March 22, 2000 (New York) -- Like Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the idea that people tend to gain five pounds or more during the holiday season may be a myth. People appear, on average, to gain slightly more than a pound from Thanksgiving to New Year's, according to a study in Thursday's issue of TheNew England Journal of Medicine.
But that's not to say that all that turkey and fruitcake doesn't take a toll. Unfortunately, most people don't drop that pound or so after the holiday season is over, the researchers report. And people who are overweight to start with are more likely to gain five holiday pounds or more.
In the study of 195 adults who were weighed before the winter holidays (from late September or early October to mid-November), during the holidays (from mid-November to early or mid-January), and again after the season (from early to mid-January to late February or early March), participants were found to have gained an average of 1.06 pounds by late February or early March. Most of the gain occurred during the six-week interval between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. A year after the study began, 165 participants who were weighed again were, on average, up about 1.36 pounds from their initial weights, the study showed.
"This is a good news/bad news story," study author Jack A. Yanovski, MD, head of the National Institutes of Health Unit on Growth and Obesity in Bethesda, Md., tells WebMD. "The good news is that most people are not gaining five or six pounds during the holidays, but the bad news is that weight gained over the winter holidays isn't lost during the rest of the year, " he says.
"The most important message is that everybody needs to be concerned about the small increases in weight that occur over the holiday season because it adds up over the years and can cause medical problems," Yanovski adds.
"These findings suggest that developing ways to avoid holiday weight gain may be extremely important for preventing obesity and the diseases associated with it," Duane Alexander, MD, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, says in a written statement.
Contrary to the widely held view that a five-pound weight gain is common over the holidays, fewer than 10% of study participants gained that amount or more during that period. But people who were overweight or obese to begin with were more likely to gain five pounds or more than those who were not overweight when the study started, Yanovski and colleagues report. Study participants ranged from 19 to 82 years old and weighed 95 to 306 pounds at the outset.
"Holidays are a special risk for overweight and obese people, and special efforts should be taken to help them because they are at greater risk for the complications of obesity," Yanovski says.
When the researchers looked at factors that may influence holiday weight gain, they found that only level of hunger and amount of physical activity seemed to have an impact. This suggests that carrying a Yule log to the fireplace, rather than watching one burn on TV, may be an effective way to prevent weight gain during this high-risk time, he says.
"Every adult is at risk for some weight gain during the holidays, but lifestyle modifications like taking the stairs instead of the escalator and parking at the other end of the mall when doing gift shopping may help drop weight," Yanovski tells WebMD.
"The bottom line is that people are gaining weight, and if they don't lose the weight that they gain, they will become fatter and fatter," says Denise Bruner, MD, president of the American Society of Bariatric Physicians and an obesity expert in private practice in Arlington, Va.
"At most parties, people sit around and talk, drink, or eat," she tells WebMD. "Why not try dancing instead, to increase physical activity?"
Another way to keep the pounds off during the holiday season, says Elizabeth Ward, RD, a Boston-based spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, is "never going to a holiday party hungry, because if you do, you will certainly overeat. Never stand by the food or nut bowl, and use small plates to serve yourself."
Also, "Watch out for alcohol, because there are a lot of calories in mixed drinks," she says, adding that, if they must drink, weight-conscious partygoers should start off with a nonalcoholic beverage and alternate with alcoholic ones throughout the night.
Remember, "You may not be the person that only gains a pound; you may gain two or three pounds and never take it off," Ward says. "By two years, this can add up to an extra 10 to 20 pounds."
- A new study shows that most people do not gain five pounds or more over the holiday season, although this is a widely held belief.
- In a study of nearly 200 people, the average weight gain over the holidays was just over one pound. Obese people tended to gain more than non-obese people.
- In the following year, most participants in the study did not lose the extra pound. Researchers warn that small, gradual increases in weight over time can be detrimental to your health.