Food Myth: Tired From Turkey?

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For me, Thanksgiving means food, family and at least one smug foodie desperately trying to put their hours spent watching the Food Network to good use. You know the type: they refuse to eat turkey unless the bird in question is local, hormone-free and took at least one trip to Europe before ending up in your oven. And if you think that's extreme, just wait until you hear what they have to say about basting, or the "proper" way to use a meat thermometer...who knew there was a wrong way to use those things? But above all: anyone with even a shred of common sense knows better than to yawn in these folks' presence after dinner, because they're ready to deliver a lecture on tryptophan at the droop of an eyelid.

Photo courtesy of Bonappetit

Full disclosure: at my family's own dinner table, I'm usually the one filling that role. I can rant about ethically sourced meat with the best of them, and I've told many a groggy cousin that they can thank tryptophan, an amino acid in turkey, for their post-dinner sleepies. I do this because hello, this stuff is super cool. I mean, there have to be other people out there who share in my dorky interests, right?

Enter Monica Reinagle: certified nutritionist and reigning queen of food nerds everywhere. I'm a big fan of Ms. Reinagle, and have been tuning into her podcast, the Nutrition Diva, for a couple of years now. During my most recent ND marathon, I came across the episode, "Healthy Thanksgiving Eating Tips." Before pressing play, I saw in the episode's description that it covered the age-old question, "Does turkey really make you drowsy?"

"C'mon, Monica! I already know this!" I thought, smugly. "Whatever, I'm sure you'll just confirm what I already know to be true... "

Leave it to a certified nutritionist to make a self-righteous foodie (whose credentials include "Iron Chef watcher" and self-proclaimed "pizza connoisseur") realize the error of her ways. According to Ms. Reinagle, while turkey does contain tryptophan, and tryptophan can be converted to sleep-inducing serotonin, this only happens when there are no other amino acids present, which is not the case in turkey meat.  Plus, tryptophan can be found in "everything from pumpkin seeds to parmesan cheese," and turkey isn't even the most tryptophan-rich food out there. According to the folks at WebMD, chicken actually contains slightly more tryptophan than turkey, and I can't remember a grilled chicken breast ever making me Thanksgiving-level sleepy.

So if not tryptophan, what's really behind our need to nap on Turkey Day? Hard to say, though I think it probably has something to do with the 4,500 calories we pack into one sitting. Remember how cramming an entire semester's worth of work into one night made your brain feel? That's what Thanksgiving dinner does to your digestive system. So this year, maybe give your body some time to rest up before you go blaming the bird.

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