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The FaLaLaLa Fallacies about Holiday Weight Gain

Despite the joy and festivity of the holiday season, this time of year has a bad reputation for people who are trying to lose weight—or even just avoid gaining weight. Amid the office parties, the family gatherings and all the baked goodies, the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day can have a big impact on our waistlines… Or so that’s what we hear from the barrage of news stories about how to enjoy the holidays without adding the dreaded 5-10 pounds that seem to be a foregone conclusion of the season’s merriment.

 Holiday tartsSure, there are more opportunities during the holiday season to veer off-track from an otherwise healthy diet, but are we making more of the issue than we need to? According to a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2000, the answer is yes. The study authors set out to determine just how much weight people gain around the holidays, and they found that the average amount is much less than is typically assumed: it’s around 1.5 pounds.

But that was nearly 15 years ago. To find out if the same holds true today, I talked with David Sarwer, PhD, Professor of Psychology in the Perelman School of Medicine and Director of Clinical Services at Penn’s Center for Weight and Eating Disorders.

Sarwer says that the estimated 1.5 pounds of weight gain over the holidays is probably about right for most people, but that’s only part of the problem.

“A pound or two gained over the holidays doesn’t sound like much, until you realize that many people may not lose the weight in the New Year,” said Sarwer. “So, the accumulation of a pound or two each month—or more, depending on a person’s eating habits throughout the rest of the year—can add up to big health problems over time.”

For example, a 5’5” 140-pound woman who gains two pounds per year would be considered overweight in just five years. And with weight gain, comes a variety of other health consequences, including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and more.

So, then, are all those top 10 lists about how to avoid holiday weight gain actually worth paying attention to? Sarwer says yes, because many include valuable hints and strategies that can make a difference. But staying realistic is also important.

“If you are someone who enjoys holiday treats, try to do so in moderation, having only one cookie rather than several,” said Sarwer. “Another way to balance the increase in treats is to increase your physical activity. A reasonable and realistic goal is to increase your walking by approximately 500 steps per day on average. Many smart phones and hand held devices now have built in pedometers that can help you monitoring your walking.”

The real key to holiday merriment without a permanently expanded waistline, Sarwer says, is to stay mindful. “Eat something nutritious before you go to a party. That should reduce your hunger and leave you less tempted by high calorie treats. And make mingling your main focus, not the buffet. These small behavior changes can make a difference during the holiday season, but also throughout the year.”

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