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Holiday Pounds Forever

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Consistent Eating for Long-Term Weight Control

I’ve written before that creeping obesity is reaching epidemic proportions. The average person in this country will gain approximately one pound each year after age 25, or a total of 30 pounds or more of fat by age 55 (# 13, Fat Loss & Weight Control category). Holiday eating is one of the main culprits. As we all know, New Year’s resolutions are notoriously unproductive. The facts on holiday weight gain may surprise you--and put you on track for true weight maintenance. Permanent leanness may be closer than you think.

A study reported in The New England Journal of Medicine (March 2000) found that the weight gained between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day is less than people think. The problem is that the gain tends to be permanent and cumulative.

“It is commonly asserted that the average American gains 5 lb (2.3 kg) or more over the holiday period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day,” wrote Jack A. Yanovski, MD, and his colleagues at the National Institutes of Health. To determine the truth of this assertion they measured body-weight changes in 195 adults, mostly Institute employees, four times at intervals of six to eight weeks over the course of a year. The subjects were not told the purpose of the study.

The average changes were as follows: During the pre-holiday period from early October to mid-November, they gained less than half a pound (0.18 kg). During the holiday period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, they gained a little less than one pound (0.37 kg). Between the holidays and March, they lost almost three ounces (0.07kg).

In summary, the net gain from October to March, pre-holiday to post-holiday, was only 1.06 pounds (0.48 kg).

The 165 participants who returned for a follow-up weighing in September gained (on average) an additional half pound (0.21 kg), for a total yearly net gain of about 1.5 pounds (0.69 kg).

“Since this gain is not reversed during the spring or summer months,” the researchers concluded, “the net 0.48-kg weight gain in the fall and winter probably contributes to the increase in body weight that frequently occur during adulthood.” Include the small gain from March to September, and the total gain over the course of a decade would be 15 pounds, with two-thirds of it coming during the holiday period. 

Even though the holiday gain was substantially less than commonly predicted, it is usually permanent. Repeated year after year, the seemingly small holiday gain adds up to a little more than 10 pounds a decade, and as reported earlier, over 30 pounds by age 55. Add the half-pound gained during the fall and summer, and the total gain from 25 to 55 becomes 45 pounds!

The critical period seems to be Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. Take control during that perilous period and you’ll be way ahead of the game. 

A later study provides confirmation.

Consistency Matters

Splurging during the holiday period with the promise of healthier eating in the New Year didn’t work for the participants in the NEJM study, who estimated they’d gained almost four pounds rather than the measured one, and it probably won’t work for you. That doesn’t mean you should diet during the holidays. Simply focus on maintaining your weight. Try not to gain weight. A study reported in the International Journal of Obesity (2004: 28, 278-281) suggests that consistent eating from day to day substantially increases the odds of controlling your weight.

A.A. Gorin (Dept of Psychology, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth) and colleagues queried participants in the National Weight Control Registry, a database of over 3000 individuals who have lost 30 pounds or more and kept it off for at least one year, to examine the efficacy of following a consistent diet regimen. (See also # 14, “Weight Control Master,” Fat Loss & Weight Control category)

Once registered, participants are typically followed from year to year, providing information on their weight, eating habits and exercise patterns. Even among these successful dieters, the researchers observed, regain over time is common.

Participants who had been in the Registry for at least one year (1429 subjects, average age 49) were asked two questions:

Do you maintain the same diet regimen on weekends as you do on weekdays?

Do you maintain the same diet regimen on holidays and vacations as you do during the rest of the year?

Responses were on an eight-point scale: 1 = much stricter on weekends or holidays and vacations; 4 = the same on both; and 8 = much stricter on weekdays or the rest of the year. The participants were then followed for one year to determine the relationship, if any, between their answers and the stability of their weight.   

As you might expect, very few participants were stricter (score 1-3) on weekends (2.1%) or on holidays and vacations (2.8%). Because of the small sample, these participants were excluded from further analysis. Most of the remaining participants reported eating about the same (score 4-5) on weekends and weekdays (59%), and on holidays/vacations and the rest of the year (45%). Importantly, the consistent eaters over the week or the year were 1.5 times more likely to maintain their weight within 5 pounds over the following year than those who dieted more strictly on weekdays or nonholidays.

The researchers concluded: “Dieting consistency appears to be a behavioral strategy that predicts subsequent long-term weight loss maintenance.”

My personal experience is the same, but with more flexibility on major holidays.         

My Take

The researchers in the last study acknowledged that diet consistency is a two-edged sword. “Allowing some flexibility on weekends, holidays, and vacations might reduce boredom and be more realistic from a long-term perspective. However, flexibility might also increase exposure to high-risk situations, creating more opportunity for loss of control.”

I’ve maintained my weight within roughly a ten-pound range for at least 30 years, since I started training for physique competition in my mid-to-late 30s. It’s not widely known, but I weighed about 30 pounds more in my final years of Olympic lifting competition, in my late 20s and early 30s. I’ve never been what would be considered fat, however.

I’ve always eaten all I want and more on holidays. My Dad used to say that he never let being full stop him. That’s true for me as well—but only on major holidays, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. I don’t keep eating, however. The next day I’m happy to go back to my normal eating pattern. I eat about the same on weekends as on weekdays. I might have popcorn and a candy bar at the movies, but I don’t pig-out.

Depriving myself on major holidays, I believe, would be a major mistake. It would create cravings that would be very difficult to control. The reason I’m able to go back to normal eating is because I don’t restrict myself at festive family meals. I usually end up making myself uncomfortable, and I really don’t want to keep doing it. I know from long experience that I feel better when I eat healthy.

One thing that saves me is that Carol and I usually don’t bring leftovers home. If it can’t be avoided, or if the meal is at our house, the leftovers are kept out of sight. If I see the goodies, I definitely want them. But if I can’t see, smell or reach the holiday food, I really don’t want it. My cravings were fully satisfied on the holiday.

Tara Parker-Pope, writer for The Wall Street Journal, highlighted the dangers of snacking during the holidays in a Health Journal piece on December 8, 2005. Parker-Pope wrote, citing a report in the medical journal Lancet, “Snacking during the day didn’t change how much food study participants ate at dinner, suggesting that we are conditioned to eat certain amounts at mealtime, regardless of what else we’ve consumed. Snacks between meals don’t send our body the same satiety signals, so calories consumed in snacks tend to be above and beyond what we need.”

I make a special effort to avoid the temptation to snack on fattening goodies during the holidays. The fact that I enjoy my regular meals--and snacks--helps.

Enjoyment is very important. Almost no one will continue eating food they don’t enjoy. It’s not necessary to eat food you don’t like, and I almost never do. Ask Carol.

Consistent eating--along with exercise--is the key to long-term weight control. What you eat most of the time is what really counts. Find a healthy eating style you enjoy—and stick with it.

(For more tips on holiday eating, snacking and dining out, see Ripped 2 & Ripped 3.)       

(The theme of this article is based on the Tara Parker-Pope piece in the WSJ cited above.) 

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