General Medical

The Myth of Holiday Weight Gain

2136467455_1c307470bd_zPhoto by Jolene Faber via Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Right now, you are being bombarded by messages about holiday weight gain. “Avoid those 5 holiday pounds!”  “Drop the Egg Nog and drop that extra weight!” The media reminds us again and again that American gluttony will have us bursting at the seams come New Year. So, here’s the secret all those news articles leave out: No one knows where that five pound number came from.

An article in the New England Journal of Medicine, our country’s premiere medical journal, looked into this very issue and found nothing to back up this oft-reported claim. So, to get to the bottom of this, the researchers did their own study. They recruited a group of people ranging in age from 19 to 82, half of them women, with an average BMI of about 26, which is close to the national average. The subjects were weighed starting in October, before Thanksgiving and after the New Year, and then, again, the next fall. The findings? Subjects gained, on average, 13 ounces during the holiday season. Yes, ounces — that’s not a typo.

People gained less than a pound. Now, that’s an average and some individuals did put on even more than the advertised 5 pounds. There was a somewhat greater likelihood of gaining weight if an individual was already overweight. However, some people were even able to lose weight over the holidays! Those who were more likely to lose weight were also more likely to be the ones who had increased their activity level.

Before you decide this is reason to celebrate with another plate of Christmas cookies, the study also found that over the course of the year, on average, everyone gained weight by the weigh-in, one year later in October.  While the holiday period did not represent a significant increase in the rate of weight gain for most, it was part of an ongoing trend of expanding waistlines, contributing to obesity and, with the obesity, all of the often discussed associated medical problems.   

Instead of offering ways to stave off those imaginary 5 pounds, here are half a dozen simple steps to make the holidays a time of good cheer and good health.

  • Eat what you want (in moderation): If all you want is a piece of chocolate fudge, do indulge. Have one piece. Then step away from the fudge platter. If you don’t indulge, because you’re giving up something you really wanted, you’re likely to eat a lot more of what you don’t want. In the end, you’ll consume more calories than you intended and not get the pleasure of that homemade fudge that you’ve been waiting for since October.
  • Eat mindfully: Pay attention to what you are eating and how it is making you feel. Holiday parties are the perfect environment for mindless munching. You chat, you eat, you go back for seconds, you grab an extra appetizer, you chat some more, and then have a second piece of pie. Add a few glasses of eggnog. With so much else going on, it can be easy to eat your way through way more food than you intended — and you barely even noticed you were doing it!  So really savor that first bite — it’s almost certainly the best bite as your taste buds delight at a new flavor. But also notice when the food stops tasting so good. And, when it does, stop eating.
  • Limit liquid calories: Many studies have shown that the fullness centers in our bodies do not register liquid calories the same way we register solid calories, but the liquid calories add to our waistline just as much. The holiday is filled with calorie-packed drinks — from eggnog to punch to your favorite holiday brew. If you really look forward to a particular drink, have it (see the first recommendation), but then switch to something calorie-free. Sparkling water can feel festive without weighing you down.
  • Survey the buffet before filling your plate: Part of eating what you want, is not eating what you don’t. Holiday meals are notorious for vast expanses and plentiful options, but not all offerings are created equal.  Look at what your choices are. Choose some foods that are low in calories but will take you some time to eat — think fresh vegetables and fruit — and then add some things you really enjoy. Don’t choose the food that you won’t enjoy or only find mildly pleasing; you don’t need those extra calories.
  • Get holiday cookies off the counter: Studies have shown that you are far more likely to eat what you see. Each time you walk by that plate full of cookies on the counter, you have to make a conscious decision not to eat one. By the end of the day, you may have had to make this choice not to eat dozens of times. That wears you down; just one yes after all those no’s and there go your good intentions. Put the cookies out of sight and set out a bowl of decorative citrus fruits instead.
  • Find an exercise buddy: That New England Journal article found weight loss in those who reported increased activity. It can be really hard to exercise in the winter — the short days and cold, wintery nights can leave even the most devoted fitness enthusiast with a case of the blahs. If you can find a friend to exercise with you, you will be more likely to exercise and the time will be far more pleasant. Already at the mall for holiday shopping? Before you are weighed down by shopping bags, make a quick loop around the mall at a brisk pace. Take the stairs at work. Walk to the other room to talk to your spouse rather than texting. Just a little extra movement can have a significant impact.

Above all, be kind to yourself and enjoy the festive holiday season.

Yanovski JA, Yanovski SZ, Sovik KN, Nguyen TT, O’Neil PM, & Sebring NG (2000). A prospective study of holiday weight gain. The New England Journal of Medicine, 342 (12), 861-7.

Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Lolita A. January 5, 2016 at 8:05 am

    Proper diet and workout routine, discipline and motivation are the main aspects of healthy lifestyle!
    Stay fit and a Happy New Year ! )

  • Amanda K December 7, 2015 at 3:32 pm

    Stick to a proper health and fitness routine during most of the year and you wont have to worry much about putting on some temporary weight from holidays like this one :D. It feels wonderful to be able to enjoy christmas to its fullest. I am using the visual impact program myself to stay in the best shape of my life. You can read a review for the program at