Christmas the season for weight gain?

By Meeghan, 17 December, 2010

Christmas celebrations are often perceived as a major contributor to our expanding waistlines. But is this really the case? A US study explored the belief that more weight is gained during the festive season than at other times during the year. According to this study, adults gained an average of 0.37kg during the six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, instead of the 2.3kg commonly reported by the media.

Interestingly, the study participants perceived that they had gained almost four times this amount of weight, suggesting that individuals may be more aware of body weight during this period.

Whilst this small weight gain may not seem important, when a sub-group study of participants were followed for a further ten months, it was revealed that this holiday season weight gain contributed to 51% of annual weight gain, and this gain was not lost over the remainder of the year.

In essence, this study demonstrates that whilst one holiday season on its own may not have a huge impact on our health, a lifetime of Christmas weight gains will certainly add up if they are not reversed later in the year.

In line with this research, the Dietitians Association of Australia acknowledges that the festive season is not an ideal time to shed excess kilograms, and advises that an appropriate goal for many Australians is to keep their weight stable over this time.

Unfortunately, there is more bad news. A more recent study has shown that weight alone may underestimate the harmful effects of the holiday season on our health. In this study, the average weight of 82 college students in the US remained unchanged over the holiday season; however, percent body fat and total fat mass increased significantly and percent lean body mass decreased.

This finding is worrying as increased body fat, especially central adiposity (excess weight around the middle) has been shown to increase risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus, high blood pressure and raised cholesterol levels. So even if your weight remains stable over the holiday season, if you are not careful about what you eat, you may actually increase your risk for the development of future disease due to increased body fat mass.

Here are a few tips to keep you on track over the festive season:

  1. Don’t go to functions hungry. Under-eating or skipping meals in an effort to ‘save’ yourself for up-coming meals will only increase the likelihood of overeating. Fill up before you go by choosing a high fibre, filling snack such as a piece of fresh fruit, a multi-grain salad sandwich or a bowl of porridge with low fat milk.
  2. Beware of alcohol. Alcohol provides many empty kilojoules with no nutritional value and may lower your resolve to make healthy choices. Alternate alcoholic drinks with a glass of water, or try a spritzer – half wine half mineral water.
  3. Take a healthy platter. Ensure there are healthy options available by supplying a grilled seafood platter or sushi/rice paper rolls, a bowl of fruit salad or a platter of vegetable sticks for dipping with low-fat tzatziki or hummus.
  4. Enjoy your meal – eat slowly. It can take 10-15 minutes for our gastric hormones to signal to our brain that we are full. To prevent overeating, serve yourself a small portion, eat slowly and remind yourself that you can always go back for seconds if you are genuinely still hungry 10-15 minutes after your meal.
  5. Treat yourself. Attempts to be 100% perfect over the Christmas period are not realistic and failure-related feelings of guilt often lead to binges. Make healthy choices throughout the holiday season so that you can occasionally splurge on a small piece of your favourite Christmas treat.

Merry Christmas everyone! Article written by Meaghan Butterley, December 2010. References:

  1. Yanovski JA, Yanovski SZ, Sovik KN, et al. A prospective study of holiday weight gain. New England Journal of Medicine 2000;342:861-7
  2. Hull HR, Nestor CN & Fields DA. The effect of the holiday season on body weight and composition in college students. Nutrition & Metabolism 2006;3(44)

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