Feel Like You Ate Too Much? Here’s How to Recover From a Huge, Filling Meal

Hint: Lying down can make it worse.

To recover after giant meal drink water
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Whether it's a special holiday feast, an irresistible takeout order, or an exceptionally tasty home-cooked meal, there are bound to be times when you eat a huge meal to the point of feeling uncomfortably stuffed. Who among us can resist a round of Thanksgiving seconds (or fourths)? But the truth is that overeating—defined as eating beyond fullness for you—can often lead to some not-so-fun feelings like bloating, stomach pain, heartburn, and drowsiness. 

“Overeating during a single meal is not uncommon, especially around the holidays,” says Matthew Bechtold, MD, a gastroenterologist at the University of Missouri. While eating a giant meal until you’re stuffed can make you feel pretty unpleasant, the good news is that it’s not irreversibly harmful or dangerous.

While it's better to eat in moderation, the body can handle both small and large meals. What’s more, you can trust that the side effects of eating a giant meal will go away in just a few hours. So don’t stress, you won’t feel like a stuffed turkey forever. 

Still, that I-ate-way-too-much feeling can be a nuisance. To help soothe your belly—and calm any worry that you’ll never feel hungry or comfortable again—consider these expert-approved tips for speeding up digestion and easing stomach discomfort.

Avoid Lying Down

After eating a big, hearty meal, it can be tempting to lie down and call it a night. But you might want to reconsider. Standing or sitting upright enables gravity to help food stay in the stomach, allowing it to move into the small intestine, Dr. Bechtold explains. Lying down will actually make it difficult for gravity to support this natural digestion process, potentially moving food back up the esophagus, and causing acid reflux and heartburn.

With that in mind, Dr. Bechtold recommends avoiding lying down fully for at least two hours after a large meal to give all that food a chance to travel properly to the small intestine. While you’re at it, try your best to stay awake. “If you fall asleep, [the muscles in] your stomach and small intestine slow down, which may make the uncomfortable feeling last longer,” he adds.

Go for a Walk

When you’re really full and struggling not to curl up and fall asleep, consider going for a gentle walk, even for just 15 minutes. Not only will the fresh air help perk you up, but light physical activity can speed up digestion and help minimize the chances of bloating, stomach discomfort, and heartburn, Dr. Bechtold says. As a bonus, doing some light walking after eating can also help keep blood sugar spikes in check, he adds.

But take note that anything more intense than a casual, easygoing walk isn’t a great idea right after overeating. Some find it tempting to offset a huge meal by “burning it off,” but that’s not really how things work—and it can make you feel worse.

“Try not to overdo it with vigorous exercise like basketball, weightlifting, or running,” Dr. Bechtold says. Vigorous activity can divert blood flow from the gut and to the leg muscles, further slowing down digestion and worsening your stomach troubles.

If an intense, post-meal sweat sesh is still on your agenda, Dr. Bechtold suggests waiting three to four hours before diving in to give your body enough time to process all that food properly.

Stretch It Out

Similar to taking a walk, doing some light stretching can help ease feelings of fullness and discomfort after a big meal, Salazar says. The soothing movements of stretches support the natural digestive process, helping food move along the gastrointestinal tract.

Additionally, “when we get moving after a large meal, the body will rapidly digest food in response to [needing energy for activity],” she adds. No need to throw yourself into an intense vinyasa yoga flow (or any stretches that turn you upside down and make you sick!). Take it easy and opt for gentle, restorative stretches, some deep breathing, or gut-stimulating poses.

Be Kind to Yourself

If you’re feeling anxious after eating a large meal, take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that healthy eating is not a set of laws you should never break. Healthy eating is a lifelong approach to treating yourself well. You don't have to throw out life's most delicious moments—just understand that it's all about balance. Remember that all food can be part of a nutritious diet, and that wellness is the result of overall habits—not a single meal or food.

For the most part, eating should be about consuming healthy nutrients and calories. But it’s also a social activity, an experience that’s meant to be savored and shared with loved ones. When you give yourself permission to appreciate delicious food and the multiple roles it has in our lives, you’ll pave the way for self-compassion while nurturing your relationship with food.

Drink Plenty of Water

Staying hydrated is crucial every day, of course, but it’s even more important after filling up on a big meal. “During the last phase of digestion, the meal reaches the [large intestine] where water and some minerals are reabsorbed,” explains Johanna P. Salazar, MS, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Healing Nutrition. Not having enough water in your body can lead to constipation. To avoid feeling backed up post-feast, drink plenty of water before, during, and after eating.

For post-meal hydration, specifically, Dr. Bechtold recommends sipping 8 ounces of water to improve gut motility. But do sip slowly, he says, since chugging a large amount of water when you’re already stuffed can exacerbate bloating and fullness.

Not in the mood for water? Try drinking ginger, chamomile, licorice, or peppermint tea. According to Salazar, these herbal teas can help ease belly comfort like nausea and indigestion, while keeping you hydrated.

Listen to Your Body

Mindful eating is a practice, not a “one-and-done” task. It involves regularly checking in with your physical sensations and noticing how you feel. If you’re basically bursting at the seams after a large meal, use it as an opportunity to explore your own experience and practice self-awareness—without any judgment.

Ask yourself: “At what point did I feel satisfied? When did I start feeling full? How do I feel right now?” If you don’t like the way you feel when you eat this much, what cues can you listen to next time to avoid discomfort? By pausing to fully experience what you’re feeling, tummy troubles and all, you’ll learn how to listen to your body and honor its signals.

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Sources
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  1. Hosseini-Asl MK, Taherifard E, Mousavi MR. The effect of a short-term physical activity after meals on gastrointestinal symptoms in individuals with functional abdominal bloating: a randomized clinical trialGastroenterol Hepatol Bed Bench. 2021;14(1):59-66.

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