The Truth About Holiday Weight Gain

Unlike that pile of wrapping paper at your feet, holiday weight gain doesn't disappear when all the fun is over. Here's how to keep it from paying you a visit.

December 21, 2011

Try not to add a bulging waist line to your list of holiday traditions.

You're lost in the woods. You're tired, you're scared for your life, and your stomach is howling like a dying wolf. But then, through a gap between distant trees, you see a cozy cottage with smoke billowing from the chimney. As you draw near, you realize something fantastic: The cottage is made entirely of cake! You begin immediately pulling off chunks of siding to fill your empty belly, until an innocent-looking old woman appears in the doorway and beckons you inside…


All right, so you know how it ends. But Hansel and Gretel is more than just a creepy story—it's a cautionary tale. This is the hyperbolic reality we live in during the holiday season. Everywhere we look, there are gingerbread houses in the form of sugary drinks and cookies, candy-filled punch bowls, fat- and sugar-loaded comfort foods, and—um—actual gingerbread houses. Your risk of being cooked alive is slight, but your risk of being plumped up with holiday weight is high. A study from the New England Journal of Medicine found that Americans typically pack on about a pound every holiday season. What's worse, this is weight that tends to stick with us and accumulate over the years, making it a driving force in age-related weight gain.

But before you get all Grinch-y or Scrooge-y about your holiday diet, know this—staying slim through the holidays doesn't have to be difficult. Below, we arm you with the truths and strategies that can keep you jolly, not jiggly, during the holiday season. Because, let's be honest, a belly that shakes like a bowlful of jelly is charming on Mr. C., but the rest of us look and feel better when we leave the weight in the candy bowl.

Truth #1: You eat more during the holidays.
You know you overeat at the holiday table, and while delicious food might be part of the reason, a study in the International Food Research Journal indicates that your perception of the meal plays a bigger role. According to the study, people are more likely to make poor nutritional choices when they define a meal as a "special occasion." Problem is the holiday season is a special occasion that stretches on for two months, giving you one uninterrupted excuse to pad your belly with sugar and high-calorie meals. The goal needn't be to deprive yourself, but you do want to counter the "special-occasion effect" with smart nutritional choices.

Weight-Loss Strategy: Take a stroll.
A pre- or post-meal walk does more than just burn calories. According to preliminary Mayo Clinic research, engaging in light exercise after a meal may lower your blood sugar and, in turn, prevent your body from storing extra fat. Also, walking before your holiday dinner may help suppress your appetite for tempting treats. A 2009 study published in Appetite found that people who walked for 15 minutes on a treadmill were significantly less likely to cave to the temptation of a chocolate bar after the walk. Not a fan of walking? Try one of these six creative workouts to keep you trim over the holidays.

Truth #2: Holiday-themed menus are hazardous to your health.
Gingerbread, eggnog, peppermint—all these foods conjure up memories of holiday decorations and warm fireplaces. That's why restaurants are so keen on seasonal menu items—they make you just happy enough to plunk down a few bucks for something you ordinarily wouldn't crave. The problem, however, is that these limited-time items often have a worse nutritional profile than their everyday counterparts on the regular menu. Take, for example, Starbucks' Peppermint Hot Chocolate. Compared to the chain's regular hot chocolate, it contains 70 additional calories and 18 more grams of sugar. And Dairy Queen's Reindeer Bites Blizzard? It blows past the Oreo Blizzard with 270 extra calories, 20 more grams of sugar, and triple the saturated fat! The bottom line: If you consistently buy into food-marketing hype, you're setting yourself up for serious holiday weight gain.

Weight-Loss Strategy: Control your blood sugar and you control your weight.
Earlier this year, Yale researchers discovered that people had better impulse control and were less likely to give in to junk-food cravings when they maintained steady blood sugar levels. So how do you do that? Two ways: Avoid cloyingly sweet foods and don't let yourself become so hungry that your blood sugar dives. Your best strategy is to keep healthy snacks on hand—think apples with peanut butter, carrots with hummus, or mixed nuts.

Truth #3: The more serving dishes you put on your dinner table, the more calories you consume.
Family-style dinners—those where you place the serving dishes directly on the dining-room table—can pad you with pounds faster than you can say, "Please pass the potatoes." According to a Cornell University study, people eat about 20 percent fewer calories when food is kept in the kitchen, rather than on the table. If you're in your own home, keep the serving dishes off the table, and if you're not the host, try drinking a tall glass of water between servings. By the time you finish, you probably won't be hungry anymore. The same holds true at holiday parties, where buffet-style food tables make it easy to graze—and overeat without realizing you are.

Weight-Loss Strategy: Easy on the carbs!
When you think of holiday fare, starchy foods like cookies, pecan pie, and mashed potatoes probably come to mind. Not only are these foods loaded with calories, but they also deliver far more carbohydrates than protein. That's bad news for your gut. A 2010 New England Journal of Medicine study found that dieters who increased their carb intake and decreased their protein were significantly less likely to maintain weight loss than those who restricted carbs and ate plenty of lean protein. So to ward off holiday weight gain this year, think more nuts, fewer Hershey's kisses.

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