Navigating Holiday Weight Gain

It seems like our appetites go up and our metabolism goes down as soon as the weather gets colder. Is it because our bodies go into “winter storage mode” or because we crave comfort foods as we hunker down by the fire? Perhaps because we wear more clothes, we care a bit less about extra pounds we may be carrying. Are we less active in winter, preferring to change into our pajamas instead of our workout clothes at the end of the work day?

“The tendency to overeat during the winter might come down to basic biology,” said Dr. Ira Ockene, a cardiologist at the U. of Mass. Medical School, in a 2011 NPR interview. (see here) His research found that calorie intake varies with the seasons, with participants consuming an average of 86 more calories per day in the fall, with most of the calories coming from an increased intake of saturated fat. He also suggests that we are sensitive to light, and as the days shorten we are prompted to seek food and eat it faster. His study also observed the lowest levels of physical activity were in the winter months.

But not all scientists agree with the biology connection. “Our winter eating habits are likely born of opportunity,” says Dr. Marcia Pelchat.“There is more holiday feasting, better leftovers, more grazing in the kitchen and fewer opportunities for playing and exercising outside.”

A powerful aspect of holiday eating is an emotional connection. Holidays can bring strong associations with particular foods, Pelchat suggests. Whether it’s cake or your favorite holiday cookies, these treats are often linked to positive memories. And the associations we have — the good memories linked to holiday foods — can make us want them even more. “The stronger the link between the food and the memory of loving the food,” she says, “the more likely you are to indulge in the food.”

Conversely, the holidays can also bring up feelings of depression, anxiety, and loss. Researchers believe that many emotional eaters turn to food to numb emotions that are too painful or difficult to process. Alexis Conason, clinical psychologist at the NY Obesity Research Center explains that it can be a mindless cycle in which an emotional eater suddenly finds herself in front of the fridge, not quite knowing how she got there. Family time during the holidays can be a particular challenge, as many disordered eating habits begin with poor boundaries between family members, Conason says. Preparing oneself for difficult and triggering interactions might be an important aspect of getting ready for the holidays.

Prof. Brian Lansink of Cornell University tracked weight fluctuations over the holidays in the US, Japan, and Germany, and found that waistlines tended to grow in the 10 days preceding the holidays. “Whether it be office parties, receptions, your friends’ parties, or you just buying a lot of stuff and eating while you’re preparing things, there’s this real ramp up to almost every holiday,” Professor Wansink said. “Anything that happens in these next 10 weeks, on average, takes about five months to come off.”

A solution? Instead of waiting until January first to resolve to lose weight and adopt healthier habits, make a resolution today not to gain any holiday weight.

Next week, I’ll share tips for dealing with the traps of Halloween candy.

Gayle Wilson Rose
Certified Weight Loss/Whole-Health Coach
Certified Fitness Trainer
Women’s Health Specialists Wellness Center

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