Your body has a brilliant mechanism to adapt to eating gut-busting holiday meals

Eat your heart out.
Eat your heart out.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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My 17-year-old brother thinks of Thanksgiving as a challenge. He’s 6’4, roughly 200 pounds, a competitive rower, and something of a human black hole for food. On Thanksgiving, he likes to see just how much he can eat, purely for bragging purposes. “It’s a game,” he says.

I’ve watched Harrison put away plate after plate (after plate after plate) at holiday meals, and I can’t figure out where he puts it all. But his trick—like many Thanksgiving-enthusiasts—is in his tummy.

The human stomach is a wonderfully stretchy organ. It’s made of layers of muscles and connective tissue which churn and squeeze the mess of food that makes its way down the esophagus from our mouths. These muscles join forces with hydrochloric acid, which sloshes around our stomachs (and doesn’t burn us thanks to mucus), and other enzymes that break down food even more so it can pass into our small intestines. It’s such an efficient system we can disperse nutrients all over our bodies within 24 hours.

The muscles and other tissues that make up our tummies can expand over time—just like your favorite sweater. Anyone can train their stomach to stretch more over a couple of weeks or months by eating large amounts in a short time and drinking copious amounts of water. “Literally the entire abdomen … [becomes] this giant flaccid sack that can take phenomenal volumes of food,” Marc Levine, gastroenterologist at the University of Pennsylvania told STAT.

Scientists have studied the stomachs of women with bulimia and a professional eater, all of whom eat large amounts of food in a short amount of time. They found that their stomachs are capable of holding more food than those who do not binge eat. The same effect works in reverse: People who severely limit (paywall) their caloric intake through dieting can shrink their stomachs over time.

Even though it’s pretty gross (“It looked like he was carrying a full-term pregnancy,” Levine said in the same interview, commenting on the gut of a professional eater after he ate  36 hotdogs in 10 minutes), stretching your stomach isn’t terribly bad for you. All the food you eat, though, is another matter.

During eating contests, participants can eat enough food with enough caloric energy for 10 days. But more concerning from a health standpoint is all the salt they put down the hatch. Our bodies need salt, but balanced with water. When we shift this equilibrium with a salty meal, our bodies try to balance it out by both retaining more water and making us feel thirsty so we drink more. That water quickly makes it way into the bloodstream—and carrying a larger volume of blood puts an added strain on our hearts. The amount of table salt in your Thanksgiving food depends on how you cook it, but the protein found in turkey and sausage in stuffing will have a lot of monosodium glutamate, or MSG (responsible for that delicious umami flavor), no matter what.

If you’re not like my brother trying to set personal records with amount of turkey and pie he can eat, and you want to avoid over salting your system, you can try to eat slowly and drink a lot of water, so that your gut and your brain have more time to send hormonal signals to let you know that you’re full. But if you do fill yourself to maximum capacity, don’t worry too much: You can always just sleep off your food coma.