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Holiday weight gain: it's not all about the stuffing

Posted by Dr. Suzanne Koven  November 14, 2012 08:43 AM

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holiday-weight-gain.jpg 'Tis the season when we'll see countless articles about holiday weight gain. It's commonly believed that Americans gain, on average, 5-10 pounds between Thanksgiving and New Years. It turns out that the average gain is closer to one pound--but that, according to this study, it's a pound you never lose. After a few decades that annual pound becomes...obesity.

But say you're someone who does gain a few pounds this time of year. Is it really because you eat turkey, mashed potatoes, fruitcake, and eggnog non-stop from late November to January 1st? Okay, so maybe you do. But is something else going on, too?

Certain psychological factors, and not just the increased availability of rich foods, may contribute to holiday weight gain:

Stress: Have you ever had the experience of returning from a vacation, during which you ate out every meal and drank more alcohol than usual, and finding that you actually lost weight? You may attribute this pleasant surprise to walking more, or not eating between meals during your trip. But being relaxed and sleeping better might have helped, too. In several studies including this one, financial, family, and work stress were associated with increased weight gain over time. Some of that gain may by due to stress-induced overeating, but a rise in the stress hormone cortisol causes weight gain irrespective of calorie intake. So having your annual argument with Uncle Joe about politics and rushing around the mall piling up credit card debt may be just as fattening as pumpkin pie. Plus, fat and sugar hit the pleasure centers of our brains, so fatty, sugary foods are our go-to for relaxation. When the going gets tough, we don't get an urge for spinach, alas.

"Last Supper" Phenomenon: Animals load up on available calories so that they can survive when times are lean. We humans also overeat in anticipation of a food shortage, even if that "shortage" is a self-imposed diet--the one we're going to start on January 1st. In this study, people enrolled in an obesity treatment program gained weight between enrollment and the actual start of the program. It may be that we'd gain less weight over the holidays if we didn't make that New Year's resolution to go on a diet.

Sleep: For many people, this is a busy time of year and it's tempting to squeeze more hours out of the day by staying up later. But, as recent research summarized here suggests, sleep deprivation can contribute to weight gain, or at least stall weight loss.

"All or nothing" thinking: So you're eating and drinking more, which means you should stop going to the gym, right? That makes no sense, of course, yet every year at this time treadmills go quiet. Weight loss, or prevention of weight gain, isn't entirely math, but some of those extra calories taken in can be offset by burning calories through exercise. This interesting website highlighting the work of Cornell eating behavior researcher Brian Wansink offers some thought-provoking information about the power of very small actions, such as taking a brief walk and forgoing that extra sliver of pie.

And just tell Uncle Joe he's absolutely right about everything.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Suzanne Koven, M.D. practices internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. She writes a monthly column for the Globe's G Health section and her essays have appeared in the More »


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