Answers to Every Possible Thanksgiving Health Question, 2017

When dealing with opinionated family members, how much alcohol is too much? Has anyone’s stomach actually burst from eating too much? Why am I apparently unable to digest entire kernels of corn?

Ears of corn
J. Scott Applewhite / AP

In what has become an annual tradition, here are this year’s questions about human health and social well-being as they relate to the U.S. holiday known as Thanksgiving.

Can forcing a smile for an extended period of time cause a brain aneurysm?

It’s unlikely. It’s technically possible if forcing a smile means you’re stressed and your blood pressure is high. You’d have to be smiling and experiencing stress for a very long time, though, much longer than a day. Once formed, aneurysms can burst in moments of intense anxiety. But it’s very unlikely, and worrying about this doesn’t help.

A group of neurosurgeons at Cleveland Clinic reported that among male patients, aneurysm ruptures happen most often in late fall. This could be related to the holidays, though the researchers were more convinced by the onset of Ohio winter, writing that their finding “suggests that weather is causally related to aneurysm rupture in men.”

(I’m not convinced, because for women the most common time of rupture was early spring. And why break these groups down by gender? Possibly because when taken together, the data show no pattern of seasonality at all, and that’s not an interesting study to publish.)

Are piñatas a good way to relieve stress at a family event?

Yes. They can be filled with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Why am I apparently unable to digest entire kernels of corn?

There are starches in some corn that resist digestive enzymes. Even though they survive the small intestine, indigestible starches and fiber can help with the movement of matter through the bowel and have a positive effect on gut microbes. Those that don’t pass all the way through can be fermented in the large intestine. So as we think more and more about feeding our microbes as well as ourselves, some scientists have argued that we should be getting more of these starches in our food.

Is it actually healthy to celebrate Thanksgiving, though?

The holiday is predicated on the myth of an amicable arrangement between European colonialists and Native Americans. It promises a sort of absolution for non–Native Americans—from guilt in the taking of land, the genocide, and the slander and cultural erasure. This can’t be healthy. But recognizing the fallacy and refusing that absolution is probably a worthwhile exercise.

I meant because we eat a lot. Damn. Everything feels so serious right now.

You’re the one who started with a question about aneurysms.

Now my other questions feel trivial.

This has been a year of reckoning with our history, and which parts of it we want to continue to celebrate. It’s liberating, healthy.

Okay, well. What about cranberries?

Ah, right, as in, do they cure urinary-tract infections?

What? Why would they?

It’s a popular myth. It’s not true—the cure for urinary-tract infections is antibiotics—but regularly eating antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables like cranberries does seem to help protect people from infections generally.

I was going to ask what defines a “sauce.” Are there any actual health downsides to canned (the Jell-O-like stuff)?

Canned cranberry “sauce” was produced as far back as 1941 by the collective of growers that would become Ocean Spray. The advent of mechanical harvesting meant a lot of imperfect and crushed cranberries, and they could be canned as a gelatinous product, and then a lot of people came to prefer it to actual, good cranberry sauce. Ocean Spray now sells 86.4 million cans every year, despite vastly better options being very easy to make. The company says it does 80 percent of its “total sauce business” between September and December.

Are turduckens sandwiches?


Why, if a woman sliced through her hand with a turkey carver and went to the doctor on Thanksgiving, would the first question she is asked be “When was the first day of your last menstrual cycle?”

The medical system tends to be predicated on a sex-gender binary in places where sex-gender is irrelevant, and oblivious of differences when they actually matter. Emergency departments will be filled with self-inflicted lacerations over the holiday. A good thing to know is that in most cases antibiotics are unnecessary.

Also, real question, is it okay if I let the turkey sit on the counter to warm it up before putting it in the oven? Or will that cause bacteria to grow faster?

That’s not okay. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends thawing turkeys in the refrigerator, in a sink of cold water (changed every 30 minutes), or in the microwave, I guess if you have an enormous microwave. The Department of Agriculture has specific instructions for all of these methods.

But they clearly warn us to never thaw a turkey by leaving it out on the counter, naming the “danger zone” for bacterial growth as between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. This may even be the origin of the song “Danger Zone,” performed by Kenny Loggins for the Top Gun soundtrack. Though I have nothing to back that up.

Even if you’re the sort who’s attracted to danger, this isn’t the place to make a name for yourself.

To be clear, medium-rare turkey is not a thing, right?

It is, but I can’t recommend it. The CDC tells us to get the inside of the turkey to 165 degrees. If you hit that point, even briefly, all disease-causing microbes should be dead. That’s the number for everyone to keep in their heads.

Technically, antibacterial effects are a combination of temperature and time. So the same effect can happen at lower temperatures if cooked for longer periods. Recall that the CDC also says the danger zone goes up to 140 degrees. Some chefs say they can hit the range between 140 and 165 and hold it there for a while, and they get a “sous vide” turkey that doesn’t sicken their customers.

Though a lot of people would find it to be a turnoff. Most people don’t like a gooey, shiny pinkness to their poultry. If a person who isn’t a professional chef served me a turkey that looked like that, I’d assume it was unintentional and offer to put it in the oven.

That’s potentially an awkward conversation, but you can say how you’re sure it was a safely cooked and artfully executed sous vide, it just happens not to be your preference. A host would rather have that conversation than 15 violently ill guests.

Has anyone’s stomach actually burst from eating too much?

Yes. Not a healthy person, though. Cases where this happens involve a blockage in the bowels that had been building up for a long time. I once sat in on a surgery to remove a bezoar, a ball of hair, from a young girl’s stomach. It was the size of a football. She had trichotillomania, an anxiety disorder in which she compulsively pulled her hair, and in this case ate it as well. Hair is made of indigestible fibers. Once it started to ball up in the stomach, the ball kept growing. Her stomach was visibly distended, and she couldn’t keep any food down. The wall of the stomach has three layers of muscle, and it’s much more common to see a rupture of the thinner walls of the intestines. If this happens, though, it might be referred to as the “stomach” in polite conversation.

When dealing with opinionated family members, how much alcohol is too much alcohol?

My Thanksgiving alcohol guidelines are a very personal thing. If alcohol brings out a mellow and introspective, even empathetic side, then good. If it brings out an argumentative and defensive side, then even a little bit can be too much. In that case, I wouldn’t think about it like abstaining or forgoing the enjoyment of alcohol; your day might actually be a lot better without it.

Can I throw a frozen turkey into a vat of boiling oil? Please?

This is a question every year. It causes the turkey to explode. People are hurt every year.

My turkey has exploded.

So it’s too late for you. I hope you’re not burned badly. I’m not sure what to do about this. I used to think it was a problem of information. People just didn’t know this was dangerous. But at this point, people must know, or at least have a sense. And they keep doing it.

Sometimes in health we make problems worse by warning against them. The famous example of this is the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) campaign in the 1990s. It was based on telling kids to “Just Say No” to drugs. Many experts now argue this motto actually made young people more likely to use illicit substances. It gave drugs an edgy appeal. The danger zone can be alluring.

Doctors and public-health advocates are now faced with the question of how to actually influence beliefs and behaviors. Sometimes information alone isn’t enough. Information isn’t going to change your uncle’s mind about how, for example, climate change is a hoax, or your cousin’s about how grabbing a colleague’s butt can be a funny joke if you weren’t so uptight, or your librarian’s about how everyone would be safer if everyone were carrying a firearm, but that when it comes to gluten we’re all better safe than sorry.

These are topics that tend to relate to people’s identities and sense of self. We call them “beliefs”—even though some positions are empirically more defensible than others. To attempt to change a person’s mind on these beliefs is to risk a sense of assault, to drive them only more deeply into themselves. There will be plenty of articles this week about how to argue with family members about politics, or how to respond to malignant, bigoted comments; when to engage and when to keep the peace. That all depends on family dynamics. But I’d keep in mind that questions can be more effective than facts. Ask more about the person’s beliefs and where they come from.

It’s bogus and dumb to suggest that we all need to hear about arguments for why the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, and that Donald Trump never groped women, and that Coldplay’s music is just getting better and better. At this point, these aren’t valid positions. They don’t deserve to be debated over dinner, or anywhere.

It’s worth going down the hole of interrogating those beliefs, though. There’s usually something to be learned about a thought process. Even if not, earnest inquiry could eventually lead a person to question their own positions, and to get to the point where they’re ready to talk about facts.

Happy Thanksgiving.