Rebecca Krukowski, PhD; Associate Professor, Deptartment of Preventive Medicine, University of Tennessee Health Science Center
Holiday weight gain is not just a myth. It’s common for adults to gain about 1-2 pounds between mid-November and January.1-5 Abundance of holiday food and drinks at parties and family events, busy schedules, and colder temperatures make it hard to stick to a healthy diet and exercise routine.6,7 Even though these gains may seem small, most people never lose this weight in the new year,3-5 and this weight gain accumulates year after year. Fortunately, health researchers have identified several healthy holiday eating habits that can help you get ahead of your New Year’s resolution – by avoiding those extra pounds during the holidays in the first place!
- Weigh yourself every day
Daily self-weighing has been shown to help with both weight loss and maintaining a healthy weight.8-9 In fact, a recent study10 found that adults who weighed themselves daily while viewing a graph of their weight trends during the holidays didn’t gain weight, unlike those that did not. Awareness of weight fluctuations can increase motivation to engage in weight loss behaviors soon after slight gains occur.11 And although self-weighing might not initially seem enjoyable, one study12 showed that adults who engaged in frequent self-weighing found it to be more positive, more helpful, and less frustrating over time.
- Track what you eat and how active you are
Keeping a record of diet (e.g., food, calories, and fat) and physical activity each day helped adults avoid weight gain during the holidays.13,14,15 Importantly, those who tracked the most consistently were the least likely to gain weight.14 Noticing extra calories consumed at an office holiday party, for example, can help motivate you to eat healthy snacks the next day, and self-monitoring exercise can be a good reminder to be active.
Luckily, technology can make this tracking much easier! Most smartphones automatically monitor and graph movement throughout the day. Look for applications (apps) that help you track daily weight, diet, and physical activity. Perhaps even better, use apps that give you visual feedback of your progress, such as graphs of weight, dietary intake and steps. For those without smartphones, pedometers or other activity trackers can help alert you to days with low activity.
3. Mindfully eat your treats
The sight and smell of tasty desserts can make overeating at holiday parties and meals easy.7,16 One way to prevent overindulging is to eat mindfully.17 For example, avoid eating when distracted (e.g., mid-conversation, when watching television) and instead eat when you can savor the taste and texture of your food. Pay attention to your body when you’re eating. What physical sensations of hunger or fullness do you notice? Be deliberate and choose one favorite treat, rather than trying everything on the dessert tray.
- Ask friends, family, and coworkers for support
Having someone provide encouragement, accountability and reminders to self-monitor has been shown to help prevent holiday weight gain.10,13,14,15 Luckily, the holidays are a time that we often spend more time with our loved ones, so it can be a convenient time of year to ask them to help keep you accountable. For example, ask a friend to send you a reminder text about daily tracking or tell family how they can support your diet and exercise goals. A workplace weight maintenance program,15 in which coworkers encouraged each other to self-monitor and eat healthily, helped prevent holiday gains. Connect with coworkers and ask them to join you in a healthy lunch potluck, walking meetings, or on a walk during breaks.
- Be adventurous
There are plenty of ways to enjoy the holidays apart from eating. Identify family or friends who will join you in active or engaging activities that do not include eating – a walk to look at holiday lights, ice skating, a 5K, an art class, or a games night. With extra time off work, this can be a great time to get out of your comfort zone and make unique memories with loved ones. Whether you’re in-town or traveling, check local community events (e.g., theater night, comedy show) or explore museums, art galleries, and parks that you might not otherwise.
Just because weight gain around the holidays is common does not mean it’s inevitable. Enjoying a high-calorie holiday meal does not mean you have to give up on your weight maintenance goals. In fact, self-monitoring research has taught us that fluctuations in diet, weight and physical activity are normal. But being mindful of these changes can help alert us to eat more healthfully or be more active the following day. And if you can follow these tips for holiday eating during the most challenging time, imagine how confident you will be maintaining your weight the rest of the year!
- Andersson, I., Rossner, S. The Christmas factor in obesity research. International J Obes. 1991; 16 (12): 1013- 1015.
- Cook CM, Subar AF, Troiano RP, Schoeller DA. (2012). Relation between holiday weight gain and total energy expenditure among 40- to 69-y-old men and women (OPEN study). Am J of Clin Nutr. 2012; 95(3): 726-731.
- Schoeller DA. The effect of holiday weight gain on body weight. Physiol Behav. 2014; 134:66-69.
- Stevenson JL, Krishnan S, Stoner MA, Goktas Z, & Cooper JA. (2013). Effects of exercise during the holiday season on changes in body weight, body composition and blood pressure. Eur J of Clin Nutr. 2013; 67(9): 944-949.
- Yanovski JA, Yanovski SZ, Nguyen TT, O’Neil PM, Sebring NG. A prospective study of holiday weight gain. N Eng J Med. 2000; 23 (12): 861-867.
- Welch WA, Spring B, Phillips SM, Siddique J (2018) Moderating effects of weather-related factors on a physical activity intervention. Am J Prev Med 54(5):e83–e89. https ://doi.org/10.1016/j. amepr e.2018.01.025
- Hetherington, M. M., Anderson, A. S., Norton, G. N., & Newson, L. (2006). Situational effects on meal intake: A comparison of eating alone and eating with others. Physiology & behavior, 88(4-5), 498-505.
- Pacanowski CR, Levitsky DA. Frequent self-weighing and visual feedback for weight loss in overweight adults. J Obes 2015; 2015:763680. doi:10.1155/2015/763680
- Shieh C, Knisley MR, Clark D, Carpenter JS. Self-weighing in weight management interventions: a systematic review of literature. Obes Res Clin Pract 2016; 10:493-519
- Kaviani, S., vanDellen, M., & Cooper, J. A. (2019). Daily Self‐Weighing to Prevent Holiday‐Associated Weight Gain in Adults. Obesity, 27(6), 908-916.
- Bandura A. Social cognitive theory of self-regulation. Organ Behav Hum Decis Process 1991; 50:248-287
- Fahey, M. C., Klesges, R. C., Kocak, M., Wayne Talcott, G., & Krukowski, R. A. (2018). Changes in the Perceptions of Self‐weighing Across Time in a Behavioral Weight Loss Intervention. Obesity, 26(10), 1566-1575.
- Boutelle, K. N., Kirschenbaum, D. S., Baker, R. C., & Mitchell, M. E. (1999). How can obese weight controllers minimize weight gain during the high-risk holiday season? By self-monitoring very consistently. Health Psychology, 18(4), 364.
- Baker, R. C., & Kirschenbaum, D. S. (1998). Weight control during the holidays: highly consistent self-monitoring as a potentially useful coping mechanism. Health Psychology, 17(4), 367.
- Wilson, M. G., Padilla, H. M., Meng, L., & Daniel, C. N. (2019). Impact of a workplace holiday weight gain prevention program. Nutrition and health, 0260106019854916.
- Hou, R., Mogg, K., Bradley, B. P., Moss-Morris, R., Peveler, R., & Roefs, A. (2011). External eating, impulsivity and attentional bias to food cues. Appetite, 56(2), 424-427.
- O’Reilly, G. A., Cook, L., Spruijt‐Metz, D., & Black, D. S. (2014). Mindfulness‐based interventions for obesity‐related eating behaviours: a literature review. Obesity reviews, 15(6), 453-461.