We’re in the middle of it now. The holiday season – that wonderful and stressful five-week stretch from Thanksgiving to New Year’s where at every turn, there seems to be food. And not just everyday food, but food of such amounts and enticing types that it can feel nearly impossible at times to refuse them.
Add the long nights, cold weather, and busy schedules that throw us off our normal exercise routines, and the stage can be set for entering 2016 with our clothes fitting just a bit tighter than they did earlier in the fall.
If this scenario feels all too familiar from holidays past, you can find some comfort in knowing you’re not alone. Studies have found that holiday weight gain is a very real thing that many people struggle with.
How much weight gain are we talking about?
Though it can vary greatly from person to person, typical weight gain over the holidays is around 1 to 1.5 pounds. But, many people gain considerably more, on the order of 5 pounds or more, says Dr. Samuel Klein, William H. Danforth Professor of Medicine and Nutritional Science at Washington University School of Medicine.
And the weight put on over the holidays makes up a large proportion of the weight that most people gain every year. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that of the weight that participants on average gained over the course of a year, just over half was put on during the holidays (1).
It’s like the party guest that never leaves. And that’s what makes holiday gains problematic, according to Klein: “People usually do not lose the weight they gain during the holidays and it is a major cause of yearly weight gain and increasing body weight in the United States.”
Of course, the amounts don’t sound like anything that’s really worth worrying about. A pound here. A pound there. But weight gain has a way of silently creeping up on people. And over the years, it can turn into noticeable amounts that can have a negative impact on both health and quality of life.
Assuming a gain of just one pound per year, for example, someone who is 5’9”, weighs 165 pounds, and has a “healthy” BMI of 24 would be well into the middle of the “overweight” category after 20 years (BMI of 27) and then crest into “obesity” after 40 years (BMI of 30). With the large majority of people in the United States already overweight or obese, these movements can happen even faster, not only because the starting BMI is higher but also because holiday weight gain is often larger in those who are already overweight.
“In general, [holiday] weight gain is proportional to BMI. People with higher BMI tend to gain more weight,” says Klein.
And findings from the New England Journal of Medicine study provide a good example of this. Of those participants who were overweight, 11 percent experienced “major holiday weight gain” of 5 pounds or more. In obese, participants, the proportion rose to 17 percent. In healthy weight participants, only 5 percent experienced a major gain.
How many extra calories does it take?
So, how much overeating does it take from Thanksgiving through New Year’s to cause the typical holiday weight gain? Surprisingly little it turns out.
In a paper in Physiology & Behavior, Dale Schoeller of the University of Wisconsin ran some numbers and concluded that it took just 55 extra calories a day to build up to the average holiday gain of about a pound (2). That’s around the amount in that cookie you grabbed on the way out the door at your work party or that dollop of whip cream you put on your pie.
What can we do about it?
Keeping weight in check is hard any time of year, let alone over the holidays when we’re thrown off our regular routines. But it’s far from impossible. A lot of people come through the holidays without gaining any weight, and some even harness the change in schedule to their advantage and are able to lose a few needed pounds.
Looking at all the meals, parties, and other holiday-themed gatherings that are part of the Thanksgiving to New Year’s season, there are some practical approaches that can help us keep excess calories, and weight gain, at bay.
Klein offers these practical tips for holiday events:
One of the best ways to keep calories in check is to cut back on portion size. We’ve gotten really used to huge meals, huge snacks, and huge drinks. Put smaller amounts of food on your plate, or try simply choosing a smaller plate. Most of the time you’ll find that smaller amount is all you really wanted.
“Eat before going to parties so that you are less hungry”
Coming to a party when you’re feeling ravenous can lead to overeating. The better approach is to have a healthy meal or snack at home and then head to the festivities. This way, all those alluring high-calorie choices won’t hold quite as much sway.
“Stay as far away as possible from the food tables at parties”
This falls into the “out-of-sight., out-of-mind (and stomach)” category. Just giving yourself some distance from the food at an event can make it less likely that you’ll grab food mindlessly, even when you’re not hungry.
“Minimize alcohol intake”
Alcohol is a big part of many holiday gatherings, which is fine in moderation, of course. It’s a time of celebration. But, if you’re watching calories, it’s probably best to keep drinking to a minimum. Alcohol is an appetite stimulant and can quickly disrupt your best-laid plans to avoid eating too much.
“Keep a low-calorie or zero-calorie drink in your hand”
From eggnog to wine to sugary soda, the holidays are filled with high-calorie (and often alcoholic) beverages that can contribute to extra calories. When you get to an event, pick up a low-calorie drink – like fizzy water, coffee, or diet soda – so your host, or best friend, isn’t tempted to give you a high-calorie option.
“Bring a low-calorie dessert or food”
It’s good form to bring a small gift when you’re invited to a dinner party. And most of us default to a bottle of wine or six-pack of beer or sugary soda. If you’re watching calories, try bringing a low-calorie appetizer or dessert option instead – like a platter of vegetables or fresh fruit with a low-calorie yogurt dip. It may feel a little self-serving, but you can bet that others will appreciate it, too.
On top of these special tips for holiday events, it’s also important to keep up with the tried-and-true weight control strategies that apply year-round: exercise every day; keep screen time to a minimum; choose a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; and try to be aware of how much you’re eating. In the end, it’s the calories we burn and the calories we eat that really matter.
Crazy as they can be, the holidays always hold a special place on our calendars. With a little planning, and a few simple steps, we can keep them from making a lasting mark on our waistlines as well.
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1. Yanovski JA, Yanovski SZ, Sovik KN, Nguyen TT, O'Neil PM, Sebring NG. A prospective study of holiday weight gain. N Engl J Med. 2000;342(12):861-867.
2. Schoeller DA. The effect of holiday weight gain on body weight. Physiol Behav. 2014;134:66-69.