By Brian B. Parr, Ph.D., ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist
It seems like summer just ended and already the holiday season is upon us. In addition to spending time with family and friends, the big events of the season seem to involve shopping and eating. This will almost certainly result in big numbers on your credit card bills and on your bathroom scale! Holiday weight gain is an unpleasant reality for many people, but there is something you can do.
Research shows that, on average, people gain about one pound during the period between Thanksgiving and New Years Day. Winter is the beginning of a time when eating patterns change and not only do people tend to eat more in general, but they also eat more fat. This, combined with a seasonal decline in physical activity, can contribute to unwelcome weight gain. Interestingly, a difference of just 50 calories per day is all that is needed to cause a one-pound weight gain over the holidays, so small changes in eating and activity behaviors that you might not notice now can lead to weight gain that will get your attention later.
The problem is that this extra weight may not be lost during the spring or summer. This means that holiday weight gain can be a major contributor to a gradual, but lasting increase in weight, about one pound per year, that most people experience over time. People who are overweight to begin with tend to gain more weight over the holidays than people who start at a normal weight. This seems to be true in children, young adults, and middle-aged and older adults. Let’s face it, holiday weight gain can be a reality for everyone.
The good news is that the weight gain that typically occurs during the holidays can be prevented. Since most people tend to gain just one pound or less, even small changes to what you eat and your activity can make a difference, without taking away from your holiday cheer. Maintaining weight requires making changes to both eating and activity behaviors. These are difficult to change in the best of circumstances, so eating less and making time for more activity during the holidays is extra challenging.
There is one strategy that seems to help, though. One study used daily self-weighing as a way to track weight changes over the holidays. The subjects who tracked their weight every day had essentially no change in weight compared to a gain of six pounds in subjects who did not weigh themselves. The people who gained weight between the week before Thanksgiving to the week after the New Year did lose some of it over the next three months, but only about half of what they gained.
The thinking is that if you see that you gained a little weight over a few days, you can make small changes to what you eat and your activity to combat it. If you aren’t tracking your weight, you could be in for a big surprise when you step on a scale after the New Year, and you may not lose that extra weight after the holidays. Regular weigh-ins can be an important tool for losing weight and keeping it off.
While changing what you eat can make a big impact on your weight, dieting during the holidays is difficult. But increasing, or at least maintaining, your activity or exercise may be more reasonable. In one study, people who increased their activity were able to prevent weight gain and those who were much more active actually lost weight over the holidays! Plus, becoming more active now will give you a jump start on your New Year’s resolutions.
Stay active. The average holiday weight gain could be prevented by adding one mile of walking, or about 20 minutes, per day. Since time may be a factor, you can turn a shopping trip into a chance to be active by taking an extra lap around the mall or parking further away in the parking lot. Go for a walk when you have free time – and take your family and friends with you. Even caroling can be a festive way to get in a little extra holiday activity.
Stay away from the food. Most holiday parties include lots of food, and usually not the healthiest choices. You can reduce the amount you eat by limiting your time near the food – literally, serve your plate and then move away from the food. Using a smaller plate also will help reduce the amount of food you take.
Create no food zones. Get rid of the candy dish on your desk at work or the plate of treats on the countertop at home. You are less likely to eat food that isn’t right in front of you.
Don’t drink your calories. Alcoholic beverages, soda, and juice all contain calories and can add up to a big part of your total calorie intake. Many beverages, including hot chocolate and coffee drinks, can easily contain hundreds of calories. This doesn’t mean you can’t have your favorite drinks, but enjoy them in moderation. And make water your beverage of choice at other times.
Plan ahead. If you are trying to watch what you eat, have a healthy snack before you go to a party. You will feel less hungry so you will probably be less inclined to eat as much. If you are bringing a dish to the party, make it something healthy that you like.
Focus on family and friends, not food. The holidays are a time to enjoy special gatherings with family and friends, many of which involve food. Let the fellowship be your focus. You can still enjoy your favorite foods and drinks, but make the people your priority not the pigging out.
Give yourself a break! Healthy eating and exercise are always important, but they are more difficult to do around the holidays. According to one study, even people who were trying to lose weight over the holidays ended up gaining about a half pound. So, do your best to maintain your healthy habits, accept that you may struggle and make a commitment to get back on track after the New Year!