When the holiday season arrives with all its fanfare, festivities and fancy foods, it’s tempting to cast all dietary caution to the wind and indulge with abandon. After all, you may figure, the holidays only come around once a year, so you might as well eat, drink, be merry—and enjoy yourself as much as you can. But overdoing it can add up to unwanted pounds and disappointment when it comes to your long-term weight goal.
While the amount of weight people typically gain during the holiday season isn’t as much as many fear, it can be significant over time. In a study conducted at Karolinska Hospital in Sweden, researchers found that overweight people gained between 2.75 and four pounds during the two to three weeks around Christmas1. In another study published in 2000, researchers at the National Institutes of Health tracked the body weight of 195 adults from late September until early March and found that the average weight gain was just one pound2. The trouble is, those individuals didn’t lose that extra pound during the following spring or summer months—evidence that holiday weight gain can add up over the years. In fact, if you typically gain even one pound during each holiday season, you’ll pack on an extra 10 pounds a decade.
The good news is it’s possible to avoid holiday weight gain—if you keep your eyes on the big picture. After all, Christmas and New Year’s Eve are just one day each, not an entire season, so you shouldn’t give yourself license to go on a feeding frenzy for days, or weeks, at a time. Here are five strategies that can help you to look ahead, rather than focus on immediate gratification, and stick with your weight-loss plans through the holiday season:
- Set a realistic goal. Given all the holiday parties and numerous other eating occasions that are bound to crop up, it may be too difficult to try to lose weight during the holidays. Instead, a more reasonable goal may be to maintain the weight you’ve already lost or your current weight. This way, you won’t set yourself up for failure.
- Aim for consistency. In a recent study of people who lost weight and kept it off for years, researchers at Brown Medical School/The Miriam Hospital found that people who followed a consistent diet throughout the week were one and a half times more likely to maintain their weight over the subsequent year than those who were less consistent3. During the holiday season, your best bet may be to stick with your usual eating habits for most days of the week and to exercise the way you normally would. This way, you’ll be able to make allowances for situations where you won’t be able to control your food choices. If you stay consistent 80 percent of the time, you can slightly relax your dietary vigilance 20 percent of the time without seriously impacting your weight.
- Hold out for what you really want. Is it the wine or the bread that you really want at a holiday dinner? Is it the mini quiches or the crab cakes you crave at a cocktail party? If you set priorities in terms of the foods you want to eat, you’ll be less likely to munch mindlessly on crackers or chips—or the other 10 foods at the buffet table—just because they’re there. The point is it’s fine to allow yourself an occasional indulgence; just don’t throw all your dietary resolve out the window. Be selective, and savor your treats.
- Increase your activity level. First of all, longer or more frequent workouts will help you burn extra calories, which can help to compensate for those occasional splurges. Second, increasing your sessions can reinforce the mindset that you want to get or stay healthy, making you less likely to overeat in general or to eat foods you hadn’t planned to.
- Write down everything that crosses your lips. It’s called self-monitoring—and it really can make a difference. When researchers at the Center for Behavioral Medicine in Chicago asked people who were trying to lose weight to keep food diaries during the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s, they found that those who monitored their eating and drinking habits more consistently were better able to manage their weight during the holidays than those who didn’t4. A previous study had found that those who monitored their eating habits consistently were even able to lose weight during the holiday season 5; those who didn’t record their dietary details, by contrast, gained 500 percent more weight per week during the holidays compared with non-holiday weeks.
The bottom line: If you want to get through the holiday season with your weight-loss goals unscathed, you’ll need to plan ahead, be consistent with your eating and activity levels, bank extra calories and carbs for occasional splurges and monitor your behavior. And if you do overindulge, don’t dwell on it or view it as an excuse to continue overeating. Simply get back on track the next day, and set your sights on losing those extra pounds. Staying focused on your ultimate goal will bring you that much closer to it, day by day.
1. Andersson, I., Rossner, S., “The Christmas Factor in Obesity Therapy,” International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, 1992, 16(12), pages 1013–1015.
2. Yanovski, J.A., Yanovski, S.Z., Sovik, K.N., et al., “A Prospective Study of Holiday Weight Gain,” New England Journal of Medicine, 2000, 342(12), pages 861–867.
3. Gorin, A.A., Phelan, S., Wing, R.R., et al., “Promoting Long-Term Weight Control: Does Dieting Consistency Matter?” International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, Nov. 25, 2003. (E-pub ahead of print)
4. Boutelle, K.N., Kirschenbaum, D.S., Baker, R.C., et al., “How Can Obese Weight Controllers Minimize Weight Gain During the High Risk Holiday Season? By Self-Monitoring Very Consistently,” Health Psychology, 1999, 18(4), pages 364–368.
5. Baker, R.C., Kirschenbaum, D.S., “Weight Control During the Holidays: Highly Consistent Self-Monitoring as a Potentially Useful Coping Mechanism," Health Psychology, 1998, 17(4), pages 367–370.