of rich appetizers, hearty meats, starchy side dishes, and decadent desserts you’re eating have more calories and fat than you typically consume in an entire day. Plus, you had pancakes and bacon for breakfast (you were not thinking!).
Sure, over the long haul it’s dangerous to eat like this, but one splurge won’t hurt, will it? Well, it might. One large fatty meal can have a variety of immediate adverse effects, which are most risky if you already have heart disease or risk factors for it.
Troubles from super-size meals
Stiffer arteries, reduced blood flow. Large high-fat meals can impair the ability of blood vessels to dilate or expand when necessary. That helps explain why people who have cardiovascular disease and who eat a large meal and then exercise sometimes get angina or even a heart attack. Digesting any kind of large meal also causes your heart rate to increase because of the increased demands from the digestive tract.
Higher blood pressure. A large meal can trigger the release of norepinephrine, a stress hormone that can raise blood pressure and heart rate.
High triglycerides. Any meal will raise levels of these fats in the blood, but after a large meal, especially one rich in fat or refined carbohydrates, levels rise the most and can remain elevated for six to twelve hours. Accompany the food with alcohol, and triglycerides will rise even more.
Blood sugar. If you have diabetes, a large meal can impair your body’s ability to process glucose.
Heartburn. If you are prone to heartburn, the larger the meal, the more gastric reflux you’re likely to have.
Antidotes to gluttony?
Years ago, a small study found that taking high doses of vitamin C and E right before a high-fat meal helped maintain arterial blood flow. But it has never been shown that these or any other antioxidants can protect your heart in the short term or long term. Another small study found that when young healthy people walked briskly for 45 minutes after eating a large fatty meal (almost 1,000 calories), the exercise helped restore their arteries’ ability to dilate.
Still, exercise won’t cancel out all the bad effects of overeating. In addition, the same effects may not occur in older or less healthy people; for them, exercise after a heavy meal may first cause problems.
Bottom line: If you’re healthy, overindulging occasionally shouldn’t be a problem. But if you have undesirable cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, diabetes or preexisting heart disease, or if you are very overweight or smoke, going overboard is a bad idea—even on a nationally sanctioned overeating day.
At parties and family gatherings, don’t arrive ravenous, and don’t hover near the buffet. Eat slowly, since it takes time for your body to signal your brain that you’re full. Eat lots of filling foods with a high water content, such as salads, soups, fruits and vegetables. And it can’t hurt to take that after-dinner walk.
This is an update of an article originally published in March 2011.