Ask a Dietitian

It seems like Halloween is the start of several months of indulging in not-so-healthy foods. I want to maintain healthy eating habits, but I also don't want to miss out on anything this season. Got any tips?

You may hear this phrase pretty often: portion control. For the Halloween candy haul, choose mini size bars over king sizes. Divide and prepackage the candy into individual bags and store the bags on a high cupboard shelf. This way, you can have some candy when you’re craving it, but you’ll be less tempted to go back for a second serving. For Thanksgiving dinner, use a smaller spoon to serve yourself. If you’re tempted to grab larger portions, use a smaller plate—seeing the same portion of food on a smaller plate will trick your brain into thinking you are serving yourself more than you are.

If portion control really isn’t your thing, filling up on more nutritious foods first can reduce the amount of less nutritious foods you eat later on. Pile your plate with fruits and vegetables first, saving a bit of room for the more indulgent foods. It takes some time for your stomach to tell your brain that you are full, so eat slowly and take some time to engage in conversation before grabbing seconds.

Lastly, whether you’re hosting a Halloween party, bringing a side dish to Thanksgiving dinner, or participating in a holiday cookie swap, you’re most likely going to be doing some cooking or baking this season. Take this opportunity to swap out traditional ingredients for more nutritious substitutes. Use low-fat or non-dairy milk in mashed potatoes. Brown rice or quinoa is an easy alternative to white rice as a side dish. And, my personal favorite: try replacing a stick of butter in any cake, cookie, or brownie recipe with ½ cup of mashed avocado.

Ok, set the record straight. Is it the tryptophan in the turkey that's sending me to the couch for a nap immediately after my Thanksgiving meal?

It’s true that turkey does contain tryptophan, the amino acid that causes sleepiness. However, since other proteins, such as chicken, salmon, lamb, and even plant proteins, contain almost as much or more tryptophan than turkey does, there’s probably another culprit to the post-Thanksgiving “food coma”: overeating.

How does this work exactly? There are a few theories. First, after we eat, blood is shunted to the stomach area to aid with digestion, leaving lower blood flow to other parts of the body, including the brain. Also, high amounts of carbohydrates from foods such as stuffing, refined sugars, and breads, aid in the uptake of tryptophan by the brain. Finally, the alcohol that often accompanies a Thanksgiving meal can also make you feel tired.

Since Thanksgiving only comes once a year, there’s no reason to feel guilty about indulging in a big meal and taking a nap afterwards. But, if you’re looking to avoid crashing after your feast, there are a few methods that can help. As mentioned in the previous question’s response, practicing portion control will allow you to participate in the meal without overeating. Between bites, be sure to drink plenty of water to promote blood flow, aid in digestion, and dilute the effects of any alcohol. And, instead of a family nap after dinner, try something active, such as hiking, walking the dogs, or playing football, to help stabilize your blood sugars and keep you alert.