The Holiday Season isn't known for the healthy environment it creates. Three plates of turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing, plus dessert has to go somewhere. Surely these calorie dense options lead to weight gain, but is unwanted holiday weight gain really as big of a problem as everyone makes it out to be? Several studies have looked into this question and researchers have come to important conclusions.
What the Research Says About Holiday Weight Gain
Study #1: These researchers reviewed multiple holiday weight gain studies. They found the average weight gain from mid-November to mid-January was 1.1 pounds. The participants who were classified as overweight or obese gained more weight than participants classified as normal1.
An interesting part of this study was what happened to the holiday weight gain over time. Researchers found holiday weight gain was a major contributor to annual weight gain. In other words, participants did not lose their holiday weight once the season was over.
Study #2: This study looked at the change in body weight of 195 adults during the holiday season. The study measured body weight during three periods: pre-holiday (September/October through November), during the holiday (mid-November through mid-January), and post-holiday (January through February/March). 165 of the 195 participants were also weighed the following September/October in order to see the long term outcome of holiday weight gain.
This study found the average weight gain during the holiday season (mid-November through mid-January) was 0.82 pounds. It also found participants lost 0.15 pounds in the post-holiday period (January through February/March). Participants gained 1.06 pounds during the entire holiday season (September through March).
The 165 participants who were weighed the following September/October gained an additional 0.46 pounds after the holiday season.2
Study #3: This study looked at changes in weight of 94 college students before and after the Thanksgiving break. During this period, males gained an average of 1.3 pounds while females gained an average of 0.88 pounds. Students who were overweight or obese gained an average of 2.2 pounds while the students in a normal weight range gained 0.44 pounds3.
Do people gain weight during the holidays?
Anecdotal evidence suggests gaining five or more pounds during the holiday season is normal. Research does not support this claim. Instead, it shows holiday weight gain exists but is significantly less than many think. The studies did find some interesting trends.
Participants who were overweight or obese gained more weight than those who were at normal weight range. If you are successful in balancing body weight during the non-holiday months, research shows holiday weight gain is relatively limited.
The research also showed holiday weight gain significantly contributed to annual weight gain. Individuals who gained weight during the holiday season did not seem to lose the weight once the [all you can eat] season was over.
Should I cancel the holidays to avoid gaining unwanted weight?
The research is clear in that holiday weight gain is real and seems to stick around. Weight gain during a single holiday season is not life altering, however, one holiday season after another with unchecked weight gain has the potential to lead to obesity over time.
How do you keep the unwanted holiday weight gain off? A significant part of the holiday season is the delicious, calorie dense nature of food. Avoiding this might be unrealistic. Research has shown those with a lower body weight going into the holiday season tend to gain less weight than those who are heavier. A good strategy seems to reside in creating healthy habits throughout the year in order to relax dietary rules for the holiday season.
Creating a solid foundation of healthy nutrition and exercise habits in the non-holiday months prevents at least some unwanted weight gain. It is important to create and practice a healthy routine BEFORE the holiday season because implementing change while devouring turkey, ham and pies is unrealistic. Travel, family get-togethers, limited exercise, and endless plates of food makes healthy routines extremely difficult to follow, especially for individuals who have not practiced these routines before.
The Bottom Line
There is no easy solution to avoiding unwanted holiday weight gain. It affects even those individuals who are great at staying in shape during the non-holiday months. Individuals who practice healthy habits in the months leading up to the holiday season fare much better than those who do not. Keeping holiday weight gain off means you must build an year round strategy of proper fitness and dietary habits.
1. Schoeller, D. A. (2014). The effect of holiday weight gain on body weight. Physiology & Behavior, 134, 66-69. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2014.03.018. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24662697
2. Yanovski, J. A. (2000). A prospective study of holiday weight gain. New England Journal of Medicine, 342(12), 861-867. doi:10.1056/NEJM200003233421206. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10727591
3. Hull, H. R., Radley, D., Dinger, M. K., & Fields, D. A. (2006). The effect of the Thanksgiving Holiday on weight gain. Nutrition Journal, 5(1). doi:10.1186/1475-2891-5-29. Retrieved from https://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2891-5-29