Turkey dinner: The good, the bad, the sleepy

Turkey will be sliced up and served in homes all over in less than two weeks.

Turkey will be sliced up and served in homes all over in less than two weeks.

ALBANY, Ga. -- It's three or four o'clock in the afternoon, Thanksgiving Day, and you've kicked back in your favorite chair, perhaps with your belt slipped out a notch or two.

The latest yearly feast has been enough to hobble you into the evening.

The black-eyed peas, sweet potato pie, cranberry sauce and, of course, the turkey, moist and tender -- all of it was wonderful.

Of course you had too much.

Just like last year, your eyes grow heavy. Your head begins to nod. Blame it on the turkey. There's something in there that makes you sleepy and so it all makes perfect sense. But it's a myth.

We've been told for years that turkey contains L-tryptophan, an essential amino acid which through a multi-step process produces serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain that can make you sleepy.

That's true.

But according to scientific sources, including a recent article in Live Science, a person would have to eat more than an entire huge turkey to feel the L-tryptophan affects.

Well, even that wouldn't work, the experts say, because L-tryptophan must be ingested on an empty stomach, with no protein or other amino acids present.

Most likely the urge to nap following a feast comes from a variety of possible other factors, including carbohydrates -- starches and sugars -- which can increase the level of serotonin in the brain or fats, which can slow the digestion.

The body automatically sends more blood to help the process, which in turn means less blood for the brain. You become sleepy.

If you celebrate the holiday with an alcoholic beverage (or two), of course that can have an affect.

All things considered, turkey doesn't have much of a downside as a holiday centerpiece, according Frank Heredeen, clinical dietitian at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital.

"Turkey is an excellent source of protein, potassium, zinc and vitamin B12 as well as niacin, which is helpful in maintaining good cholesterol levels," Heredeen said.

Heredeen admits he get sleepy like so many others, following a Thanksgiving meal.

He points out that L-tryptophan is present in many other dinner ingredients, including squash, black-eyed peas and walnuts.

He sees no particular health evidence for choosing an organically grown bird over those straight from the supermarket.

"Turkey is turkey, in my opinion," Heredeen said. "Some people are concerned about hormone levels in commercial turkeys and they would have to judge for themselves. I'm not aware of any studies that point to problems."

While not typically the star of the show, studies have shown that cranberry sauce -- or cranberries in general -- can be of great benefit in treating and preventing urological infections caused by the bacteria E. coli, according to an article in Science Daily.

"It's a powerful antioxidant, plus it tends to keep the bad bacteria from adhering to the walls of the urinary tract. I drink cranberry juice just to be sure."

In addition to fighting infection, scientists at Rutgers University and Brown Medical School believe a basic cranberry juice extract makes platinum-based cancer drugs several times more effective against ovarian cancer.

In an article by The Royal Society of Chemistry in Britain, Dr. Ajay P. Singh, a cancer researcher, was quoted as saying that cranberry research has opened up "exciting possibilities for therapeutic intervention associated with platinum therapy.

But what about those three pounds or more of weight we're said to gain during the holiday season? Did the turkey dinner cause that all that?

"Everyone used to say we gain 3 1/2 pounds from all that holiday food, from Halloween on through Christmas," Heredeen said. "Studies show the gain is more like a single pound. The real problem is that we hold that pound over to the next holiday season and then we add to it."

Haredeen recommends we "keep moving" though the feasting season, being active whenever we have chance.

"If you can get through the holidays without gaining that annual pound, you'll be in better shape," Heredeen said.

"Walk before and after dinner. Have the white meat turkey, which has less fat, and watch your portions. Try to have more fruits and vegetables."