Holiday Weight Gain: Myth vs. Fact

Holiday Weight Gain Myth Vegetable and Butcher

The holiday season can be tricky to navigate. Between dashing through various stores in hopes of fulfilling your loved ones’ wish lists and neatly navigating through the demands of modern-day consumerism, you find yourself over-stressed, over-worked, and often neglecting your self-care routines. As the seasons shift and the temperature begins to drop, sometimes so does your motivation to maintain a healthy lifestyle. 

But who could blame you for finally achieving your dreams of becoming a taste-tester with holiday parties and mouthwatering treats everywhere you turn!? You keep telling yourself “treat yourself,” but those moments start to add up. And while I think you should treat yourself a little more than usual during the holiday season, how do you also stay mindful of the healthy habits you’re so proud of the rest of the year?

Here’s a breakdown of the most common holiday weight gain myths and tips on how to be more mindful of healthy habits (while also indulging).

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Separating Myth from Fact

Myth: I gained at least five pounds over the holidays.
Although it feels like the back-to-back holidays—filled with a selection of seemingly unlimited scrumptious foods—pack on the pounds, most people don’t even come close to gaining the mythical five pounds. To gain that weight in the span of a month would require an average person to overconsume 17,500 calories (one pound = ~3,500 calories). That’s equal to eating 583 calories more than you burn every day for a month. 

Fact: You probably only gained about one pound over the holidays.
According to a recent study, people believe they gain four times the amount of weight than they actually do! Although most people only gain one pound during the holidays, that weight tends to linger. Research has shown that this extra pound appears to remain as long as five months after the holidays, and some people never lose it. To some, that extra pound might not mean much, but the weight can slowly add up if left unchecked. Of course, weight gain (and loss!) has a number of other factors, like stress levels and sleep, so it’s important to keep all aspects of your health and wellness in check – not just food! Speaking of stress…

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Myth: Calories don’t count when you’re stressed! 
Stress can affect people in a multitude of ways: some may lose weight, while others gain weight. The stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine are partly responsible for these fluctuations. Initially, epinephrine helps keep your appetite at bay, but with persistent stress, cortisol levels may increase and induce changes. Although cortisol may increase your metabolism, it also increases your appetite. While you may be burning more calories by being stressed, you may also be overeating and over-compensating. Keep in mind that some people might experience a loss of appetite when stressed! 

Fact: Stressed is desserts spelled backwards.
What’s my favorite stress-coping behavior? Chocolate. Stress can affect food preferences by increasing cravings for foods that are high in fat, sugar, or both. A recent study suggests that unhealthy foods “make you feel better” by subduing the area of your brain that deals with emotion and stress—hence the origin of comfort foods. 

Regardless, if you find that your weight is drastically changing during periods of stress, please consult your physician to help find ways to manage it!

Myth: I went up a pant size!
Although it might feel like it, you probably didn’t go up a full size! To go up a full size in pants would require you to gain around 10-15 lb (of course, these numbers can vary) over the span of a month. 

Fact: You’re probably just really bloated.
A lot of the time, bloating and water retention get confused for weight gain. This mix-up is especially common this time of year because many holiday foods contain ingredients that prompt bloating and other side effects. Eating rich and fatty foods can lead to that uncomfortable feeling of bloat since fat takes longer to digest than carbohydrates and protein. Other causes of bloat are excess sugar (a favorite food for gas-producing gut bacteria), carbonated drinks like beer and cocktails, and high-sodium meals (water retention!) 

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How to actually stick to your health habits around the holidays.

Moderation is key.
Pick a few of your holiday favorites and try to portion them out. You know when you’re thinking to yourself, “could I eat more?” – that’s a good place to take a break for 10-15 minutes. Sometimes your stomach and brain need time to get on the same page! Eat more slowly to allow satiety signals to catch up. 

Avoid banking calories.
Not eating lunch so that you can eat more dinner isn’t such a good approach. Holiday parties are bountiful, and so are the delicious not-so-nutritious foods. Try to avoid going to holiday get togethers on an empty stomach. Doing this can make over-indulging less likely, and it also means ensuring you’re including nutritious meals in your day.

The phrase “out of sight, out of mind” is highly applicable in these holiday situations.
Spending time away from the food can help you curb those urges. It doesn’t mean the cookies need to be out of sight all the time. It just means you probably don’t need them on your kitchen counter for the entire month of December and the 12 days of Christmas.

Meditation! Exercise! Social support!
Also known as: avoid stress. Protect your downtime and enjoy it as much as you can during the business of the holidays. Your family might be in town, but that doesn’t mean you can’t sneak away for a quick yoga class or solo coffee date.

Most importantly, set realistic expectations.
Recognize that some healthy habits might need to be modified to fit with the hectic holiday season. The best goals are the ones you can reach. Otherwise, you may be left with a feeling of defeat, and no one wants that.

If you think of your healthy habits as a lifestyle versus a temporary diet change, you can enjoy all of your favorite holiday treats without “starting over” come January. Perhaps most importantly is learning to indulge (or even skip out when it comes to exercise) without feelings of guilt. Flexibility is a virtue around the holidays!


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Emily Smith