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With just over a week away from Thanksgiving, it is time to start planning the menu for the big day. This is my first Thanksgiving on a whole foods plant-based diet. It’s about to get interesting. Traditionally, Thanksgiving is centered around processed meats, lots of fat and butter, and sugar-laden desserts. Any vegetable on the table is typically baked into a casserole with cheese or butter. The only semi-healthy item is the salad (which wasn’t a common option on Thanksgiving in my family for what I can remember) but any health aspect was negated by the cheese and fatty dressing poured on top.
And then the stomach ache and drowsiness would set in.
Ever wonder why you get so tired after a big meal? On Thanksgiving, many blame the turkey because it contains tryptophan. However, this myth was dispelled over a decade ago by a study done at MIT. Turkey only contains tryptophan, an essential amino acid, in small quantities. What happens is that tryptophan has to compete with other amino acids for transport across the blood-brain barrier into the brain. Since it is found in animal proteins in a smaller ratio, it is typically last in line for transport. So if anything, consuming turkey actually lowers tryptophan levels. When tryptophan is consumed as part of an animal protein meal, serum tryptophan levels rise while brain tryptophan levels decline.
Lower tryptophan levels are associated with depression so being able to have it cross the blood-brain barrier is key. On Thanksgiving day, what’s more likely happening is the refined carbohydrates and fat are increasing the release of insulin, which causes the muscles to take up the non-tryptophan amino acids as fuel and allows the tryptophan to be first in line for brain access. Once in the brain, this leads to an increased production of serotonin—the “happy hormone” and some of it gets converted to melatonin, a chemical associated with helping sleep.
The reason you feel so much sleepier than usual on Thanksgiving is because of the sheer amount of calories you’re consuming—>not only does that surge of serotonin production lead to melatonin, but your body has to use so much energy just to digest all of that food. Also, being dehydrated can exacerbate your lethargy, so make sure to drink plenty of water!
An alternative is to eat a plant-based meal that will not cause the sugar high and subsequent crash. Whole plant foods are nutrient dense and fill you up sooner with less calories. It is harder to over eat on a whole foods plant-based diet. And those complex carbs break down slower which means a more gradual release of insulin rather than a spike.
And when consuming foods with a high tryptophan-to-total protein ratio such as pumpkin seeds, pistachios, or roasted soy beans, tryptophan levels in the brain increase. This may be why studies show that those eating plant-based diets have superior mood states. You heard that right—I’m happier than you omnivores!
This year Daniel and I are hosting my family for Thanksgiving so I have been getting pumped up to plan the menu. There will be a total of 6 people. Although I am trying to stay as close to whole foods as possible, it is a holiday which calls for some rules to be broken. Don’t worry, I’m not eating animal products. But I’m okay with adding some processed foods to mix against what I just blabbed on about. You’re welcome. (Dr. Michael Gregor said what you eat on holidays and special occasions won’t affect your long term health sooo…..)
- Shepherd’s Pie from Forks Over Knives
- Stuffing from the Minimalist Baker
- Maple Walnut Brussels Sprouts
- Rolls from the Minimalist Baker (they look divine but if I run out of time I might just get store-bought)
- Pumpkin Pie (from a vegan bakery) but check out these two recipes that look amazing from VegKitchen and it doesn’t taste like chicken
- Pecan Pie (my favorite kind of pie!) from The Viet Vegan
- Fresh salad (duh)
And here’s a teaser photo of those sprouts:
I hope you’ve found some inspiration for your own Thanksgiving meal from my menu. The turkeys will thank you! xoxo