If you’re feeling a sharp pang of worry about sticking to your healthy eating habits between now and New Year’s Day, you’re not alone. The holidays are supposed to be a time for festivity, but they usually come with a heavy dose of panic attached for anyone who’s trying to eat healthy, lose weight, or maintain a weight loss that they’ve already achieved.
So what does the research actually say about festive weight gain and how you can fight back?
The estimates of how much the average person gains over the holiday season very much depends on how you measure. The numbers you will usually see thrown around are anywhere from 5- 8lbs.
According to the British Dietetic Association, the average person will consume 6,000 kcals on Christmas day. But wait, there’s more:
Over the festive period, which seems to kick off earlier and earlier every year, the average person could consume an extra 500 kcals per day, equating to a weight gain of around 5lb by the time we reach the beginning of the New Year.
However, these numbers have been doing the rounds for years and they’re almost always inflated. Diet supplement companies get the chance to conduct surveys that give them exposure, creating attention grabbing headlines. Also numbers like the above are based on self-reporting, which (unsurprisingly) tends to be skewed with a hefty helping of post-holiday guilt with a cherry on top.
The actual research is a little more optimistic. Each study reaches a different conclusion about the total amount of weight gained but every estimate is considerably lower than the numbers cited in the press each winter.
So in reality, the “holiday weight” is nothing to panic over: it’s nice to avoid it, but if you can’t, it’s not a catastrophe.
Average holiday weight gain: studies compared: All weights in kg
Maximum weight gain
Minimum weight gain
No big deal, I will lose it in January!
Though people consistently over-estimate the amount of weight they’ll gain over Christmas, that doesn’t result in speedier or more effective action to undo the effects of over-eating.
Titled ‘A Prospective Study of Holiday Weight Gain‘, research by scientists at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that adults weighed more in February and March than they did in September and October of the previous year. More worryingly, their weight hadn’t changed significantly by the following September.
They conclude that a large part of annual weight gain in the US is attributable to the festive period. That’s an important finding when you consider long-term national trends in calorie consumption and weight.
Who is most at risk of gaining weight?
- The overweight are most at risk.
- The formerly overweight also struggle.
Study after study indicates that people who start at a higher BMI tend to gain more weight and that those who had successfully lost weight in the past despite making more careful plans and working harder to maintain their weight gain more weight than those that have never been overweight.
What does this Mean for Me?
Know your risk, so you can plan accordingly. If you have never struggled with weight issues, you can ease the breaks a little; if you have battled with weight issues, you will have to stay vigilant. Is this fair? No way! But it’s true, and wouldn’t you rather know up front than get a nasty shock in January?
What About the Holidays Causes Weight Gain?
This might seem like a no-brainer. Obviously, people gain weight over the holidays because they eat more duh!
But that doesn’t answer the really important question: why do you overeat over the holidays?
- Social pressure: The sweet tin is out at work; colleagues are constantly bringing in Christmas treats. How many times do you hear the words “oh go on it is Christmas!”. people tend to feel a little guilty about there own indulgences, so they’ll pressure you to join in so they can feel better.
- Emotional associations. Maybe it’s usually no struggle for you to say no to that slice of cake, but if your Nan made it just for you, it gets a lot harder, especially if you have loving memories of eating it in years past.
- Stress: With Christmas comes stress, with stress comes comfort eating, and nobody comfort-eats broccoli! The stress hormone cortisol also promotes weight gain, especially the dreaded “belly fat.”
- Broken routines: Travelling means you spend a lot of time sitting, commitments throw you off your regular exercise routine, and eating at family or friend’s houses means you aren’t always in control of your food.
All of these facts about the holiday season represent cues to overeat. If you don’t deliberately try to respond in a different way, you’ll end up following the cues and overeating. But if you’re trying to stay healthy, you don’t want to just passively accept and follow these cues.
Though you won’t gain anywhere near as many pounds as scaremongers would have you believe, it’s still worth being cautious since evidence suggests that Christmas weight is particularly hard to lose. You don’t want to fall into the trap of just passively accepting and following the above cues to overeat; Instead you want to make smart choices, enjoying treats when they are really worth it and passing them up when they’re not. So your job this Christmas is to plan, prioritise, and act accordingly, that way you wont be in for a nasty shock come the 1st January.