‘Tis the season, alas, for putting on the pounds.
Long-term studies have shown that people gain, on average, between 0.9 and 2.2 pounds annually, and about half of that annual weight gain occurs during the last few weeks of each year.
We seem unable to resist the holiday onslaught of sugar cookies, rugelach, pecan pie, sufganiyot, cheese balls, Swedish meatballs, eggnog, mulled wine and other festive (and calorie-laden) foods.
Many of us will hit the gym in January to try to undo the damage done to our figures by those indulgences, but studies have also shown that the weight we gain during the holidays tends to stay with us.
And, yes, such gains are small, but as health experts point out, they can lead over 10 years to a 11- to 22-pound increase in body weight.
So, what can we do short of turning into a Scrooge and avoiding holiday celebrations? A small British study, published in the current issue of the journal BMJ, offers a bit of hope. It suggests that by following a few simple dietary strategies, including daily home weigh-ins, we may be able to not only avoid putting on pounds during the holidays, but to actually lose a bit of weight.
Setting up the study
For the study, researchers from the University of Birmingham and Loughborough University recruited 272 adult volunteers from the Birmingham area. Most (213) of the volunteers were women. Their mean age was 44, and all had a body mass index (BMI) of at least 20. (In other words, none were underweight.)
The volunteers were randomly assigned to either an “intervention” or a “comparison” group. The people in the intervention group were encouraged to weigh themselves at home every day (or at least twice weekly) and were given 10 specific tips for managing their weight. They were also provided illustrated information about how much physical activity they would have to engage in to burn off the calories in common holiday foods and drinks. (They were told, for example, that it would take a 21-minute run to burn off the calories in one piece of mince pie and a 32-minute walk to do the same for a glass of mulled wine.)
The people in the comparison group received only a brief informational pamphlet that discussed healthy lifestyles. The pamphlet did not provide any dietary advice.
Both groups were weighed once before the holidays (in November or December) and again afterward (in January or February). The participants also filled out questionnaires about their eating habits during the holiday season and how often they had weighed themselves.
The volunteers in the comparison group gained, on average, 1.08 pounds during the course of the study, while those in the intervention group lost an average of 0.28 pounds.
The study also determined — through the answers to the questionnaires — that the people in the intervention group had been more successful at restraining how much they ate and drank during the holiday season. They had also weighed themselves more often.
These findings demonstrate, the study’s authors conclude, that “low-intensity interventions targeting high-risk periods [for weight gain] such as Christmas could be an important contributor to obesity prevention efforts in the population.”
“These results should be considered by health policy makers to prevent weight gain in the population during high risk periods such as holidays,” they add.
The study comes with limitations, of course. It involved a relatively small group of people — mostly women — living in one area of one country. Also, most of them had BMIs in the “normal” or “overweight” categories. It’s not clear if the results would be the same with a larger and more diverse group of participants — or if more of the participants had been obese.
“The information given to participants was tailored to the local cultural context but could easily be adapted for use in other settings and countries,” she adds.
The 10 tips
We’re already well into this holiday season, but here are the 10 dietary tips — in addition to weighing yourself daily — that the researchers provided people in the study’s intervention group:
Keep to your meal routine: Try to eat roughly the same time each day, whether this is two or five times a day.
Go reduced fat: Choose reduced fat foods (e.g. dairy foods, spread, salad dressings) where you can. Use high fat food sparingly (e.g. butter and oils), if at all.
Walk off the weight: Walk 10,000 steps each day (equivalent to 60-90 minute moderate activity). You can use a pedometer to help you count the steps. Start by counting your steps, then building up more each day with an ultimate target of 10,000.
Pack a healthy snack: If you snack, chose a healthy option such as fresh fruit or low calorie yogurts instead of chocolate or crisps [potato chips].
Learn the labels: Be careful about food claims. Check the fat and sugar on food labels when shopping and preparing food. Be aware of what the higher fat and sugar foods are.
Caution with your portions: Do not heap food on your plate (except vegetables). Think twice before having second helpings.
Up on your feet: Break up your sitting time. Stand up for 10 minutes out of every hour.
Think about your drinks: Choose water or sugar free squashes. Unsweetened fruit juice contains natural sugar so limit to one glass a day [less than a cup]. Alcohol is high in calories so limit to one unit per day for women and two for men. Try diluting your drinks with water, soda or low calorie mixers.
Focus on your food: Slow down. Do not eat on the go or while watching TV. Eat at a table if possible. Enjoy your food.
Do not forget your 5 a day: Eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day [14 ounces in total]. Try something new! Frozen and tinned (in water) count too.
FMI: You can read the study in full on the BMJ’s website.