Talking Turkey

We’ve all heard that the turkey in our Thanksgiving meal makes us sleepy. The theory comes from the fact that turkey contains the amino acid tryptophan that can be converted into several important substances, including serotonin and the hormone melatonin, a popular sleep aid.

While it is true that turkey contains tryptophan, it’s probably not enough to make you sleepy. In fact, chicken and many other foods contain tryptophan in similar amounts—if not more—than that found in turkey. So why don’t we fall asleep after every chicken sandwich we eat?

The real culprit of your post-Thanksgiving meal slumber is carbohydrates. Experts believe it is the stuffing, potatoes, yams and marshmallow we eat that day. The theory is the tryptophan must enter into the brain to make melatonin, but it has to fight with other amino acids to do so.  When we eat a lot of carbs our body releases insulin, which removes many amino acids from the blood—but not tryptophan. This allows a large amount of tryptophan to enter the brain to make the sleep hormone melatonin.

Many other factors on Thanksgiving may also contribute to feelings of tiredness, such as drinking alcohol, over eating and long hours of meal preparation.

Did you know turkey is a healthy and lean protein source?

  • Turkey is lower in fat and it is higher in protein than other meats.
  • Turkey has more protein than chicken or beef.
  • White meat has fewer calories and less fat than dark meat.
  • It’s a good source of iron, zinc, phosphorus, potassium and B vitamins.


Here are a few fun fact about turkey to share at the holiday table:

  • Turkeys lived almost 10 million years ago.
  • Wild turkeys were almost wiped out in the early 1900s. Today, there are wild turkeys in every state except Alaska.
  • The average weight of a turkey purchased at Thanksgiving is 15 pounds, and it usually has about 70 percent white meat and 30 percent dark meat.
  • Baby turkeys are called poults, and they are tan and brown.
  • The male turkey is called a tom. The female turkey is called a hen.
  • Male turkeys gobble. Hens do not; they make a clicking noise.
  • Wild turkeys can fly as fast as 55 mph but commercially raised turkeys cannot fly.
  • Mature turkeys will have 3,500 feathers.
  • Ben Franklin, in a letter to his daughter, proposed the turkey as the official United States bird.
  • President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.
  • 51.6 million turkeys are eaten each Thanksgiving, and 88% of Americans surveyed eat turkey on Thanksgiving.
  • The per capita average turkey consumption per American was 17.5 pounds in a year. That’s a lot of turkey!

Barb Walsh, R.D., is the community nutrition educator in the Tevis Center for Wellness.



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