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5 myths and facts about holiday weight gain

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It’s still prime indulging season, the time of year when you may feel tempted to give into lots of treats, and worry about the consequences in January. But are some of the things you believe about holiday weight gain actually old wives tales? Here are five falsehoods and truths about how the holidays really affect your weight.

MYTH: Most people gain a full size
A study from Texas Tech University followed 48 men and 100 women between the ages of 18 and 65 for the six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. At the beginning and end of the study, researchers measured the subjects’ weights and body fat percentages. On average, the volunteers gained one and a half pounds (men about two pounds each, and about a pound for the women), far less than the 7 to 10 pounds often cited this time of year.

Health.com: 15 Ways to Avoid Holiday Weight Gain 

FACT: Bloating isn’t the same as fat weight
One of the reasons you may feel like you’ve packed on more weight than you have is because many holiday foods trigger bloating and water retention. For example, any time you eat more carbs than usual, you store the leftovers as glycogen, the “piggy bank” reserve of carbohydrate that gets socked away in your muscle tissue. 

Holding onto more glycogen than you usually do can cause you to feel sluggish, and make your jeans tighter, but as soon as you go back to your usual eating pattern, you’ll shed the surplus. Also, high sodium foods, like breads and baked goods, which don’t seem “salty” but are sodium-rich, will cause your body to hang onto excess fluid. While neither of these body shifts are fat weight, they can create a bloated look, and make you feel heavy.

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MYTH: Exercise staves off holiday pounds
In the Texas Tech study, half of the subjects were inactive and the other half worked out roughly five hours a week, yet both groups gained the same amount of weight. This isn’t the first study to show that avid exercise may not lead to weight control, but I’m not suggesting that you should ditch your workouts. There are numerous benefits to working out that have nothing to do with weight, including lowering stress and improving sleep, so keep on keeping on, just don’t count on it as a way to cancel out your indulgences.

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MYTH: I’ll lose it in January
Gaining just a pound or two of fat may seem miniscule, but to put just one pound in perspective, think about tacking 16 ounces of shortening or four sticks of butter onto your frame. Plus, other studies show that most of us never lose that holiday padding, possibly because after abandoning New Year’s resolutions, many people gain back all (or more) of the weight they lose. This “weight creep” is what leads to most Americans packing on about 10-20 pounds per decade.

Health.com: 13 Weight Loss Resolutions You Shouldn’t Make 

FACT: It’s not too late to ward off some holiday poundage
If that last myth left you feeling discouraged, don’t give up! I’ve seen countless success stories that fly in the face of average statistics. To defy the odds starting today, commit to just two simple goals between now and January 1st – “budget” your carbs, and drink more water. 

This time of year, carbs are easy to overdo, and while I don’t advocate cutting them out altogether, I do think it’s smart to corral them. For example, if you packed a slice of mom’s banana nut bread in your lunch, opt for a salad topped with lean protein instead of a carb-heavy sandwich or wrap, and if you’re having potatoes with dinner, ditch the other can-live-without starches, things you won’t feel deprived forgoing. 

Strategy number two, reaching for more water, is not only important for staying hydrated (especially if you’ll be imbibing in some cocktails); it’s also a smart weight control strategy. One study found that adults who downed two cups of water before meals shed 40% more weight over a 12-week period, and another found that drinking water before meals naturally led to eating less. And drinking H2O will help you steer clear of both the sugary and artificially sweetened drinks, which may both interfere with controlling your weight.  

Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.