For the last year and a half, I've spent more time than I'd like to admit on forums for people trying to lose weight. This time of year, I can tell you what the main topics are:
Why? It's holiday time!
Let's start with a few facts:
- Most people gain a little, not a lot, over the holidays. Stories about holiday weight gain often talk about people gaining 7-10 pounds over the holidays. In surveys, people say they gain around 5 pounds. The truth? Most people gain a pound or two a year. A pound a year will creep up on you - it certainly did on me. But one pound is not ten. And it's not something to be afraid of.
- It takes 3500 calories to gain a pound. Think about a pound of fat. It's easy - look at a pound of butter. It takes your body a lot of energy to build that volume of fat. To gain 5 pounds, you would need to eat 3500 x 5 (18,500) extra calories between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And I say 'extra' because that would be over and above the calories you need to sustain your daily activities.
- If you're already obese, you may gain more than average. Although the average person does not gain a lot during the holiday season, people who are already overweight tend to gain more. Among people who are overweight or obese, 14% gained five pounds are more.
Two things I've learned from the forums:
Weight loss forums have a lot of really good advice and very supportive people, and more mis-information and opinions than you can shake a stick at. (They also have their share of trolls and meanies.) Two cliches I've really come to appreciate on holiday weight loss:
- It's not what you eat on Thanksgiving and Christmas. It's what you eat between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is easy - and maybe even good - to relax and enjoy a wonderful and relaxing feast on holidays. That's why they're called 'feasts' - they are extraordinary days of celebrating with food. What becomes problematic is not eating more than usual on those two days. There's only so many calories you can put into your body on any one day! But eating more than usual on the 30-odd days between them can really add up.
- It's not what you eat between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it's what you eat between Christmas and Thanksgiving. Enough said. There are 320 odd days the rest of the year. That's what really determines weight gain.
Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels. Except cookies.
A lot of people love the phrase 'nothing tastes as good as skinny feels'. But it is just so not true. I love having lost weight. I wish I had done it ten years ago. I celebrate it every time I look in the mirror or take off my coat. But LOTS of things taste just as good: melted butter on toast, hot chocolate chip cookies, a really great steak, warm brie on a croissant . . .
Our brains respond to just thinking about food by sending pleasure signals. People who say they are not going to eat (fill in the blank - cookies, mashed potatoes, candies . . . ) tend to be hungrier, have a harder time sticking to their weight loss goals, and more likely to OVEReat once they break their rule. "In for a penny, in for a pound."
The eating triggers: Beautiful food and lots of emotions
Many people eat - and overeat - in response to emotions. They can evoke positive emotions that reduce anxiety and negative emotions. The holidays can produce both positive and negative emotions. Eating too much - especially eating fat and sugar - are common response.
Even worse, food can EVOKE emotional memories. Just as music or smells can bring back powerful emotions, so can the smell and taste of food. Some of the emotions are warm and wonderful - that's our image of the holidays. But for many people, holiday memories are far from ideal. Food can evoke negative emotions that we respond to by eating more food.
We also eat too much out of habit. See a cookie. Eat a cookie. Becoming more conscious of picking up that second (or third or fifth) cookie, can make all the difference between a treat and a binge.
Develop a plan
I love to eat. I love to cook. I love to plan. Coming up with a plan - or strategy - to enjoy holiday eating helps to keep holiday weight gain managable.
- Recognize your holiday emotions. If you think about the emotions you have about the holidays - good or bad - it can be easier to separate those feelings from the food you've associated with them.
- Choose the foods you truly love. Don't go into a party with the idea that you're going to just ignore the buffet table and pass on the desserts. Come up with a strategy. Know your favorite foods and choose reasonable portions of those. Enjoy them. Then skip on the ribbon candy or those cookies that look pretty but taste like paste. If you're somewhere where the main activity is eating, take lavish portions of the healthiest foods there, and make sure to snag some of the high calorie foods you want. If you're still hungry - or want some more - there's still time for seconds on the best goodies because you haven't filled up on foods that you didn't truly enjoy.
- Don't waste calories on things you don't care about. Want those mashed potatoes? That piece of pie? Grandma's stuffing? Enjoy them. If you drink bubbly water before dinner and choose a lighter 150 calorie beer instead of the 400 calorie stout, you'll have plenty of room for them. One of the things I have really learned logging all my food is that some things have a lot more calories than I thought. And others a lot less. Spend 20 minutes checking up on calories before you go into the season and you may be pleasantly surprised at what you can eat - and unpleasantly surprised by some things you thought were healthy but are not worth the calories to you.
- Don't cope through avoidance. A great deal of research has shown that people who lose successfully - and maintain their losses (which is harder) - don't avoid any foods in particular. They DON'T make strict rules. Instead, they eat a variety of foods, but are careful with portions.
- Don't look back. One of the problems with setting rules for yourself is that once it's broken them, people tend to give up. Ate a second helping of chips and dip before dinner? That's not a good reason to a third piece of pie. You can always start over. What's behind you can't be changed.
A study of college students showed that most of them gained weight over the Thanksgiving holiday - quite an achievement for a five day break. The problem, however, is not that people over-eat during that short period of time. Rather, people over-eat during the entire holiday period - an especially stressful time for college students, but a time of stress for many other adults as well.
Minimizing weight gain during this period, makes cumulative weight gain over the years much less of a problem. And a little planning can help.
Past posts on weight loss: