Feature Archive

Holiday Weight Gain a Big Fat Lie

The Truth About Fat

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Weight gain during the holidays is a fat, ugly myth. Very few people really gain as much as five pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year's.

The weight gain comes after the holidays, when people don't drop that one little pound.

A study of 195 adults showed that -- from late September to early March -- the majority put on 1.06 pounds in six months' time. A year after the study began, 165 of the participants were weighed again. On average, they were each up about 1.36 pounds from their initial weights.

People who were overweight or obese to begin with were more likely to gain five pounds or more during the initial six-month season, according to the study, which appeared in a March 2000 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

"This is a good news/bad news story," study author Jack A. Yanovski, MD, head of Growth and Obesity at the National Institutes of Health, told WebMD in a previous interview.

"The good news is that most people are not gaining five or six pounds during the holidays, but the bad news is that weight gained over the winter holidays isn't lost during the rest of the year," he said.

Those small weight gains add up over the years, causing major medical problems, he said. More than half of Americans are overweight, and excess weight sets the stage for heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

It's true -- "fat gain really does require overeating over many days and weeks and months," says Cynthia Sass, RD, nutritionist with BayCare Health System in Clearwater, Fla., and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

In fact, people who try to under-eat before the holidays are just losing water and carbohydrates stored in muscles -- all of which will naturally stabilize over time.

It's the time spent exercising -- or getting some physical activity -- that really determines who gains more than one pound. Overweight people naturally have a harder time being physically active, since hefting a big body takes more effort. Therefore, the already-obese will likely be those tipping the scales too far.

To help keep things under control, she suggests that you:

1. Eschew the negative, guilt-ridden thoughts about "these horrible extra calories." Enjoy the holiday dinner.

2. Fix your traditional favorites -- the stuffing, the pie -- as you always have or you'll feel cheated. Certain side dishes could lose a little fat, like the green bean casserole, candied yams, and buttered mashed potatoes. Steamed green beans, broccoli, mashed sweet potatoes, and unglazed carrots can fill in the gaps. "You're compromising, but not in a depriving sort of way," says Sass.

3. Remember that you can eat pumpkin pie -- any dessert -- any month of the year. You don't have to eat mass quantities on holidays.

4. Meditate a bit on last year's holidays. Remember how uncomfortable you felt when you stuffed yourself, how you just wanted that feeling to go away.

5. Eat a little bit less than you otherwise might. Eat slower. Pick one desert to treat yourself, rather than taste-testing all of them.

6. Don't sit around talking, watching TV or movies, or playing cards after the big dinner. Start a new holiday tradition. Incorporate physical activity into your get-togethers with friends and family. Play charades or games, learn a new dance step -- anything that makes you move around some.

8. Take a walk after dinner -- but don't force anyone who's overweight to walk if they're not used to it. "Especially after a big meal, you have less blood flow and oxygen to your heart and lungs. Your body is still trying to digest it all."

9. Don't make the mistake of cutting fat in every holiday recipe, she tells WebMD. "You'll end up feeling unsatisfied. And if a recipe doesn't turn out that good, you end up really disappointed."

10. Remember that quality of life -- enjoying life -- is important. Part of that is maintaining good health by preventing disease.

Originally Published Nov. 27, 2002.

Medically updated Oct. 19, 2004.


SOURCES: The New England Journal of Medicine, March 2002 • Jack A. Yanovski, MD, head of Growth and Obesity, National Institutes of Health • Cynthia Sass, RD, nutritionist, BayCare Health System, Clearwater, Fla., and spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association.

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Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005 5:16:16 AM




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