The Skinny on Holiday Weight Gain

Published on November 21, 2012by Abdul El-Sayed

If you’re like most Americans, your turkey won’t be the only thing getting stuffed this Thanksgiving. The holiday binge is probably why losing weight is the most common New Year’s resolution in America, with 38 percent of Americans having vowed to slim down in 2012.

But while anecdotally our pants seem to fit just a tad more snugly after the holidays, is there really such a thing as holiday weight gain? That was the question a team of researchers set out to answer one holiday season when they followed 195 subjects, measuring each person’s weight four times between Turkey Day and the new year. The first measurement was made before Thanksgiving, the second between Thanksgiving and New Year’s and the third after the calendar turned. The researchers then followed up with 165 of these subjects and measured their BMIs the following September.

The findings of the study, published in 2000 in the New England Journal of Medicine, are telling.

First, the researchers found that holiday weight gain was relatively low, at about two-thirds of a pound on average. That said, the 6-week holiday period contributed more to yearly weight gain overall than any other period throughout the rest of year. Not surprisingly, overweight and obese subjects gained more weight, on average, than their counterparts without weight problems.

Most troubling, though—especially for practitioners of New Year’s resolutions to diet—was that this weight gain persisted throughout the year, meaning the pounds people gained stuck.

So holiday weight gain is real, even if lower on average than most of us would expect. More importantly, though, the take-home point of the study is that holiday weight gain is, in many cases, lasting. In fact, the authors reason that holiday weight gain may be, in part, responsible for the gradual weight gain adults experience more generally as they age.

A main drawback of the study is that the authors used a “convenience” sample of volunteers from the campus of the National Institutes of Health, meaning their findings may not represent the general population. But if anything, studying a highly educated, health-conscious sample would likely underestimate holiday weight gain in the overall population. The findings were also in line with a similar study of holiday weight gain in Greek college students over the Orthodox Easter holidays.

So those of us who don’t want to start 2013 looking a little more like Santa Claus should be wary of winter goodies, lest we take away more than just memories this season.

Edited by Jordan Lite

Correction: The penultimate paragraph has been changed to reflect that a convenience sample may not represent the general population. The original piece said that a convenience sample may represent the general population.