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Holiday weight gain: Is it inevitable?


Posted on December 10th, 2010 by Jeff Thiboutot M.S.

The Holiday season is definitely a high-risk time of year for gaining weight. However, does it mean that gaining weight during this time of year is inevitable? I think not. There are many things that can be done that can decrease the likelihood that a person will continually eat more than normal during this time of year. It is not a matter of not enjoying the Holiday season; rather it is using some simple strategies that help us, often unconsciously, to move our eating behaviors in a positive direction.

First, what is the average weight gain during the Holiday’s? Is it 5, 10, or 15 pounds? From the few studies that have looked at this specific question, it seems that the average weight gained during the Holiday season (runs from Thanksgiving to New Years Day, so about 6 weeks) is 1 to 2 pounds (Yanovski). This is much less than what most people think happens. It is also much less than what is often stated in articles on the subject. For example, a recent article at ScienceDaily.com (Nov. 6, 2010) states “the time to begin changing the pattern is now because most of us gain anywhere between 5 to 15 lbs during the Holiday season” (Methodist Hospital). Really? I am not sure where they get these numbers? They have no citation for explaining it. But it is articles like this that perpetuate the “big weight gain” view. Anyway, even the 1 to 2 pounds could be problematic over the long-term. This “long-term” view is what the studies on this subject are concerned with. The idea is that the small weight gain will not be lost and it will slowly accumulate over 10 to 20 years. Therefore, this small gain can lead to an additional 20 to 40 pounds over 20 years. Whether the hypothesis that increasing weights of Americans are due to the small increases that occur during the Holiday season is debatable. I will leave the analysis of that subject for another time. The concern here is how to mitigate the typical weight gained during the Holiday season.

The reason the Holiday season is a “high-risk” time of year for weight gain is the convergence of many factors that tend to increase food intake. These factors include;

  • Eating with many people
  • Many highly palatable foods that are easily accessible (the buffet effect)
  • Large servings sizes
  • Increased stress
  • Time constraints
  • Increased feelings of having to constrain eating
  • Easy justifications

What results is the increased tendency to eat more at a particular meal and to do this many times during this time of year. This can happen other times of the year, but the consistency of this effect seems more pronounced now. Knowing that there are many things that are pulling you to eat more, what can be done to avoid or minimize the effect?

There really is no fool proof way to avoid many of these influences, unless you plan on living in a nuclear bunker, by yourself, for 6 weeks. However, there do seem to be some strategies that can help minimize their effects. Keep in mind that it is not about having a huge amount of will power, although it helps. It’s really not will power, because many of the variables mentioned above seem to influence us on a more subconscious level. Also consider the fact that many people do NOT gain weight during the Holiday season and some even lose weight during this time. So it is not hopeless. It is just a matter of doing a bit of planning and practicing a few behaviors that will allow you to enjoy yourself but still maintain a high level of control.

Here are my recommendations for getting through the Holidays and NOT gaining weight.

Purposely eat some “whatever” meals

Pick 2 or 3 meals a week that you will eat whatever you want, so over 6 weeks that would amount to 18 “whatever” meals. If you typically eat 3 meals a day, then you would have 108 meals that you can eat well. That leaves you with many meals to compensate for the potential extra calories you might have eaten during the whatever meals. For arguments sake, I will assume that each whatever meal resulted in taking in an EXTRA 1,000 calories over what you typically would have eaten for that meal. If you do this 18 times then the result will be an extra 18,000 calories consumed during those 18 whatever meals. That is a decent amount of calories. In fact, it is enough calories to potentially make about 5 pounds of fat. Whoa, that will certainly get the waistbands stretching some. However, isn’t it very possible to eat less at the other 108 meals to compensate for the extra calories from the 18 whatever meals? The 18,000 calories divided by 108 other meals equals about 167 calories. For simplicity sake, I made this a very linear example. However, you can modulate your calorie intake in a number of ways, such as intermittent fasting (IF). The bottom line; even if you eat some extra calories a number of times during the 6 weeks, it is also likely that you can compensate for those calories in your 108 additional meals during this time frame.

The “purposely” component of this aspect is very important also. Why not just plan on eating some “forbidden” foods a few times. Is it really going to kill you or make you gain weight? No, it likely won’t, particularly if you keep the situation in perspective. This has to do with practicing rational beliefs and disputing irrational beliefs. We cover this in the psychology chapter of SPEED. For now, just realize that it is important to avoid all or nothing thinking, i.e., I have to eat perfect, otherwise I might as well eat like shit and continue to do it until next Monday or next month or until January 1st. Why does one big meal that has some foods you typically avoid (because you have chosen to pursue a healthy eating style) lead to a complete disregard for your health for days or weeks? Obviously, this is not a rational thought. Why not decide to eat that “whatever” meal on purpose, enjoy it, and then get right back on track the next meal? Also, when you are in certain situations it is very likely that you will eat more than you normally would (see below for more on that aspect). Why not just go with it?  If you feel less restrained in these situations, you are less likely to binge (Burton). If you follow a couple of my other recommendations below and keep a more rational view of the situation, the temporary deviation from your normal dietary habits is not likely to lead to any long-term negative consequences.

Self-monitoring

Keeping track of your eating and activity behaviors is a good strategy to improve eating and activity habits any time of year (Reeve). This behavior is even more useful during the Holiday season (Boutelle). According to one group of researchers, “obsessive-compulsive self-regulation” during high-risk situations may be needed to buffer the effects of high-risk situations (Baker).  This means you need to keep track of your eating and activity on a daily basis and check your weight at least once a week.

Get assistance/support

This is related to the self-monitoring aspect. Work with a therapist, health coach, personal trainer or some other person that you HAVE to report to on a regular basis, like weekly. This seems to help many people stay on track and stay focused on their goals (Boutelle).

Avoid or minimize liquid calories

Liquid carbohydrates and alcohol are the most likely to cause us to intake more calories than we would like to in order to maintain or lose weight (DiMeglio). If you want something sweet, have it in a solid form.

Don’t show up hungry

Make it so you have less of an urge to eat. To do this I think the best method is to eat a protein based meal or snack before attending any events that will be serving food. For example, if you are going to a dinner party, eat a very late lunch, or a snack about 30-60 minutes before you go to the event. Do this even if you are having one of your “whatever” meals. This will likely make you eat less at the event.

Set some positive goals for the month

Like any other month, set some positive goals for December. When it comes to eating or your weight; set some achievable but challenging goals. Goals help direct behavior (Reeve). If you have positive goals, i.e., eat 3 low carb (30 grams of carbs, etc) meals a day and exercise for 40 minutes, on Tuesday (6pm), Friday (5pm) and Sunday (8 am) then your behaviors will likely move you in that direction. Write out some S.M.A.R.T. goals and post them in a few highly visible places.

Realize the power of groups

Being around more people typically results in you eating more food. Realize that you are very likely to eat more when you are eating with many people (DeCastro). See additional aspects to help minimize this effect.

Take SMALL servings of many different foods.

More highly-palatable foods (yummy foods) will typically lead to greater intakes relative to less-palatable foods. Many gatherings during this time of year have many foods at them, think “Super Buffet”. Therefore, you need to find ways to combat this natural tendency to overindulge. It seems that one way to help with this is to take a small amount of the many foods that you like. If you do this you will likely be satisfied (sensory-specific satiety) and not eat more of that food/s (Bell).

Learn to cope with the stress

There are many things that can contribute to high stress levels, even positive things like buying a new house or getting married, things that people look forward to but are still stressful. The Holidays, due to the financial aspects, the obligatory gatherings with family members you don’t care for, scheduling constraints due to many events that you have chosen to attend, and so on will lead to high stress levels. This high stress level can lead some people, i.e., “stress eaters” to eat to help to temporarily decrease the feelings of stress (Adam). Additionally, stress can provoke binge eating (Gluck). For stress eaters, it is very important to find other ways to cope with the stress. Find other enjoyable things; such as talking to friends, reading a great book, getting a massage, etc. to do when you feel the need to dissipate some of the stress.

These strategies for modifying eating behaviors are useful anytime of the year. In fact, for anyone who has a goal of losing weight and keeping it off, these strategies will need to be practiced on a regular basis if they want to be successful. For high-risk situations, such as the Holiday season, these strategies are of paramount importance. Don’t be scared, be empowered. You can feel confident now because you have the key strategies that can help you get through the Holidays and NOT gain weight.

References

Adam, T. & Epel, E. (2007). Stress, eating and the reward system. Phys & Behav; 91: 449-458.

Bell, E. et al. (2003). Sensory-specific satiety is affected more by volume than by energy content of liquid food. Phys & Behav; 78: 593-600.

Boutelle, K. et al. (1999). How can obese weight controllers minimize weight gain during the high risk holiday season? By self-monitoring very consistently. Health Psy; 18(4): 364-368.

Burton, P. et al (2007). The influence of restrained and external eating patterns on overeating. Appetite; 49: 191-197.

DiMeglio, DP & Mattes, RD. (2000). Liquid versus solid carbohydrates: effects on food intake and body weight. Inter J Obesity; 24: 794-800.

Gluck, M. (2006). Stress response and binge eating disorder. Appetite; 46: 26-30

Reeve, J. (2005). Understanding motivation and emotion. Hoboken, NJ. John Wiley & Sons.

De Castro, J. (2000). Eating behavior; Lessons from the real world of humans. Nutrition; 16: 800-813.

Yanovski, J. et al (2000). A prospective study of holiday weight gain. NEJM; 342: 861-867.

Methodist Hospital, Houston (2010, November 6). Compulsive eating and the holiday season can lead to serious weight gain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 8, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­/releases/2010/11/101105152114.htm

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