HEALTH: Holiday Weight Gain

In deciding what goes under the Christmas tree this holiday season, most people will probably lose sight of what goes on their plates. In fact, studies show that the average American rings in the New Year with an extra pound on his or her body, putting him or her at risk for obesity later in life.

Experts agree that the holidays pose a unique challenge to individuals who are trying to maintain their weight. Meanwhile, according to the American Obesity Association, 127 million adults in the United States are overweight.

Gary Hamilton, a nutrition consultant with Health Coach Wellness and Vitality Center in New Hamburg, Ontario, said that holiday weight gain typically stems from a lack of routine exercise.

Hamilton said that people are too busy with social obligations to exercise during the holiday season.

“That’s when [people] are not going to the gym — that’s when they’re spending off-time with family and with friends,” Hamilton said. “That social obligation throws everything off-kilter.”

Hamilton said that holiday meals also tend to be larger during the holidays because meal times are sporadic. People will often skip morning meals, he said, and compensate by eating larger dinners.

“You’re not going to be eating on a schedule,” he said.

These larger meals increase your body’s insulin levels, he said, which causes your body to store more calories as fat.

According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the typical Thanksgiving meal consists of 3000 calories. This is equivalent to 1.5 times a person’s suggested daily caloric intake.

The ACE said that a person would have to walk for four hours or run for five miles to burn off a meal of this size. For people living in cooler climates, however, outdoor exercise might not be possible.

Ruth Litchfield, assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Iowa State University, said that people who live in the Northeast are less likely to exercise because of the cold.

Litchfield said, “For people who like to get physical activity, it’s a problem.”

She noted, however, that cooler temperatures are a poor excuse for eating lots of calories during the winter season. She said that people eat lots of calories because the food tastes good rather than to stay warm.

“What drives us to eat these foods is the taste sensation, the preference,” said Litchfield.

She said that holiday foods are high in fat, calories, and sugar. A glass of egg nog contains 11 grams of saturated fat, about 60 percent of the recommended daily value. A slice of pecan pie contains 500 calories, nearly one quarter of the recommended daily value.

The good news, though, is that people do not gain as much weight as is commonly thought. Litchfield said that the notion of gaining 10–15 pounds during the holiday season is a myth.

Although a person can gain five to seven pounds over the weekend, she said, much of this weight is lost during the week.

“A lot of that was water weight,” Litchfield said, because people are more susceptible to high sodium foods during the holiday season. “If you wait a couple of days, you lose a significant amount of that.”

The bad news, however, is that holiday weight gain can contribute to obesity later in life. A study conducted by Jack Yanovski at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development revealed that people gain about one pound during the holiday season.

According to a 2000 National Institute of Health press release, Yanovski said, “This is a ‘good news/bad news’ story.... The good news is that people don’t gain as much weight as we thought during the holidays. The bad news is that weight gained over the winter holidays isn’t lost during the rest of the year.”

Yanovski said that that people should try to maintain or increase their activity levels during the winter season by making smart lifestyle choices. One could, for instance, park farther from the door when going Christmas shopping and make more trips to the gym.

When it comes to parties, Yanovski suggests that you “station yourself far away from the dessert table.” He said that one should also avoid alcohol consumption, as it can lead to poor eating choices.

He suggested eating foods that fill you up, such as protein and fresh vegetables. Protein is filling because it helps maintain your body’s insulin levels.

“No matter what you’re eating, there should always be a small portion of protein,” said Hamilton.

Litchfield said that people should base their eating habits on what they consider to be most important during the holidays.

“Prioritize what really means holidays to you, and keep the most important things, but let the other things go,” said Litchfield. “Concentrate on the quality.”

In her Top Ten List to Prevent Holiday Weight Gain, Litchfield suggests planning holiday events around something other than food, such as sledding or skiing.

“We’ve gotten into a society of quantity rather than quality,” she said. “Do holiday wrapping rather than holiday baking.”
Litchfield also recommends scheduling regular exercise during the holidays. She suggests walking five miles, or 10,000 steps, per day.