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The myth of the food hangover


In the hours after Thanksgiving, you're lying down on the sofa in a glazed state and with a heavy stomach. It's almost as if you've drank too much, except you didn't drink at all. You just ate. A lot.

The concept of the "food hangover" has been floated in recent years: it refers to the hangover-like after-effects of eating a big meal rich in salt, sugar and fat: sleepiness, lethargy, thirstiness. In other words, it describes the way many feel after Thanksgiving. But is there any science to it?

At Vox, we tried to search for studies that could explain the food hangover. While there's lots of research on hangovers from drinking too much, there doesn't seem to be a single study about an equivalent phenomenon caused by too much food.

We called health-myth debunker Dr. Aaron Carroll, of the Indiana University School of Medicine, to learn more. Here's what he had to say.

Julia Belluz: "Food hangovers:" are they real?

Aaron Carroll: I haven't seen any research. I think it's just not considered a "thing" like with alcohol. Is it really any different than "indigestion"? And it doesn't seem to take until the next morning to show up.

JB: But people, after they overeat, say they experience this. What's going on?

AC: I don't think many people distinguish too well between the concept of a food hangover and indigestion. If you eat too much, you don't feel well right away.

JB: What's happening to your body after you overeat?

AC: Your body is trying to absorb as much as possible from all the food. It's an overload. There are hormones in your body, when you're hungry and need food. These hormones kick in to make you stop eating. Those hormones telling you to stop are in overload. At the same time, your gastrointestinal tract has various ways of letting you know it’s not comfortable, that you put too much into it. So it’s your body saying "stop."

JB: What about the tiredness. You know, the classic scene on Thanksgiving, people passing out on the sofa with their belts unfastened.

AC: Some people theorize blood is being drawn away from other parts of our body to your gastrointestinal tract. When you’ve had enough to eat, your body wants to slow down and concentrate on digestion. Some people complain they feel sleepier after meals, but this is not happening to everybody. Again, it's one of those areas that doesn't have a ton of research behind it.

JB: During the holidays, how can people avoid the food hangover... or whatever you'd call it?

AC: Just like a real hangover: prevention, moderation.

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