Do People Really Gain Weight During the Holidays?

With Halloween behind us, Thanksgiving upon us, and Christmas and Hannukah right around the corner, we’re right in the thick of the seasonal indulgence marathon.  Ironically, the magazines that publish decadent photos of gooey pecan pies, rich chocolate treats and festive holiday cocktails are the same ones that warn us about the perils of overindulgence in the form of excess holiday weight gain.

Depending on where you look, you may come across some pretty alarming “statistics” about the average American’s holiday-season weight gain. I’ve seen reports of everything from 3 to 7 lbs. over the years.  What I haven’t seen, however, is any actual scientific data to back such numbers up.

Holiday Weight Gain Facts: There are only a small handful of studies I’m aware of that have actually gone to the trouble of methodically and scientifically measuring holiday weight gain trends in Americans, and their findings offer us both some good news and some bad news as far as what we can expect the true outcomes of our annual season of decadence to be.

First, the good news: most Americans appear to only gain about 1 lb of body weight during the holidays on average.  This figure is based on the most commonly-cited research, a 2000 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, that followed 165 racially diverse Americans whose average age was 39 and whose average weights reflected those found in the general U.S. population, from the pre-holiday period through the post-holiday period.

The bad news, however, is that these subjects appeared not to lose this extra holiday weight in the post-holiday period.  This suggests that a seemingly minor holiday gain of 1 lb may add up over the course of years and decades and contribute to the gradual, upward creep that typically accompanies aging. The other note of caution from this study is that the heavier a person started out, the more likely they were to experience a “major” holiday weight gain of 5 pounds or more, though only 10% of participants actually gained this amount.

Focusing on a younger adult population, a small study of 82 college students found that average body weight did not change significantly between Thanksgiving and New Year’s at all.  However, their body compositions did, resulting in an increase in their body fat as a total percentage of weight over the holiday period.  Since lean body mass contributes to an increased metabolism and higher fat mass (especially in the belly area) contributes to increased risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, in theory, such a change in body composition could spell trouble if not corrected.  However, since the study did not track the students beyond the post-New Year period, it’s unclear whether their body composition change was temporary or permanent.

For more information check out my tips for beating the holiday weight gain.

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