Every bite of food, whether it's part of a huge festive meal or a weekday lunch, travels on its own fantastic journey through the body, touching off a simultaneous release of hormones, chemicals and digestive fluids. The average meal takes one to three hours to leave the stomach. But a large meal can take eight to 12 hours, depending on the quantity and fat content.

While your stomach won't burst after a big festive meal, overeating will make your body work harder. The extra -digestive workload demanded by a food binge requires the heart to pump more blood to the stomach and intestines. Heavy consumption of fatty foods can also lead to changes that cause blood to clot more easily, said Francisco Lopez-Jimenez, a researcher at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, US. As a result, heart attack risk appears to surge.

Lopez-Jimenez led a study of 2,000 people that showed a fourfold increase in heart attack risk in the two hours after eating a big meal. Israeli researchers reported a sevenfold risk.

As the stomach releases food into the intestines, the gall bladder begins to squeeze out bile to help with fat digestion. Like the rest of the body, it has to work harder after a big meal—a frequent cause of gallstone attacks, which occur when clusters of solid material get stuck in the narrow duct that connects the organ to the intestine.

These attacks are seldom fatal, but the pain mimics a heart attack and can be excruciating. Many people don't know they have gallstones until an attack occurs. Large meals may also increase the risk for flatulence, because bits of undigested food slip into the colon and begin to ferment.

However, simple strategies can help minimize the gluttony:

• Keep the serving dishes in the kitchen, so you won't take extra helpings mindlessly.

• Use smaller serving spoons and plates. In one study, Brian Wansink, a researcher at Cornell, found that the bigger the bowl and serving spoon, the more ice cream people tended to eat.

• Stick to foods that require utensils—we eat finger foods faster than those that require a fork.

• Finally, contribute to the dinner-time conversation. The more you talk, the less you'll eat. ©2007/The New York Times