Tips for Avoiding Holiday Weight Gain

The holiday season is here. These tips from Beaumont Health System could help you prevent packing on unnecessary pounds.

The next month can test even the most disciplined weight watcher.

Tracy Juliao, Ph.D., director of psychology, Beaumont Weight Control Center offered these tips on how to reduce your caloric intake this season.

How much weight does the average American put on over the holidays?

In a study summarized on the National Institute of Health (NIH) website, researchers from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease (NIDDK) found that the average weight gain for Americans over the winter holiday season (six week period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day) is 1 pound. 

Interestingly, study participants overestimated their weight gain to be just over 3 pounds; self-perception did not match reality. Further, and important to note, is that the majority of the study participants did not lose the weight that was gained over the holiday season when reassessed at the end of the one-year study period (prior to the beginning of the next holiday season), suggesting that the holiday season is the time period that individual are most at risk for gaining weight that will not be lost over the course of the year (given that previous studies suggest that Americans gain an average of 0.4 to 1.8 pounds each year during adulthood). 

Another important note from the study is that less 10 percent of the study participants gained five pounds or more during the holiday season.  Of those 10 percent, those who were overweight or obese were more likely to gain 5 pounds during the holiday season than those who were not overweight, suggesting that “the holiday season may present special risks for those who are already overweight.”  

What tips can you offer on managing the overabundance of food that comes with the holiday season?

When faced with making difficult food choices, individuals should be aware of the difference between physical and psychological hunger.  Employing the 5 D’s may assist with this:

  1. Delay the urge to eat by 10-20 minutes
  2. Distract oneself with a physical or mental activity
  3. Distance oneself from the food source (e.g. walk away, go to another room)
  4. Determine how important it is to consume the food in question
  5. Decide how much is a reasonable amount to eat

Often, after following the first 3 D’s, individuals will find that they are no longer craving the food item(s).  If the craving still remains, then the last 2 D’s can be employed to make a conscious decision regarding eating, rather than an impulsive one that typically leads to overindulgence or binging.

When individuals eat mindlessly, in other words, not really paying attention to the various factors of the food or eating experience, they are more likely to overindulge. Mindful eating will help individuals to eat less food and be satisfied with doing so.  Mindful eating includes paying attention to the sensation of the food from the moment of choosing a bite of something to its arrival in the mouth, to chewing and swallowing it. 

The acronym of TASTE can assist individuals to remember the factors to consider when eating mindfully:

  • Temperature affects taste and enjoyment of food.  
  • Aroma (scent of the food) heavily influences the flavor of food – what you taste.  
  • The Speed with which you eat influences how you experience the food – the taste, enjoyment, desire for more – and more importantly how quickly you feel full (satiated).  It takes 20 minutes for the stomach and brain to communicate with one another to signal a feeling of satiety for the individual.  Slowing down the process of eating allows the individual to stop eating before feeling miserably full.
  • The Texture of foods contributes to displeasure or liking of various foods.  It helps to think of descriptive words to help distinguish most desirable or enjoyable food textures (e.g. chewy, creamy, slimy, greasy, succulent, dry, juicy).  
  • Experience speaks to the overall reaction one has to the food item, which includes taste and emotional responses. 

What about alcohol?

It is best to avoid alcohol.  Alcohol contains useless calories that can be stored as fat.  More importantly, alcohol lowers inhibitions, which leaves individuals more at risk for consuming foods that individuals would normally resist.

Can holiday stress affect our eating habits and our health? 

While the study referenced above indicated that physical inactivity (lower than normal/baseline) and levels of hunger (higher than normal/baseline) are the two factors that put individuals at the most risk for gaining weight over the holidays, it is well known the stress can influence eating habits. 

There is a complex interplay between biological and psychological factors that influence stress eating.  While stress often initially triggers decreased appetite, which is part of the body’s biological mechanism of fight or flight, the fight or flight response ends with the body’s need to replenish itself, which causes increased appetite.  As such, individuals often eat in response to stress.  

The act of eating in response to stress psychologically reinforces the eating behavior as being soothing/comforting, leading to an increase in stress-induced eating even in the absence of the biological mechanism that may have initially triggered stress-eating.  When individuals eat in response to stress, foods that are chosen are often those with less nutritional value as well. 

Comfort foods are often high carbohydrate foods that tend to lead to weight gain due to being turned into sugars and being stored as fat by the body.  Again, biological processes may lead to such choices, since eating an excess of high carbohydrate foods can lead to increase in feel-good chemicals within the body, which psychologically reinforces the stress-eating behaviors and food choices and associated beliefs (e.g. “cookies make me feel better!”).  Once individuals begin a pattern of eating in response to stress, a pattern of behavior is often established that affect both short- and long-term health, increasing the risk for obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other serious health issues.

I’ve let myself down in the past. Why should I believe that things could be different this year?

It is important not to strive for perfection.  During the holiday season, being aware of one’s personal relationship with food and the challenges that are present related to eating in everyday life, planning in advance, making conscience choices instead of impulsive ones, and finding alternative strategies to coping with stress without turning to food are key factors in approaching eating during the holiday season in a healthy manner.  It is likely that individuals will not be successful implementing all of these strategies 100% of the time. 

It is important to engage in self-forgiveness, move forward and focus on what can be done in the present to achieve success.  Persistence is key.  When individuals stumble, recognize it, acknowledge it, and move forward with a plan in place to address that challenge if it arises again.  


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