December 1, 2023

Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Stress About Holiday Weight Gain

The fear of holiday-related weight gain is real. Or is it?

Hands up if you just accept the fact that holiday weight gain is a fact of life. For decades, the conventional wisdom has been that most people gain about five pounds (2.3 kg) between the first forkful of cornbread stuffing and good luck New Year’s Day dinner.

What would you think if we told you that gaining weight over the holidays isn’t as certain as one would think. Head blown, right? In fact, there is little data to support the widely held five-pound pile on theory.

How Much Weight Do People Gain During the Holidays

In 2000, a study was published by the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) analyzing holiday weight gain. Researchers found that the average holiday weight gain is less than commonly asserted. Weight gain averaged about 0.37 kg, or less than a pound, during the holiday period. In fact, most of the study subjects had no significant changes in weight, with more than 50 percent of all measurements staying within 1 kg (or 2.2 lbs) of the initial weight.  

Where Does Holiday Weight Gain Come From?

Holiday stress is real

A new poll conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) found the U.S adults are feeling joyous but overwhelmed this holiday season, nearly nine in 10 (89%) say concerns such as not having enough money, missing loved ones and anticipating family conflict cause them stress at this time of year. While stress appears to be common at this time of year, 43% said that the stress of the holidays interferes with their ability to enjoy them.

Sometimes the strongest food cravings hit when you’re at your weakest point emotionally. Those trays of cookies, tins of assorted popcorn, parties flowing with festive beverages and holiday dinners overloaded with proteins, potatoes and more look even more inviting when stressed. Stress eating calorically dense foods may result in unwanted weight gain.

Decrease in physical activity

In the same NEJM study, researchers observed that holiday weight gain was inversely related to physical activity levels over the holiday period. Study participants with weight gain reported physical activity as “much less active” and “somewhat less active” than normal during the holiday season. Conversely, those that reported being “somewhat more active” or “much more active” gain either negligible weight or even lost weight over the holidays.

Staying active and maintaining a semblance of a workout routine may be a challenging task with a calendar full of holiday parties and family obligations. In fact, we are likely to spend more time during December being sedentary than active. Historically, people are least physically active during the winter, thanks to falling temperatures, limited hours of sunlight, calendars jam-packed with travel and social commitments. An inactive lifestyle, paired with an increase consumption of hyper-palatable holiday treats is a recipe for weight gain.

The Absence of Post-Holiday Weight Loss

Researchers in the 2000 NEJM study found that study participants with a body mass index (BMI) in the overweight (25-29.9) or obese (BMI 30+), presented with significant weight gain of five or more pounds. This weight gain occurred at a rate two to four times higher than those with a normal BMI (24.9 or lower).

However, the most impactful study finding was not about the magnitude holiday weight gain; rather, it was the absence of post-holiday weight loss that was most telling. Although the average American gained only a small amount of weight over the fall holiday season, they generally couldn’t lose the weight and were more likely to repeat the cycle over for subsequent years. Weight gain persists after the holiday season may potentially become a longer-term trend that may eventually manifest in continued weight gain and subsequently metabolic disease.

Tips to Minimize Holiday Weight Gain

Between rushing to complete work assignments, searching for the perfect gift online, and tracking flights to find the cheapest route home, you may be too occupied to remember to eat at regular intervals throughout the day.

Because you’re a boss and crushing it, by mid-afternoon you’re feeling weak AF and realize you haven’t eaten since early morning. You end of overeating the plate of holiday cookies left in the employee break room and call it lunch. If you are familiar with this scenario, you’re not alone! Engaging in mindful eating practices will help you make smart decisions when deciding what and how much to eat.

Practice Mindful Eating

Mindful eating (i.e., paying attention to our food, on purpose, moment by moment, without judgment) is an approach to food that focuses on individuals’ awareness of the food and their experience of the food. This approach does not focus on calories, protein or fat as the purpose is not to lose weight, although engaging in this practice has been shown to be helpful in weight management.

The fundamentals of mindful eating include distinguishing between true hunger and non-hunger triggers for eating, eating slowly without distraction, and listening to physical hunger cues and eating only until you’re full.

You can practice mindful eating during the holiday season in the following ways.

Eat at Regular Intervals Throughout the Day. Ideally, you’ll want to ensure you are eating every three to four hours, as longer durations between meals may increase the likelihood of mindless eating and eating past fullness. Plan ahead by packing balanced snacks to carry with throughout the day, so that you’ll be prepared in the event you are unable to pull way for a proper meal.

Listen to Hunger Cues. Think about why you choose to eat – hunger, boredom, stress, habit. Many of us could likely connect with food in more positive ways. Mindful eating encourages us to listen to our hunger cues and fuel our body accordingly. Instead of eating because a coworker or friend brought in decadent holiday treats, we can choose to allow our bodies to tell us what it needs rather than what it wants.

Focus on Portion Control. It can be easy to overload your plate during the holidays. Those that eat larger-than-appropriate portions may be at the risk of weight gain. When you make your plate this season, be mindful of your serving sizes and be selective when it comes to fried foods, cream sauces, starchy casseroles and sugar-laden desserts. Practice the plate method by ensuring half of your plate is full of non-starchy vegetables, a quarter of your plate is protein and the remainder complex carbohydrates. Before diving in for second helping, check in with your hunger and fullness to refrain from overeating.

Continue with Positive Lifestyle Behaviors

Here are some additional tips to prevent holiday weight gain.

Move Your Body. Inactivity may contribute to weight gain, especially if accompanied by overeating. Maintaining physical activity through the holiday season may look a bit different than it does throughout the rest of the year. Even if you don’t have the opportunity to pack as many punches, log as many mikes, or pump as much iron, getting some physical activity is better than nothing. Make your workouts fit your life, don’t make your life fit your workouts. Instead make the most of your time when you have it and find ways to obtain physical activity whenever possible.

Get Adequate Sleep. The lack of structure of the holiday season can throw off sleep schedules. Lack of adequate sleep may lead to unwanted weight gain. Prioritize sleep during the holidays optimizing your sleep schedule. Figure out the recommended amount of sleep you need to feel rested. Considering your fixed wake-up time, work backwards and identity a target bedtime. Wind down for at least 30 minutes prior to bedtime – quite reading, journal, low-impact stretching, listen to soothing music, disconnect from devices. Create a sleep-inducing room by avoiding light disruption, drowning out sound with a white noise machine or fan, and adjusting room temperate to around 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

Manage Your Stress. This season has the potential to create a multitude of worries. The link between stress and weight gain is real. Stress triggers the body to release cortisol – the “fight or flight” hormone. Elevated cortisol levels circulating in your body lower metabolism and encourage cravings for fat and sugars, both of which may lead to weight gain. Figuring out how to deal with the holiday stress will not only help the season be more enjoyable but also help you manage your weight. Since the holidays are all about giving, give yourself the gift of self-care whenever you start to feel stressed. When we practice self-care during the holidays, it can be surprising how quickly we can begin to experience the benefits.

The Takeaway

Holiday weight gain is not a guarantee. By engaging in mindful eating practices, getting adequate physical activity, prioritizing sleep and managing stress you’ll likely reduce your changes of gaining weight.

Looking for more support in achieving lifestyle balance? The Collective Membership is a year-long program designed to help you in your personal transformation by providing a framework to help you achieve your health and wellness goals – clean eating weekly meal plans, streaming workout videos and wellness video classes + more for just $65/month (billed annually).
Our corporate wellness program provides your employees with personalized strategies to create lifelong healthy behaviors while building an organizational culture of health and wellness.
The goal of this program is to help you achieve lifestyle balance by providing you with a framework of daily functional nutrition, physical activity and self-care which includes:

Exclusive Member Articles
5-day Metabolic Meal Plan
Streaming Workout Videos
Guided Meditations 

Small Group Wellness Coaching
Live Wellness Education Webinars
Private Community Group
And more!


Scroll to Top