For your health, bypass that second helping

That second helping of turkey and extra sliver of pie this holiday season may just be your last.

The consumption of unusually large meals increases the risk of a heart attack, according to a recent study conducted by Francisco Lopez-Jimenez, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Murray Mittleman, a physician at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

The study, in which people were interviewed within three days of suffering a heart attack, examined their eating patterns the day before the episode.

“We compared patients to themselves, what they were doing 24 hours before the attack, as well as an hour before and what meals they had eaten,” said Lopez-Jimenez.

Researchers questioned 1,986 men and women on what they had eaten 26 hours as well as one to two hours before their heart attacks. Over 150 said they had eaten a large meal the day before the attack, and 25 reported eating a large meal two hours prior to the attack.

“If a patient had a large meal one hour before a heart attack and a large meal the day before, that case would not be induced by a large meal,” Lopez-Jimenez said. “If, however, a patient had a large meal one hour before the heart attack, but not a large meal 24 hours before, that would be considered a case induced by a large meal.”

This one to two-hour time frame prior to the heart attack was the most crucial time, Lopez-Jimenez said. The risk of an attack during this period increased 10 times. After the third hour, however, the increased risk disappeared.

Although the patients were not asked specifically what they had eaten, the researchers did ask them to describe a “large” meal, a term relative to each person.

“There is no specific size of a large meal. A big meal is relative to the size of the person, their gender and age,” Lopez-Jimenez said. “We were looking for things out of routine.”

Lopez-Jimenez calls large meals a “trigger,” or an action that directly leads to, heart attacks. The ingestion of large amounts of food may cause the release of hormones that place stress on the heart, as well as blood clotting and narrowing of the arteries.

“Large meals are not the most important triggers of heart attacks,” Lopez-Jimenez said. “There are at least 10 to 20 different triggers.”

Other triggers may include strenuous exercise, drug use and sex. Risk factors, such as high cholesterol, obesity and smoking, are long-term causes of heart disease.

The increased risk of a heart attack caused by a large meal will be small for a healthy individual who does not smoke and has no history of heart problems, researchers say.

“A 30-year-old’s risk of a heart attack is very, very small,” said Mittleman. “Even for the average 50-year-old male, his risk of having an attack is one in a million.”

Those with a history of heart disease, however, should be conscientious of meal size, Mittleman said.

With the large meals that accompany the holiday season, Lopez-Jimenez believes many people are placing themselves at greater risk of suffering a heart attack.

“There is definitely a correlation with the holiday season, but this needs to be proven,” he said. “That was not specifically the question we were looking at.”

Lopez-Jimenez and Mittleman recommend that people eat multiple small meals and refrain from the few large meals. They also recommend engaging in moderate exercise.

“Overall dietary patterns have shown that overeating, no matter what time of the year, is just not a good thing for you,” Mittleman said.

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