National Council on Strength & Fitness
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Holiday Weight Gain Multifactoral

The holiday season comes with many interesting dynamics that can present negative consequences for people striving to remain fit and healthy during the treacherous six weeks between Thanksgiving and the New Year. Collective data suggests that the holidays drive weight gain potentials up due to a group of compounding factors more so than just the greater availability of food. Certainly the social aspects of the holiday season raise the temptation of overindulging or increase the propensity for making poor food choices, but data suggests that the heightened stress and emotion of the holidays may be even more to blame than just the presence of food.


Although the ranges vary from just one pound to as much as ten, the weight gain experienced by most of the population tends to be consistent with one’s level of obesity. Statistics collected from a 2006 study suggest that lean to normal weight individuals will gain around a pound or so, which is likely attributed to established lifestyle habits. On the other hand, Individuals that are overweight to obese broaden this range from 3-5 lbs to as much as 7 lbs of weight gain in the same span of time. The normal body naturally defends against some level of weight gain associated with acute voluntary hyperphagia (overeating) via adjustments in the food intake control center, the hypothalamus. Individual’s that have become significantly overweight, as seen in nearly 40% of the population, reduce the effectiveness of hypothalamic-controlled metabolic intercession which is likely due to down regulation and reduced hormonal response. For overweight individuals watching calories warrants a conscious effort.


A straight analysis of caloric intake identifies the likelihood of many to consume positive caloric balances most days of the week. Where normally not present, homes host bowls of temptations throughout the holiday season. Gatherings become much more extravagant and not to suggest a level of competition but dishes become much hardier and plentiful as guests often add more food to the already plentiful bounty presented by most hosting locations. Additionally, the excessive calories consumed through alcoholic beverages further perpetuate the potential problem. Although most people realize alcohol has empty calories many do not know it also reduces lipoysis and has the power to increase eating due to elevated ghrelin release.


If the daily presence of sweets and high calorie taste good foods was not enough, stress can increase the likelihood of overeating and additional weight gain. The average American already experiences more daily stress than most other countries, but add in holiday obligations and expectations the psychological strain increases. People place heavy demands on themselves to create the perfect holiday environment, buy the right gifts, and be available for all sorts of social functions. If these factors do not create enough stress consider the current economic conditions and the costs of the holidays.


Stress can be responsible for weight gain in two manners. Chronically applied stress can lead to the deregulation of sympathetic pathway (satiation) and ghrelin pathways (hunger) causing increased neuropeptide release, consequently increasing feeding and visceral fat storage. Secondary to the physiological response, the build-up of stress often leads to the need for pleasurable escapes inducing greater indulgence upon food and drink. High levels of stress can create a drive for a euphoric balance or escape to “blow off steam”. This reactive drive can change normal dietary habits and lead to overconsumption of “pleasing food” and drink.


When people feel routinely stressed they also experience feelings of exhaustion. The increase in perceived and real responsibility requires more time and effort. When the body does not achieve adequate recovery hunger response can increase. Research indicates that inadequate sleep <8 hours can affect both circulating insulin and ghrelin leading to overeating.


Physiological actions are closely tied to psychological factors and the holidays also present emotional surges. It is well documented that people use food to satisfy voids and in response to certain emotional states like depression. It is said risk of acute depressive states increase during the holiday season. On the contrary, some people use celebration as an excuse to consume unhealthy foods. This is particularly a problem for weight management plans, as once off the wagon many people give up until the distractions are gone. A single discretion may cause people to completely change their behaviors. A person that worked for two months to lose seven pounds in September and October may find they quickly gain it all back during the holiday season while waiting to restart with a vengeance after the New Year.


With all of these distractions who has time to exercise. The normal caloric mediator for adults is physical activity. When the caloric balance is thrown off weight gain is the common outcome. During the holidays people perceive they have even less time than normal, this is already the number one excuse for not engaging in routine physical activity. Additionally, physical activity is the key to regulating blood glucose when caloric intake increases. Surges of calories without exercise leads to high blood glucose and consequent increased lipogenic behavior in metabolism. Compound this with less light and cold weather and weight gain risk increases.


Understanding common pitfalls is the first step to preventing holiday weight gain. Planning and writing down goals and objectives can help keep one on track during the holiday season. Here are some tips that may assist.

  1. Eat something healthy before going out to a holiday party.
  2. Bring holiday food gifts to work to avoid eating large quantities yourself
  3. Make food less accessible. Sitting or standing near food increases propensity to eat.
  4. Select small serving dishes. People tend to eat what is available. Make eating excessively more effort.
  5. Plan your exercise ahead of time do not just try to fit it in – make it a priority.
  6. Reduce stress risk by lowering your expectations about holidays. Make a list of musts and stick to it, avoid trying to be everything all the time.
  7. Don’t be afraid to say no thank you and realize peer pressure for what it is – no one has lost a friend for not eating their blueberry cobbler.
  8. Loneliness is common during the holidays plan to be around people preferably in active environments. Exercise reduces risk of depression and anxiety.
  9. At social events, food satisfies boredom and mild anxiousness. Many people will eat and drink because they don't know what to say or how to act.
  10. Bring healthy foods to holiday parties. Cut fruits and vegetable trays can provide a better option.