Science has, in its infinite wisdom, once again graced us with a blinding flash of the obvious: People tend to gain weight during the holiday season. Seems outright silly, but it turns out that the devil is in the details, and there may be some important nuggets of wisdom here, and tips on how to get you looking slimmer next year.
The idea that people gain weight during the holiday seasons seems trivial and obvious. One might wonder if scientists have no family or friends to share Christmas carols, endless cocktail parties, roast beef, mulled wine, cheese fondues with. Most of us expect that after the smoke clears, we gain 5 pounds, at least right?
It turns out, however, that this expectation is a vast overestimation of the effect of holiday weight gain; we gain, at most, a pound on average.1 A 2000 study on holiday weight gain, defined as between Thanksgiving Day (U.S) and New Year’s Day, was one of the first formal studies to bring to the test whether this widely accepted wisdom had any merit or not. It turns out that while the weight gain is real, it isn’t nearly as large as what people thought. The average weight gain was 0.37kg, hardly a significant weight gain. The unfortunate part of the conclusion was that this weight gain persisted – it did not reverse itself throughout the year. Therefore the cumulative effect over the years may become significant. The other interesting finding is that although the weight gain was relatively small on average, people who were already overweight or obese were far more likely to gain significant weight during this time.2 A 2017 review and summary of the literature also largely corroborates these findings.
What to Make of the Data
What does this all mean, though, and why is there such a gap between expectation on personal anecdote and the data?
- People likely vary quite widely in how much weight they gain, or if they even gain weight at all during the holiday season.
- The average weight gain may be small, but your weight gain may be significant. If you have a problem with gaining weight during the holidays, you need to take that into account.
- There may be factors influenced by the sample being surveyed that underestimate the weight gain for a general population.3
- If you don’t change your lifestyle, you will be unlikely to lose whatever weight you gain during the holidays, small or large.
Don’t Fight the Tide
It might sound irresponsible, but fighting every social gathering and obsessing over calories over the holidays seems like an uphill battle that’s going to cause more stress than it’s worth. If you even have a mildly social life, there are just too many factors conspiring against you. A weight gain of nearly a pound is quite significant over large samples of people, but if you specifically happen to gain a pound, you won’t think anything of it. If you gain 1 pound (the average) over the holidays, I won’t sweat it. That’s less than the difference between your weight before you go to sleep and after you wake up in the morning for most people.
- 1 pound is not a big deal and certainly not worth stressing about. Note, however, that this is the average.
- If you regularly gain 5 to 10 pounds (this is far more common among already overweight and obese people), you need to reduce the weight gain and work out harder after the holidays.
Instead, focus on the second part of the study’s conclusions – that people tend not to reverse that 1 pound gain throughout the year. This makes sense; what we do (in terms of diet and exercise) doesn’t vary that much if you take a year’s average. You can say that this totality is what we call lifestyle. So if you gain a pound somewhere in there, it’s going to stay there unless you do something different and change your lifestyle.4 All things being equal, there is no reason that you should expect to lose the weight that you once gained. Naturally, you should be thinking about what overall lifestyle changes to incorporate after the holidays. The widely accepted estimate is that a pound is equivalent to 3500 calories.5 Although this is admittedly simplistic, you have to consume 10 calories a day less or work out 10 calories a day more to get back that 1 pound. So it’s not far away. Think about what induces you to gain weight during the holiday season in the first place.
- You consume foods and drinks that are nutrient-poor and high in calories (junk food, highly processed foods, alcohol).
- Alcohol is doubly problematic because it is itself high in calories (also without beneficial nutrients), and it also triggers hunger (usually for greasy food).
- You are in a social atmosphere where this is both the norm and is encouraged.
What to do After the Holidays
Once the holidays are over, you need to remove yourself from this environment. This usually happens naturally as you go back to your regular schedule. To remove the extra weight you gained, you need to do (slightly) more than you did lifestyle-wise, or you will retain the extra weight. Lifestyle change isn’t rocket science – 95% of it comes down to 3 simple things: Diet, exercise, and sleep.
- Diet, exercise, and adequate sleep are the three pillars of health and lifestyle. In terms of weight, however, diet is king.6
- Be efficient with your diet, focusing on your nutritional needs. You want to focus on nutrient-dense foods; they provide your body with the energy it needs. Eating empty calories leaves you starving for more because your body doesn’t have adequate nutrients.
- Exercise is also important but not as influential in weight loss. It is still a critical part of your overall well-being. To name only a few benefits, exercise reduces your chances of cardiovascular disease, depression, increases energy levels, strengthens muscles and bones.
- Adequate sleep also plays a role in both weight control and overall health. Hormones like leptin and ghrelin regulate your hunger levels, and lack of sleep reduces your body’s ability to feel full when it’s supposed to.
- Please read our general tips on how to fight holiday weight gain.
- Read why it’s important to have sustainable plans for change.
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1The other less appealing finding is that the gains seem to persist, potentially creating a large cumulative effect over, say, 15 years.
2Another notable limitation in this study is that the sample used was National Institute of Health employees, which skews toward urban populations and largely excluded low-income populations.
3http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc1602012 Constraints of the study may select for a sample that is atypical – unusually concerned about health, wealth, urban, and so on.
4Technically, the extra pound you gain requires more calories to maintain, but this is a rather marginal effect.
5It’s important to note that this is a very inchoate estimation and doesn’t account for many possible factors that could affect this formula, and individual variation is to be expected.
6As the saying goes, “you can’t outwork a bad diet” and “abs are made in the kitchen.” Both are absolutely true.