Holiday weight gain is real but may not be as bad as you think.
It’s the most wonderful — and unhealthiest — time of the year. But the effects of holiday indulgences tend to be a little overblown.
A 2017 study in the New England Journal of Medicine determined that the average American gains 1.3 pounds in the 10 days following Christmas.
To support this, a 2018 study published in the BMJ showed that holiday weight gain averaged less than a pound. Another study, published in 2020 in the Current Obesity Reports, suggested that holiday weight gain hovers around 1.5 pounds.
These findings are well less than the 5 pounds the internet generally warns you about.
How much of that is actually fat? Consider these points:
— Gaining a pound of fat requires eating more than 3,500 calories above and beyond how many you burn (generally about 2,000 per day).
— The 2017 study found that people tend to lose about half of the weight gained immediately after the holidays. The 2018 and 2020 studies, meanwhile, noted that interventions — self-weighing, intermittent fasting and weight management practices — helped to mitigate holiday weight gain.
In any event, it’s fair to say that the weight most Americans gain over the holidays is only a fraction of what most folks are usually led to believe.
Most of the weight comes off again quickly, but some usually lingers.
The rest of the holiday bloat is typically due to water retention. This results from “a significant increase in sodium intake, as well as overall increased food consumption as a whole,” says Laura Bishop-Simo, a registered dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.
After all, when you drastically increase your intake of carbs from all the cookies, sugary cocktails, mashed potatoes and other holiday fare, your body stores much of it as glycogen, a fast-acting energy source, explains Wesley Delbridge, a registered dietitian nutritionist and school nutrition expert based in Phoenix. In fact, for every gram of glycogen, there is at least 3 grams of water stored with it.
However, one pitfall to that weight gain is that many people don’t lose all of it.
“Although 1 to 2 pounds doesn’t seem like a lot, most people lose only a portion, or none, of what they gained during the holiday season,” Bishop-Simo says. “That doesn’t seem like a big deal in the moment, but added up year after year, that small weight gain becomes significant over time.”
Strategies for keeping holiday weight gain to a minimum
That said, how should you approach all of the holiday parties, buffet tables and festive family gatherings?
Follow these 10 easy strategies to stay healthy this holiday season — and straight through the new year.
1. Make your indulgences intentional.
It’s not so much feasting on one enormous Christmas dinner that contributes to weight gain. It’s munching on toffee during a work meeting and mindlessly snacking on chocolate-covered pretzels at a holiday party (no one likes to have their hands empty), Delbridge says.
Distracted, mindless eating not only equates to consuming more food than you realize, but it tends to leave you pretty unsatisfied.
The result: You’ll eat even more later.
Rather than grazing on sugar every time a cookie catches your eye, mindfully eat the foods that are most important to you during the holidays, and leave the rest.
When you indulge in your grandma’s famous pecan pie, for instance, slow down and savor it, Delbridge says. You’ll enjoy it more that way, and you’ll actually consume far fewer calories when the holidays are said and done.
2. Limit your alcohol consumption.
Many seasonal beverages are high in sugar and calories. You don’t have to be a teetotaler this holiday season, but it’s wise not to imbibe too many glasses of wine, cocktails or hot toddies either.
Treat your alcohol like any other indulgence, and head into that holiday party with a plan of how much you will drink.
Be aware that when you’re intoxicated, it can be harder to resist temptation: The more alcohol you drink, the more likely you are to overindulge in the plethora of treats available during the holidays.
3. Focus on your plate.
Keeping an eye on both the size of your plate and the food on it can make for meaningful changes in your meal choices.
Plate sizes have significantly increased over the last several decades, says Dr. Andrew M. Freeman, director of clinical cardiology and director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness with National Jewish Health in Denver. Bigger plate sizes can mean bigger portion sizes.
In fact, a 2021 study in BMC Psychology found that people chose smaller amounts of food and drink when they had smaller plates and wine glasses. Another study, published in the American Journal of Health Behavior, suggested that changes in plate size could influence portion sizes, particularly when the plates run smaller. While researchers suggest more studies need to be conducted, opting for smaller dinner plates may be a good strategy to counteract overeating.
When you’re selecting foods, Mia Syn, a registered dietitian based in Charleston, South Carolina, recommends balancing your plate:
— Half should be a non-starchy vegetable option, such as a mixed green salad.
— One-fourth should be a fiber-rich carb, such as whole grains or starchy vegetables.
— One-fourth should be lean protein. Skinless chicken breast, fatty fish and bean-based dishes are all good options.
“Structuring your plate like this will help you feel satiated and help you meet your nutritional needs,” she says.
4. Emphasize good sleep.
The holidays are a busy time for everyone. With evening parties and weekend plans, your regular routine will likely be disrupted. For many folks, this means less sleep than usual.
Not getting enough shuteye can make it more difficult to fend off those excess pounds, Syn says.
“Sleep deprivation can contribute to weight gain during the holidays,” she says. “When you don’t get enough sleep, your hunger hormones are elevated.”
This elevation can make you crave food and consume more calories throughout the day. Plus, nostalgic comfort foods tend to be a hallmark of the holidays, and Syn says these can be calorically dense and higher in fat, added sugar and sodium.
In other words, sleep deprivation coupled with favorite holiday goodies can make it that much easier to overindulge.
5. Prioritize movement.
Between travel, long to-do lists and shortened gym hours around the holidays, it’s important to integrate movement into your days.
Even if it’s not structured exercise, physical activity does more than help prevent holiday weight gain. It promotes proper digestion to keep you feeling your best, despite any unhealthy food you’re putting in your body, says Erin Stutland, a New York-based mind-body wellness and fitness expert.
Freeman also suggests exercising before a big holiday meal.
“It’s a lot more difficult to find motivation after you’re really feeling full and can’t move very well,” he says. “I recommend going for a walk, a hike or a bike ride or (playing) a football game.”
6. Keep stress at bay.
Stress levels tend to be at an all-time high during the holiday season, Stutland says. It’s one of the biggest threats to good health and, on its own, can increase fat retention, particularly around the waistline, she explains.
Freeman adds that between spending time with family and friends and preparing elaborate meals, stress can be an unwelcome guest around the holidays. For those prone to stress-eating, he suggests keeping track of your coping mechanisms, whether it’s indulging in sweet treats or snacking while you cook.
“You need to be mindful of what you’re doing and when you’re doing it,” he says.
“Go out for a 30-minute walk, enjoy nature (and) look at the trees and the changing colors if you have those in your area,” Freeman says.
7. Plan ahead.
While people may gain weight over the holidays, it doesn’t have to be that way. With a little strategizing, you can avoid most of the holiday weight pitfalls.
“What I usually tell people, especially when they’re visiting other people or going to another family’s house, is to bring your own dish,” Freeman says.
A vegetable tray with hummus or a light, ealthy fruit salad for dessert can be tasty, easy-to-prepare options.
He adds that it’s best to opt for something made out of plants instead of animal products because plant-based foods tend to have fewer calories, fat, sugar and salt than conventional holiday meal options.
“You could eat a room full of cucumbers and lettuce and have very few calories but lots of nutrients and good stuff,” Freeman says. “Whereas if you eat the usual cheeses, processed meats or buttered side dishes, you can end up with hundreds or thousands of calories.”
Syn also recommends avoiding going to a party or gathering on an empty stomach.
“(Eat) before a party or big holiday meal with a small meal or snack centered around protein and fiber, like hummus and veggies, yogurt and fruit or whole grain toast and peanut butter,” she says. “This will not only help ensure you get in quality nutrients before a more indulgent holiday meal, but also help take the edge off of hunger and make you less likely to overeat.”
When you do enjoy a meal with family or friends during the holidays, avoid double servings and offer to bring a healthy side to a meal that you know you can fill up on more than other foods.
Because it can be easy to overindulge while watching TV or playing with electronics, stay away from screens when you eat so you can be more present and savor the meal.
8. Drink plenty of water.
Freeman notes that staying hydrated can sometimes help fend off the impulse to overindulge.
“I recommend drinking a fair amount of water — provided your doctor is not restricting it for some reason, such as if you have heart failure — before you eat,” he says.
That way, you feel a bit fuller with water and limit the space in your stomach for heavier foods and treats.
9. Avoid ‘overcorrecting.’
After overdoing it on sugar, fat or anything else, it’s important to get back into your “regular” balanced eating routine rather than diving headfirst into a cleanse or another extreme weight-loss strategy, Delbridge says.
Your body is well-equipped to do any and all detoxing on its own. Extremely low-calorie diets, juice fasts and elimination diets can deprive your body of essential nutrients. This lack of nutrients can negatively affect your muscles and your metabolism, he says.
Psychologically, alternating from holiday indulgences to cleanses fosters an unhealthy relationship with food and your body, which can contribute to weight regain and disordered eating.
10. Take a deep breath and savor the holidays.
Ultimately, the best thing you can do is to just relax and enjoy yourself.
“Try to carve out some time with some people you love. It’s one time of year that almost everyone around the world gets an opportunity to slow down just a bit for a few days,” Stutland says. “Taking time to appreciate your life and give gratitude for what you have and the people in it is one of the healthiest things we can do for our mind and body.”
What if that involves a glass of eggnog?
“No food is bad during the holidays,” Bishop-Simo notes. “It’s how much of them that’s eaten that causes the weight gain.”
10 strategies for avoiding holiday weight gain:
— Make your indulgences intentional.
— Limit your alcohol consumption.
— Focus on your plate.
— Emphasize good sleep.
— Prioritize movement.
— Keep stress at bay.
— Plan ahead.
— Drink plenty of water.
— Avoid ‘overcorrecting.
— Take a deep breath and savor the holidays.
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Update 12/06/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.