Sunday, December 21, 2014

Holiday Weight Gain: Some Truth and Some Hope.

This week, we are proud to feature guest writer, and resident expert on preventive health, Kelly Jordan Kuhlman, RN. Kelly recently became a Registered Nurse in the state of California and has 2 bachelor’s degrees: Human Development and Nursing. Given that the holidays are a time when we tend to put our health aside for festivities, Kelly wanted to share with you a little known fact about holiday weight gain and her ideas about how to get through the season with your health in tact.  

Since we are in the middle of the holiday season, I have been thinking about all the wonderful things I love about this time of the year: parties, classic Christmas movies, decorating cookies, festive lights, fireplaces, singing carols with candlelight, giving gifts, having a pajama party every Christmas eve with my sister, Belgian waffles on Christmas morning, decorating the tree with family, egg nog, cooking and spending time with family.

Though there are many positives about the holidays, they are also notorious for weight gain. During the holidays, foods that are high in fat and sugar are more readily available, eaten more frequently, and consumed in greater proportions. Approximately 28% percent of the US adult population is either overweight or obese and that number continues to rise each year. Being obesity is a serious health hazard and puts those individuals at risk for high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, type II diabetes, stroke, cancer and several other health complications. One way to prevent or reduce weight gain is to identify critical periods when weight gain is most likely to occur, such as the holidays. In an effort to try and understand holiday weight gain this article came to my attention.

In 2013, Jada L. Stevenson and her colleagues from the Human Nutrition Laboratory at Texas Tech University published a study titled, “Effects of exercise during the holiday season on changes in body weight, body composition and blood pressure.” To do this, they recruited 148 participants between 18 and 65. The participants attended two test visits where their height, body weight, blood pressure, heart rate and self reported daily physical activity were recorded. The first visit was in mid November before the Thanksgiving holiday and the second test visit occurred in early January. The goal of the study was to understand how weight, blood pressure, and body fat percentage change over the course of the holidays, and whether physical activity influences those changes.  

Basically, they found that people gain weight during the holidays, and that exercise doesn’t really help that much. They found an average increase in body weight of 1.7 lbs and a 0.5% increase in body fat percentage in all participants regardless of exercise habits. Interestingly, they found that initial body weight was significantly correlated with changes in body weight and percentage of body fat versus age, gender, initial body fat or exercise which means the heavier you are the more likely you are to put on weight at the holidays. Talk about kicking you when you’re down.

Additionally, all the participants showed an increase in blood pressure despite weight gain but regular physical activity presented some protection to participants who were physically active. People who do not exercise showed on average a systolic blood pressure increase of 4.8mmHg, while people who exercise had an average increase of 0.3mmHg in blood pressure.

For an adult, a normal healthy blood pressure should be below 120/80 mm Hg. The top number, systolic, measures the pressure in the arteries while the heart contracts or beats. The bottom number, diastolic, measures the pressure in the arteries between each heartbeat or when the heart is not contracting. Though 4.8mmHg may not seem like a large increase, if an individual’s normal blood pressure is 120/80 mm Hg and after the holidays they have a blood pressure that reads 125/80mmHg, they are now considered pre-hypertensive which may lead to high blood pressure. Blood pressures do tend to rise with age, which is why it is even more important for people to follow a healthy lifestyle. Though exercise may help maintain healthy blood pressure, in this study physical activity was not effective in preventing weight gain during the holiday season.

While this study provides some eye opening data about what happens to our bodies during the holiday season, there are certainly some limitations to consider. First, the interpretation of their findings was that holiday eating is the culprit in the observed changes to weight, blood pressure, and body fat percentage. However, they didn’t really measure what people were eating over the holidays, which leaves a lot of room for other explanations.  For example, the holidays are marked with a number changes to everyday life, including travel, change in daily routines, more access to high carb and high sugar treats, and weather-related limits to outdoor activities. Furthermore, they found that the effect of holiday weight gain was the worst for individuals who started the study in the overweight or obese category. This means that their findings may actually be specific to overweight and obsess individuals, but a larger study would be able to clarify.  

Despite the limitations to what this team of researchers measured, they make a strong statement about how the average individual gains about 1 kg or 2.2 lbs in a year, and that holiday weight gain makes up most of that. This is good news and bad news. On the one hand, holiday weight gain may be inevitable, on the other, if you can get through the holidays without damaging your health too much, you may have an advantage for the rest of the year.

Even though exercise is important to maintaining a healthy lifestyle it may not be enough to counteract holiday weight gain, which means in order to effectively limit holiday weight gain we need to be mindful of how much we eat and what we are eating.  Here are three strategies I use to keep my holiday intake under control.

·         Limit alcohol: Avoiding alcohol entirely at the holidays can be difficult but it is something that should be monitored. Alcohol is known for having a high caloric content and will dehydrate you. To fight these two elements, try to alternate between water and choice of beverage because this keeps the body hydrated and limits the calories.
·         Avoid unnecessary eating: Holiday appetizers are usually caloric teases since it’s the preparatory food for a gigantic meal. If you can’t resist the appetizer table, try going for vegetables and nuts since they are great healthy snacks to have while waiting for the meal. Vegetables are full of fiber and nuts are contain healthy fat that will help to keep you feeling full for longer which might help prevent overeating at the meal. Also, remember that moderation is key! Think about your favorite holiday foods, for me its mashed potatoes, and save room for those favorites. Try to resist the urge to take everything, so there is more room and less guilt for the favorites that you only get once or twice per year.
·         Hosting or contributing to the meal: Another great way to take control at the holidays is to offer to be the host or contribute to the meal by bringing one of the courses. Being a hostess gives you control over the food, which means you can make healthier options for yourself and your family.

I will leave you with this quote by John Rohn, “ Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.”  


Stevenson, J. L., Krishnan, S., Stoner, M. A., Goktas, Z., & Cooper, J. A. (2013). Effects of exercise during the holiday season on changes in body weight, body composition and blood pressure. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 67(9), 944-949. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Get the next post via email:

Believe in our mission too?