Holiday Weight Gain: The Unwanted, Unhealthy,
Unreturnable Gift That Keeps On Giving
Dr. Michael Garko
Host – Let’s Talk Nutrition
In a Consumer Reports survey on what Americans dread most about the holidays, holiday weight gain (37%) tied for second-place with getting into debt (37%), with crowds and long lines (68%) ranking as the most dreaded. Gift shopping (28%), traveling (25%), seeing certain relatives (24%), seasonal music (23%), disappointing gifts (19%), having to attend holiday parties or events (16%), having to be nice (15%) and holiday tipping (12%) rounded out the top holiday dreads (see Consumer Reports, 2011).
It was not surprising to learn that holiday weight gain ranked second in what people dread most about the holidays. Gaining weight is on the minds of many Americans and for good reason. According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) revealed that in 2011-2012, when adjusting for age, 33.6% of American adults 20 years of age and older were overweight and 34.9% were obese, with 6.4% being extremely obese (Ogden et al., 2014). The overall prevalence estimates for overweight and obesity when combined for adults 20 years of age and older (BMI 25) was a stunning 68.5% (Ogden et al., 2014). Another way to think about the overweight and obesity epidemic is that less than a third (31.5%) of American adults 20 years of age and older in the United States are at a healthy weight.
While holiday weight gain ranking second was not a shocking revelation, what was surprising was that 15% of the survey respondents (which would represent 35 million people) dreaded “having to be nice” during the holidays (Consumer Reports, 2011). Seriously? “Having to be nice” being among the things most dreaded during the holidays makes one wonder how difficult it must be for 35 million people to be nice at other times of the year when there is no real motivating reason to be nice.
But I digress. This article focuses on holiday weight gain, one of the biggest holiday dreads. Particular attention will be devoted to how much weight is actually gained during the holidays.
How Much Weight Is Gained During the Holidays?
There are a number of claims made in the literature about how much weight people gain during the holidays. Depending on whom you read or listen to about it, the amount of weight gain from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day could range from 1-10 pounds. But is the amount of holiday weight gain on the high or low end of the scale and is it as bad as people believe it to be or is it worse?
My independent review of the literature did not uncover any scientific study with statistically significant results indicating an average ten pound increase in weight during the holidays. However, as it will be revealed below this does not mean that holiday weight gain is not an important health issue. So how much weight is gained during the holidays?
In “A Prospective Study of Holiday Weight Gain,” Yanovski et al. (2000) reported that “[in] contrast to the common perception that weight increases during the winter holiday season, the measured weight of the vast majority of subjects in [the] study changed little between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day” (p. 866). Although they believed they had gained as much as four times the weight that they actually did gain, participants in the study experienced a holiday weight gain of 0.37 kg, which would be less than a pound. Less than 10% of the study participants gained 2.3 kg or more and over 50% of all weight measurements following the initial measurement were within 1 kg of the previous measurement (see Yanovski, et al., 2000). However, those in the study who were overweight or obese gained 2.3 kg (5.07lb), which the researchers in the study described as “a major holiday weight gain.”
Furthermore, although subjects gained on average less than a pound during the winter holiday period, the weight gained was not lost over the remainder of the year. In fact, not only had they not lost the holiday weight they gained, the subjects ended the year weighing 0.62kg (.62 kilograms = 1.36686603 pounds), all of which suggests that most of the weight gained during the year occurred during the six-week holiday period.
In short, the weight gained during the holidays became the unwanted, un-returnable gift that kept on giving and could be such a gift each holiday season, unless there is a successful effort to lose the holiday weight and post-holiday weight. Not losing the weight gained each holiday season and post-holiday period could result in better than 10 pounds of weight gained over 10 years.
In a study examining “The Effect of the Thanksgiving Holiday on Weight Gain,” college students enrolled at the University of Oklahoma experienced an increase of 0.5 kg in body weight just during the Thanksgiving holiday. The researchers in the study commented that “although this may seem like a trivial amount of weight, considering the short time frame, this is troublesome since previous research suggests weight gained during holiday periods is retained” (Hull et al., 2006, p.4). Furthermore, similar to the findings of Yanovski, et al. (2000), those study participants who were overweight or obese gained more weight (1.0 kg) during Thanksgiving than those who were not overweight or obese. Graduate students also tended to gain more weight (0.8 kg) than undergraduate students.
Finally, in a study exploring the question of whether or not holiday weight gain is a fact or fiction, Roberts and Mayer (2000) examined the amount of holiday weight gain in adults and its contribution to annual weight gain. They found that weight gain during the six-week period from Thanksgiving to New Year study participants had an average increase in weight of only 0.37 kg. However, similar to the other studies discussed above, individuals who were overweight or obese (14% of them) gained more weight (>2.3 kg – 5lb) than those who were not overweight or obese. Furthermore, when considering the entire population, the weight gained during the six-week holiday period accounted for 51% of annual weight gain (see Roberts & Mayer, 2000). Roberts & Mayer (2000) remarked that the results of their study suggest that holiday weight gain could be an important factor in contributing to the increase in the prevalence of obesity.
An objective review of the literature reveals that holiday weight gain is in one sense not as bad as some would make it out to be in terms of the total amount of weight gained during the holiday period from Thanksgiving to New Year. In two of the studies reviewed (i.e., Roberts & Mayer, 2000; Yanovski et al., 2000), study participants gained less than a pound of weight (i.e., 0.37kg) during the holiday season. In the study focusing on the amount of weight gain during Thanksgiving, there was an increase of 0.5 kg in body weight, a relative significant amount of increase compared to 0.37 kg in that the increase in weight occurred just during Thanksgiving.
A Little Means A Lot But In A Bay Way
Nevertheless, the amount of weight gain in the three studies reviewed is far from a 10-pound increase in weight often claimed in the literature. However, the data show that it is not necessarily how much weight that is gained but rather the inability to lose the holiday weight, which has the potential to last a lifetime, and, thereby, have a serious deleterious effect on a person’s health due to the steady accumulation of weight holiday season after holiday season. Thus, although the total amount of weight gained over the holidays was relatively small (i.e., less than a pound on average), that amount of holiday weight gain gives a new meaning to the notion that a little means a lot, at least in terms of a person’s long-term health and well-being.
Overweight and Obese At Greater Risk
All three studies indicated that people who are overweight and obese are at special risk in gaining weight during the holidays. Compared to those of “normal” weight, overweight and obese study participants tended to gain as much as five pounds over the holiday season. In this instance, a lot really means a lot relative to the health and wellbeing of overweight and obese people in their battle to lose weight, a battle that is more often than not, lost.
Keep Your Body Moving
In the study by Yanovski et al., (2000), the study participants who were more active experienced the greatest weight loss, while those who were less active or hungrier gained the most weight over the holiday period. This suggests that people should not abandon their regular exercise routine or initiate one during the holidays. As Plato said over 2,000 years ago, “Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it” (Plato). Regular physical activity, whether in the form of a structured exercise program or just part of daily living routines, will help to keep your body energized and healthy during the holidays. Some of the short-term benefits of exercising and staying physically active during the holidays would include: More energy, a better sense of well-being, increased self-esteem and self-confidence, greater ability to cope with stress, healthier sleep and better able to fall asleep, burning of calories and weight management, along with better focus and concentration.
Eat Low-Energy Dense Foods
In the study by Yanovski et al., (2000), the study participants who were less hungry had the greatest amount of weight loss, while those who were more hungry gained the most weight over the holiday period. This finding suggests that creating a feeling of fullness or satiety would lead to less weight gain over the holidays. According to Rolls & Barnett (2002) and their nutritional theory of Volumetrics, the feeling of fullness people experience after eating is more a function of the amount or volume of food consumed than the number of calories or grams of fat, carbohydrate or protein consumed. Rather than the calorie content of what they are eating, it is the volume or amount of food that signals people to either continue or stop eating. Thus, eating low-energy dense foods during the holidays will help create a sense of fullness and, thereby, consuming less food.
Be Conscious of Calories
While experts may debate about how many pounds on average are gained during the holiday season, one thing is certain. Compared to other times of the year the amount of calories consumed during the winter holidays increases dramatically. Make no mistake about it, calories can add up unsuspectingly fast. All other factors contributing to weight gain were equal (e.g., type-quality of food, physical activity, stress levels, thyroid function, genetics, hormones, etc.), caloric intake is at the center of putting on unwanted, excess pounds, whether that be during the holiday season or any other time of year.
Whether or not you gain weight during the holidays distills down to one fundamental principle. That is, despite the nutritional, bio-chemical, physiologic, genetic or behavioral-psychological reason, if you consume more calories than your body uses, you will gain weight, no matter if those calories come from carbohydrates, fats or protein. It is a myth that only eating fat will make a person fat. At the end of the nutritional day, managing your weight during the holidays becomes balancing the number of calories you eat each day, with the number of calories you burn. For example, one pound of body fat is equivalent to 3500 calories. If you were interested in losing one pound of fat in a week, then you would have to burn 3500 calories more than what you typically consume in seven days.
Calories count. Hence, it is more nutritionally prudent to be mindful of how many calories you are consuming at any given meal during the holiday period, despite the touted advice of those who say counting calories is ineffective. Weight management is in large measure about counting the calories, especially during the holidays.
Keeping the above three recommendations (i.e., keep your body moving, eat low-energy dense foods and be conscious of calories) in mind over the holiday season will go a long way in helping not to receive that unwanted, unhealthy, un-returnable gift that keeps on giving.
Consumer Reports (2011). Americans’ top holiday dreads—being nice makes the list. Retrieved November 30, 2011 from http://news.consumerreports.org/money/2011/11/americans-top-holiday-dreads-being-nice-makes-the-list.html.
Hull, H.R., Radley, D., Dinger, M.K. & Fields, D.A. (2006). Nutrition Journal, 5(29), 1-6.
Ogden C. L., Carroll, M. D., Kit, B.K., & Flegal K. M. (2014). Prevalence of childhood and adult obesity in the United States, 2011-2012. Journal of the American Medical Association, 311(8), 806-814. Retrieved November, 25, 2014, from http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1832542.
Roberts, S.B. & Mayer, J. “Holiday weight gain: Fact or fiction?” Nutrition Review, 58 (12), 378-9.
Rolls, B & Barnett, R.A. (2002). Volumetrics weight control plan. New York: Harpertorch.
Yanovski, J.A., Yanovski, S.Z., Sovik, K.N., Nguyen, T.T., O’Neil, P.M. & Sebring, N.G. (2000). A prospective study of holiday weight gain. The New England Journal of Medicine, 342 (12), 861-867.
 One kilogram = 2.204622622 pound