3 tips for preventing holiday weight gain (and why it’s so important)

I recently came across a fascinating study that Stephan Guyenet mentioned in an article in his series on the neurobiology of eating. In this study, the researchers found that half of annual weight gain in the U.S. occurs during the holiday period.

That is a sobering statistic in itself, but what makes it even more significant is the fact that most of this weight is retained indefinitely. People tend to lose a little bit in January when the holidays are over, but the rest of it sticks around. Even modest increases like this each year can add up over time. The average American gains between 0.5 and 1.75 pounds a year, and a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey follow-up study found that among adults 25 to 44 years old, the body weight measured at 10-year intervals increased by an average of 3.4 percent in men and 5.2 percent in women (1).

But there’s evidence that holiday weight gain is even more of a problem for those that are already overweight or obese. People that gain 5 pounds or more during the 6-week holiday period are more likely to be obese or overweight than those that gain less. (2) It’s also well-established that weight loss programs are less effective over the holidays than at other times of year. (Duh.)

In a previous radio show episode called Why It’s So Hard To Lose Weight – And Keep It Off, I discussed the concept of the body fat setpoint. From an evolutionary perspective , survival in a natural environment is threatened by either too little or too much fat.  If we have too little fat, we can’t survive periods of food scarcity and we starve. If we have too much fat and we become obese, then we aren’t as fit to hunt and gather food and evade predators and survive.  The body fat setpoint is a mechanism that helps us maintain an ideal weight appropriate for the human ecological niche. When our weight increases above this setpoint, the brain engages various mechanisms to decrease it – and vice versa. This is how normal weight people are able to maintain virtually the same weight throughout their entire life without counting calories coming in or going out.

In overweight or obese people, however, the setpoint is broken. Instead of defending an ideal weight, the setpoint gradually creeps up over time. There are many theories about why this happens, but one novel possibility that Stephan speculates on in his article is that weight gain itself increases the setpoint over time.

If this is true, it has profound implications. Something as seemingly innocuous as picking up a few pounds over the holidays could increase the weight that the body defends. This could explain why it’s so difficult for people to lose the weight they gain over the holidays; their body is holding on to that weight as if its survival depended on it (remember: the body fat setpoint is essentially a survival mechanism).

This means it’s crucial – especially for people that are already overweight – to avoid holiday weight gain if your goal is to maintain your current weight or lose weight.

Half of all annual weight gain in the U.S. occurs during the holiday period.Tweet This

How to prevent holiday weight gain

Now that we’ve established how important it is to avoid weight gain during the holidays, let’s look at some strategies for keeping it off. Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to diet and nutrition. The recommendations I’m making here are not for normal weight, healthy individuals. They are for people that are already overweight and/or have a tendency to gain weight easily. In those cases, we might suspect that the homeostatic system that regulates weight is impaired in some way, and a specialized approach is required.

Some of these recommendations may surprise you if you believe that calories don’t matter and weight gain is not possible as long as you’re eating a nutrient-dense, low-carbohydrate diet. I used to think this was true myself, but after further research and more experience working with people in my clinic, I now know that it is not. If you’re confused about this, please listen to the podcast I linked to above (or read the transcript); it will clear things up.

Eat more simply

One of the biggest reasons people overeat during the holidays is because of the abundance of highly palatable and rewarding food. A food is palatable when it tastes good. A food is rewarding when it makes us want to eat more of it. Palatability and reward usually travel together, but there are exceptions. For example, most people think steak tastes good, but it doesn’t tend to encourage eating beyond satiety.

Choosing foods that are lower on the reward value scale during the holidays is one way of spontaneously reducing your calorie intake. But what makes a food rewarding? There are several factors, including:

  • sugar, fat and salt content
  • calorie density
  • certain textures (fat that melts in mouth, crunchy, soft/easy to chew)
  • free glutamate
  • starch
  • certain aromas
  • variety of flavors, textures, foods
  • many other flavors can become rewarding when associated with above nutrients
Looking at that list, it’s not hard to see why holiday meals would promote overeating!
With that in mind, here are some tips for eating more simply during the holidays:
  1. Don’t add additional fat to your food. Skip the gravy and don’t put butter on your mashed potatoes (if you’re making them yourself, use less butter or cream in the first place).
  2. Don’t add salt or seasonings to your food.
  3. Reduce the variety of flavors, textures and foods you eat. Choose a main dish and one or two sides and stick with that.

Eat less

This one is easier said than done, right? The best way to accomplish this for most people is to focus on reducing the energy density of the food they consume. Energy density is defined as the number of calories in a given weight of food. A Paleo diet contains foods that are typically low on the energy density scale: animal protein, fruits, vegetables and tubers. A holiday feast contains foods that are typically high on the energy density scale: stuffing, bread, pie, cream, butter, gravy, etc.
Here are a few tips for reducing energy density:
  1. Add extra vegetables and starchy tubers (without added fat).
  2. Add extra protein to your meal.
  3. Chew your food thoroughly. This increases satiety.
  4. Cook a Paleo holiday meal and minimize energy dense foods typically associated with the holidays.

Move more

Exercise may not be a great strategy for weight loss, but it’s likely that physical inactivity helps prevent an increase in the body fat setpoint, and studies have consistently shown that exercise prevents weight gain and maintains leptin sensitivity in animals. (3)
In the U.S., at least, holidays tend to be associated with a lot of TV watching, especially amongst sports fans. That means additional time sitting on your butt, which isn’t a particularly good way to burn calories.

So make sure to get plenty of exercise during the holidays. Take long walks after meals, add some extra workouts, stand whenever possible instead of sitting, and reduce your TV time.

In addition to these nutritional strategies, I’d like to mention a few other strategies I believe are important:

  • Manage stress. Stress can contribute to weight gain in several different ways, and the holidays are an inherently stressful time for many people. Make sure to set some personal time aside for rest, relaxation and leisure.
  • Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation seems to be common over the holidays. This is problematic because studies have shown that poor sleep can increase appetite and caloric intake. Even a single night of poor sleep has been shown to increase appetite the following day.
  • Stay present. Emotional eating is common over the holidays. People tend to spend holidays with their families, and depending on your relationship with your family that can be joyful, aggravating or some combination of both. For some, eating can be a way of numbing the discomfort that arises. If this happens to you, here’s a suggestion. Put your phone on silent/vibrate and set a countdown timer for 20 or 30 minutes. When the timer goes off, check in with yourself and notice how you’re feeling and what you’re doing. Are you eating? If so, are you actually hungry? No judgment; just observation. Then set the timer again.

Now I’d like to hear from you. Have you noticed that you tend to gain weight over the holidays? Is that weight hard to lose after the holidays? What’s your plan for keeping the weight off this holiday season?

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Comments Join the Conversation

  1. Pauline says

    I’m a little surprised by your weight control tips. They sound like standard food pyramid advice. I would have thought the big culprit over the Xmas period was sugar in the form of sweets, chocolates, mince pies and cakes. Even if you don’t normally consume a lot of those things, most people eat plenty of them at Christmas. Personally, I’d much rather have my gravy and skip the pudding because I’m full.

    • Chris Kresser says

      I suggest you listen to the podcast (or read the transcript) that I mentioned in the article. That will help you understand my recommendations – which are primarily for people that are overweight already and having difficulty losing it.

  2. Sarah says

    I completely agree with Pauline. Why should we be worrying about adding seasoning or butter to our food? I am more worried about the abundance of sugary desserts at the holidays, that’s what I’ll be trying my very best to avoid. Bring on the grass-fed butter and smoked chipotle bacon sea salt!

    • says

      There is another dietary behavior that often goes unmentioned, and that’s alcohol consumption which for many soars over the holiday period. Weight gain over the holidays fits in with the hypothesis that gut flora dysbiosis and endotoxemia induced inflammation underlies disturbances in weight regulation. I just mentioned in my blog that the incidence of heart attacks is higher during this time of year. While I’m still in the midst of writing this heart-disease series, it’s obvious that excess alcohol is a huge culprit in both heart attacks and weight gain.

      Binge drinking has well-known negative impacts on gut flora that would persist after the festivities are long over. Excess alcohol alters oral microbiota populations for the worse. It also compromises gastric-barrier function which helps these microbes, when swallowed, take up residence and infect the small intestine. SIBO is very, very common in binge drinkers. Acetaldehyde, alcohol’s highly toxic and carcinogenic metabolite, has negative impacts not only on the liver, but also on colonic gut flora and gut-wall barrier. In fact, I can’t think of a better way to increase intestinal permeability and therefore increase plasma endotoxin levels than binge drinking in between singing your favorite Christmas carols or ringing in the New Year. And since the liver is now preferentially engaged in clearing alcohol from the blood, these toxins are less likely to be cleared from circulation. This is partly the reason why alcohol in large amounts is immune depressing.

      Colonizers not only introduced refined grains, sugar and vegetable oils to indigenous people who were once healthy, they also introduced distilled alcohol and many of those communities are still reeling from this. Maybe we need to pay a wee bit more attention to our drinking habits as well.

    • Jen says

      I think Chris is saying just in this particular case, to reduce the “food reward” that supposedly drives us to take in more calories, that you can do things like eat the starchy food without the butter, because it will be less rewarding, easier to stop eating, and less likely to provoke cravings that might cause overeating later.
      One thing I think is difficult is the fact that people will comment on what you eat or if you’re trying to decline some things and eat lightly, everyone will get in one the act of insisting you try some of everything. Even though it’s wasteful, I find it’s easier to just put a lot of stuff on the plate, eat lightly, and let the rest go in the trash.

  3. says

    I have found that the best way to avoid weight gain during holidays is to keep to the same eating and drinking patterns as normal. I used to allow myself eg one mince pie at Christmas but then I would forget and not have any. I now just don’t bother. On holidays abroad and even on cruises I even lose about a pound a week by eating a high protein breakfast. This is usually later in the morning than on my work days. I then have a coffee, tea or sometimes a scoop of ice cream for lunch, and then have a high protein evening meal with wine. For some reason I can miss lunch without difficulty when I am on holiday but I can’t do it when I am working or even back home on a day off. I think that I am a lot less stressed on holiday. I also do a lot more walking.

  4. Oshare says

    Great tips Chris. As much as people in the Paleo community seem to think that they can eat excessive amounts of Paleo friendly food and not gain weight, the reality is is that you can still make a ton of hyper-palatable energy dense food that will just as easily cause weigt gain as their neolithic counter-parts. And to everyone harping about bacon and butter: go ahead and eat as much as you want of that and I guarantee you’ll see your weight creep up. The insulin hypothesis has been beaten to death, lit on fire and buried – excess calories, even from good ol’ fat will still make you fat. Chris knows this and that’s exactly why he gave the tips he did (I assume).I know some of you were no doubt hoping for Chris to post something along the lines of: “just make your food choices low carb Paleo and you’ll be totally fine!” etc., when the reality is is that common wisdom still does reign supreme in that no matter what the food, you can still eat too much and you can still get fat.

    • Chris Kresser says

      I was about to write a very similar response to Robert, Pauline & Sarah. The recommendations I make to normal weight, healthy individuals that aren’t concerned about weight gain are different than I make to people that are already overweight and/or are concerned about weight gain. Even so, although many people may be able to eat as much highly palatable and rewarding food as they like without gaining weight, others cannot. This is true even if the food they are eating is “healthy”. I have patients who not only don’t lose weight on a low-carb, Paleo diet, they continue to gain. These people need to reduce their calorie intake spontaneously (rather than voluntarily, which would trigger the mechanisms that defend the setpoint), and one way of doing that is reducing the reward value and energy density of food consumed. If you are normal weight and don’t tend to gain wait over the holidays, this likely does not apply to you. Perhaps I need to make that part more clear in the article.

  5. Robert says

    I agree with Pauline and Sarah also. Chris, this advice conflicts with a lot of the other stuff you (and others) have written about what things people should avoid, to maintain health (and to lose weight). I use lots of butter and other healthy fats……..healthy fat is not the problem, it’s things like sugar and other refined carbs (most grains), processed junk food, industrial seed oils. And I have to question your advice on avoiding salt and spices too………..many spices are very healthy, and if you avoid processed foods (and the salt they contain), you can add salt to your meal to taste without worrying about it (you’ve written articles about this). You might need to clarify this article, Chris……..many of us are very confused.

    • Chris Kresser says

      I have added some material to the article that hopefully clarifies my position. I also responded to Oshare above with some thoughts.

  6. Amelia says

    If weight gain itself upregulates the body weight setpoint, how might that apply to the special case of healthy pregnancy fat gain? I’m wondering whether the enhanced fat stores lead to higher maternal weight in the long term vs. whether there might be an internal regulatory mechanism for that specific situation, so mothers eating a truly healthy diet will naturally return to their baseline weight postpartum. Maybe lactation has particular effects as well.

    Full disclosure: I’m six months pregnant and I’ve always been able to maintain a healthy weight just by eating a high-quality, nutrient-dense diet. Continuing the same healthy diet has coincided with a good 30 lbs. so far gained of baby, fluids, and fat. My pregnancy weight gain doesn’t bug me the least bit right now, but having never had to lose weight before, I’m hoping it’ll naturally shed in the first year postpartum and my body won’t be defending an extra couple pounds of fat for each kid I have!

      • Paloma says

        Amelia, don’t worry, because if you eat the same way you did before and breastfeed, you will loose all that weight in about 6 months. Pregnancy is very tough for paleos because of insulin
        resistance and carbs cravings that virtually all mums-to-be have… I think this is even worse for slender women. Probably a. nature. trick to assure mum’s survival the forts weeks

      • Paloma says

        Sorry, it’s me again.
        I meant that nature is not aware of fridges, or the possibility of order a pizza from your PC, so I guess it primes the survival of the mum, in order to asure baby’s survival as well. Postpartum is a tough time when normally the mother would be breastfeeding the baby, that consumes a lot of energy/calories and won’t be able to move a lot, so I have always thogth that those fat reserves were phisiological and very difficult to avoid.
        Well, you could always control every single bit of food you eat during 9 months, but the truth is that you will feel like dying all the time if you do not eat a lot of carbs, plain vegetables will give you a lot of digestion gases and if you have another tasks to complete (like working or attending some other child), you will normally have to give up eat what your body is asking for and gain some weight…

    • Gerry says

      Read GCBC or Why we get fat by Gary Taubes. According to Taubes, the reason why we get fat is much more about hormones and the effects that they have on the body/fat metabolism than the number of calories consumed. People get fat not because they eat too much, they eat too much because they are fat and have a problem mobilizing stores of fatty acids for energy. People who are obese eat more, because they are starving internally due to the effects of chronically raised insulin levels in the blood and how this puts the body into storage mode, meaning that the cells are not getting the energy that they need,etc

      Taubes says that we don’t think that children grow because they eat more, they eat more because they are undergoing a period of growth which is hormonally driven. So why do we not think of getting fat/weight gain in the same way? Likewise, in pregnancy, women put own fat is certain areas- breasts, belly,etc, to get the body ready for the arrival of the baby. This too is hormonally driven. In another example, Taubes talks about puberty and the fact that girls put on much more fat than boys and that this fat ‘develops’ around the hips and chest area. Again this is hormonally driven. In addition Taubes, also talks about the effects of testosterone and estrogen on fat deposits in the body in both men and women. Interesting that when testosterone levels decrease in men, fat tends to deposit around the waistline.

      Taubes is defo worth a read.

      Best Gerry

  7. says

    How about chewing? I’ve found that eating mindfully (so my meal takes at least 20 minutes to consume) makes a huge difference in how much I can pack away. It gives my metabolism time to register what’s going in there. My salivary glands time to do their part in breaking down the inevitable and lovingly, home-made starches that i do not forgo on this holiday. And, really, with practically the whole day to prepare (some take days) and nowhere else you need to be, it’s a shame not to spend as much time as possible truly savoring (and being thankful for) all the love that went into this blessedly home-cooked meal. ;-)

  8. says

    I agree with Chris and Stephan’s thoughts on highly palatable, rewarding foods and the bodies fat set point. Listen to their podcasts for the full version. My solution this year is to go out to a restaurant for lunch that does sustainable local produce. My reward will be sitting down on Xmas Day and doing nothing but eating and drinking – not the norm for me!! I’m looking forward to boxing day with no leftovers to deal with, so back to normal eating… Listen to the tips and find what works for you..

  9. Christian says

    Sounds like you’ve bought into Stephan’s food reward theory, which is far from proven in my book. My normal primal/paleo-ish diet is very palatable and rewarding, but it lacks acellular carbohydrates such as sugar and flour, which I would venture to say are the more likely culprits of most people’s holiday weight gain. I eat butter and gravy on my mashed potatoes and have highly seasoned food all year long without gaining weight, I hardly think it’s going to cause me to start just because it’s fall. And if your advice is for the average overweight Standard American Diet (SAD) people who aren’t already following a primal/paleo template, then I think the best advice would be to get off the SAD first, not reduce the fat and flavor of your food.

    • says

      @Christian,
      I eat as you do, with plenty of butter on my potatoes and squash, and some salt and pepper, too. I find this, and the accompanying steak, fish, chicken, very palatable. But it’s not rewarding to nearly the same degree as are the acellular carbohydrates and industrial seed oils (and seeds and nut themselves, alas), which only make me look for more when I’ve reached the bottom of the bag/box/barrel. I think there is a misunderstanding of exactly what the term “reward” means, especially in the context of food. Reward is a consumable (food, sex, wins in a game) that increases the activity that brought it about previously. So a rat in a Skinner box that receives sucrose solution (soda water, essentially) every time they press a lever will increase their lever pressing. They’ll eventually reach satiety, but after satiety wears off, they’ll be back at it again with a high degree of vigor compared to a rat that received a less rewarding outcome (maybe a low-starch/low-sugar food pellet) for the same instrumental behavior (lever pressing). Thus, different outcomes (called reinforcers in behavioral psychology speak) have different rewarding properties, or differ in their ability to motivate an acquired behavior. In this context, a rewarding food is not only (or even neccessarily) a food that’s highly palatable. It’s defined as a food that increases its own consumption or the consumption of other foods. After killing a bag of potato chips, or a box of nuts (especially roasted and slated), I’m hunting around the cupboards for more of something, anything, to satisfy the stoked craving. This feeling of unease and unsatisfaction driving me to search for more food lasts quite a while, returns quickly after sating myself to the point of feeling overstuffed, and hijacks my cognition. This is very similar, though to a less severe degree, to what happens to drug addicts. In fact, behavioral neuroscientists (including some of the folks at my institution) have found common neurobiological mechanisms of food (especially sugar) reward and cravings and drug addiction. The neural pathways involve the midbrain dopamine system, and its ability to dyregulate frontal cortex executive control systems.

      I’ll use today’s lunch as a case example of how highly palatable food can have a very low reward value, defined as driving subsequent consumption. I had a tin of sardines in olive oil followed by three pastured-hen hard-boiled eggs (with salt, pepper, and Turkish cumin sprinkled on top), followed by some cheese, followed by a few squares of 85% dark chocolate. I thoroughly savored and enjoyed every mouthwatering morsel of this meal. I was completely satisfied afterwards, and now, 4.5 hours later I’m still not giving even a moments thought about food. I know from past experience that if I had consumed some salted roasted nuts, some potato chips, crackers, or even rice noodles along with everything else I just described having eaten, I would be starting to look around now for my next snack. I hate giving in at the holidays to these tempting treats (and, alas, I’m sure I will again this year), because when it’s time to break the cycle and restrict those things from my diet, it takes about 48 hours for the cravings to subside and my appetite to return to normal (usually very low, even at mealtimes), though undulating, levels.

      • Chris Kresser says

        Aaron: thanks for your response. I especially enjoyed your perspective on reward as a specific term in the psychology literature. My response would have been very similar, so you saved me some time!

      • gibson girl says

        Aaron, I agree with everything you said. A protein breakfast saves me from getting into “grazing” mode.

        The other comment I was going to make to Chris is that I used to hang around the buffet table to avoid interacting with people. Now I sit down beside a relative I don’t see often and ask how their year went. I’ll eat turkey and vegetable, which is boring and easy to control. I don’t put on any extra weight and my blood sugar stays stable over the holidays.

    • Kathy says

      Sad to say, there are some of us who follow Paleo, but still have issues with overeating some foods. For me, there’s a big difference between eating a plain potato (white or sweet) and one with butter and salt (“just one more helping,” which can turn into two or three). And I don’t dare make Paleo breads and muffins because I will eat them. All. Yes, my relationship with food is dysfunctional, and so far, Paleo hasn’t cured that.

  10. says

    Chris,

    Too many people treat the holiday season like a long string of eating events, but how many actual parties and events are we typically going to attend? It’s around 6 weeks long, with between 126 and 200 eating opportunities, depending on how often you eat, per day. Assuming Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas dinner, Christmas Eve dinner, New Years Eve, and New Years Day breakfast or brunch, plus 2-3 parties, that’s only 8-10 potential problems out of 126-200 opportunities.

    If people see “the season” as a bigger problem than surviving 8-10 meals, then there’s something more than their diet that they need to look to. I have someone complaining that they struggle with “peppermint season” because of all of those treats, the same is true of someone else’s “pumpkin spice season.” Either way, they are looking for opportunities to allow themselves to cave, and need to look deeper at why.

  11. lynn thiessen says

    Chris,
    A great read for folks working to get a grip on appetite is Jenny Ruhl’s Diet 101. You will recognize this name from Blood Sugar 101 website……..From Halloween to New Years, no…….to my mother’s birthday at the end of Jan……..I reliably gain 3 to 5 pounds, effectively 1 size…so much so that I have two wardrobes….size 2 and size 4……at 5’7″, I am not a large person and I don’t really weigh myself……I watch the glucometer. I was diabetic during a pregnancy some 30 years ago…..resolved but I am forever careful. The odds were not in my favor given family history.
    A recent lesson that hit home was about false marketing and how we are easily scammed by “net carbs”……I have been nearly paleo for 2 years…….sorry, I do dairy and have no issues with it….it does not jump my numbers…….but of recent, I noted something that hammered me that I did not expect…low carb bread…….lived in Honolulu for 2 years and could not get it….returned to states and to bread, low carb of course. My fasting sugar jumped to high 90s…….only one slice for breakfast and one for lunch…….cut it out and I am back to the low 70s and my post prandil’s don’t go over 82…..I think they lied……….what do you think?.

  12. jakey says

    great article, chris. way to inject reality back into the discussion! i comment on various paleo forums, reddit, etc., and it’s getting a wee-bit woo-sciencey out there.

  13. alison says

    Chris, I do feel for you. It seems that one of the effects of the information overload era is that a lot people just don’t bother to read others’ words properly before jumping in with their opinions about them.
    Could you have been any clearer that this advice is specific for overweight people? I don’t think so.

  14. alison says

    In nutritional biochem they taught us that alcohol has a higher calorific load than carbs and is almost as high as fat.

    • lynn thiessen says

      Going into this season, …..such info would be important though perhaps not welcomed…..Love to see the links and hear this conversation………..speak on……… luckylin

  15. lynn thiessen says

    Hummm……..guess I neglected to mention weight struggles in my post, did not think relevant to dialogue……now I am pigeonholed as a skinny that does not understand……fat…….well….I do…….in 04, I weighed in at 152 according to the overseas physical that had to be submitted prior to assignment…..don’t ……….my Dr said I needed to drop 10.lbs…and that my thyroid was out of balance again, as it was after childbirth..Gestational diabetes and .Hashimotos since age 27 and I am 58 1/2 now………no meds.for correction…..I live low carb.run 15 miles a week…..keeps my numbers in line…….I care for an 88 year old, blind mother, with alzheimers, macular degeneration, and repeated strokes……..I do not want to end up where she is……..I live on less than 30 carbs per day….and keep my weight within reasonable margins…honesty in labeling is important to me……..their lies leave me blind………sorry if this offends or redirects…….we all confront this season………lyn

  16. says

    Great post, Chris.

    I’ve been paleo for about 5 years. One thing I’ve learned first-hand is that highly palatable food makes you want more of it. (That’s the gist of the great book, The End of Overeating.)

    The best thing I’ve done is to follow a basic eating routine 6 days a week. Some people might view it as very restrictive, but I like it. Through a lot of self-experimentation, it’s what I’ve determined makes me feel best and keeps my weight exactly where I want it. The 7th day ISN’T a splurge day. It’s still pretty much my basic routine, but with relaxed standards.

    I won’t be modifying my plan during the holiday season. Eating at other people’s houses takes some thinking, but it’s not impossible to stay in or close to routine when I’m away from home. I’ve found you can usually find unadorned, paleo food in non-paleo homes if you look around, or ask nicely, or offer to bring some yourself. It also helps to perceive the gathering as “about” something other than food. By that, I mean we can consider the purpose of the gathering to be the gathering itself – not so much the food. Also, it’s especially helpful to pre-eat a bit, so you don’t get to a party super ravenous. (I’ve found that eating a grapefruit prior to a party works very well.)

    Again, great post.

    Susan

  17. Karl says

    The surplus food consumption and the type of foods are the problems. Less activity probably plays a lesser role. In your article, you said people sleep less which would allow more time for more food intake. I do not think alcohol is one of the main problems for most people when done in moderation, but for some who are addicted to it, it surely would pose an issue for weight gain. The main culprit lies in the binge-like eating or overindulgence and these after effects carry after the holidays. Food addiction is real.

    During the holidays, we eat more and endure in less activity. If we met our relatives or whoever, we would eat about every time we visit. Foods would include cheese, smoked meats, sweets such as chocolate, etc. Of course, they would also ask you what you want to drink which would always include soda pop, alcohol, etc. Two or three sodas wouldn’t be uncommon. Don’t forget juice with no fiber for the kids for a huge fructose load straight to the liver. Often times they would order a couple pizzas. Then, you have the multiple parties which include more caloric dense foods including pies, breads, and such. It’s as if we’re constantly eating. I know a few people who visit different homes during thanksgiving. Well, what will happen is that they’ll have multiple thanksgiving meals! When people gather together and eat, they tend to eat more.

  18. says

    I have a problem with Set Point Theory, and I do hope you can shed some light.

    Let’s say I’m 160lbs, beginning yet another diet, and I lose steadily for 6 months until I’m 120lbs. Then, according to Set Point Theory, something goes on in my body that drives me back to my starting weight, or maybe even more.

    If we plotted this loss and gain on a graph, it would form some kind of a “U” shape. However, if my body makes it impossible for me maintain my weight loss after 6 months, why doesn’t it do this after 6 weeks? Or 3? Or 2? If my body “defends my weight” at 150lbs, for example, on the right side of that U-curve while I’m gaining, why did it not do that when I was 150lbs on the left side while I was losing?

    You could argue that the body does defend the weight, which is why losing weight is such a struggle. But why it is a struggle I win at first and fail at later? If this were due to biological systems that reflect the fat I carry, no matter what they are, how could it make any difference?

    Set Point Theory says that if my Set Point has become 160lbs and I’m currently 150, my body will:
    1. make me feel hungrier and/or less satisfied so that I eat more
    2. raise the caloric significance of what I eat

    And Set Point Theory says my body will do that at least until that last 10lbs is regained because my Set Point had been somehow altered to 160lbs. So why this didn’t this kick in when I was 150 on the left, weight-loss side of that U-curve?

    The only biological or biochemical difference between me at 150lbs on the losing side and me at 150lbs on the gaining side is that I’m eating more on the latter, which is why I’m gaining weight instead of losing. But Set Point Theory is said to explain WHY I’m eating more food (appetite hormones or whatever). Otherwise, we’ve just got a theory that says, eat less and you lose weight; eat more and you gain. And that’s not Set Point Theory.

    Thanks for all of your work,
    Gillian Riley

  19. Rach says

    I am confused as to why using the clarification ‘this is only advise for the over weight’ changes the fact that your tips to eat less and do more are the same advise the over weight have been given for the last 40 years leading up to this obesity epidemic.
    I am also confused that for an educated man who states he is not dogmatic, you repeatedly support a theory (and it is only a theory) which fails to answer so many questions.
    Stephen Guyenet has obviously not travelled if he thinks traditional foods are bland and spiceless. All cultures have distinct foods that the have eaten through the centuries without accompanied obesity. It’s almost laughable using ‘roasted leg of lamb with rosemary, garlic and salt’ as an example of food we’re not designed to eat. Ever heard of the Greek’s Easter tradition of roast lamb on a spit, ever heard of the Mediterranean diet?
    The food reward theory is just describing the problem and not explaining it. Yes the brain controls what we eat by desire and reward but what is driving the brain to chose what to desire. What’s controlling the brain?
    If weight gain upsets the set point what’s causing the weigh gain? ‘weight gain itself increases the setpoint over time’ is such a circular argument. If weight gain occurs from a broken set point and weight gain causes a set point to break. It’s like the chicken and the egg. What caused the initial weight gain in which to break the set point.
    You can’t say its excess calories as that’s what a set point is all about balancing excess, eating more one day eating less the next to avoid fat build up. Why is junk food making us eat more one day and more the next and storing it? It can’t be pure palatability as real food is very palatable and it can’t be pure calorie density otherwise we’d all be salivating over a lump of lard.
    Why do the vast majority of those who have turned to a sugar and processed free diet say that real food now tastes better, sweeter (more rewarding). That processed food has now become bland, unfulfilling and over sweet. Why can eating high carb processed food cause us to fall off the wagon and crave more? This food must be doing something to our perception of it, changing it some how. So how does categorising food as rewarding work if our perception of how rewarding can be changed over time? When bingeing on junk food a person does not taste the food or finding it rewarding, they are already looking at the next doughnut, cake or chocolate before they’ve even finished the last. Fast food leaves you feeling unfulfilled and hungry for more. Your body is trying to fill a void (a nutritional void perhaps?).
    There are many plausible theories of why we crave food, driven by hungry pathogenic gut flora, hormonal imbalances, the body trying to address nutrient deficiencies from impaired digestion and toxic load, leptin and insulin resistance, hypoglycaemia, leaky gut allowing addictive endorphin-like-chemicals into our blood. There is evidence for all these things. Why can’t it be a complex combination of factors? Why so simplistic?
    For me avoiding processed food and sugar has given me back control over cravings and a normal hunger response. I’ve never binged on real food. I read this type of testimonial so often on the real food blogs and forums. Ignoring those testimonials is ignoring the black swans (as Tom Naughton puts it). Eating bland food is not the answer to obesity, eating unprocessed real food is.
    Drawing conclusions about those who gain on paleo diets is premature. Many have come from bad diets and are trying to recover from chronic disease. The real food movement has not been running for long enough in significant numbers to assess the future weight effects of eating this way. Obesity is just a visible symptom of ill health. If you come to Paleo overweight you will undoubtedly need to recover from multiple nutritional deficiencies, hormones will shift and change as will weight. Maybe a 40 year old with a lifetime of unhealthy eating will take 5? 10? years to recover and also with it a healthy weight.

  20. megan says

    I’m one of those people who kept gaining on paleo, so obviously I need to reduce my calorie intake as well. Can your please clarify this statement below. I would think this reduction must
    be voluntary and I don t know what is meant by spontaneously. Thanks

    “These people need to reduce their calorie intake spontaneously (rather than voluntarily, which would trigger the mechanisms that defend the setpoint),”

  21. says

    I’m so pleased to know that there are others who are not at all happy with Set Point Theory. May I suggest that weight loss is tough to maintain due to the neuroplastic change that occurred during the overeating behaviour, rather than the presence of excess fat itself. In “The Brain That Changes Itself”, Norman Doidge, MD, introduces this idea:
    “The plastic paradox is that the same neuroplastic properties that allow us to change our brains and produce more flexible behaviours can also allow us to produce more rigid ones.”

    Doidge is pointing out that without a plastic (changeable) brain, addictive behaviours of all kinds wouldn’t develop in the first place. This is from an interview with Dr Nora Volkow (New Scientist 2885:41) who has a career of fMRI research on addiction behind her, and is now Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse:
    “Once you create a conditioned memory, it’s just like Pavlov’s dogs; the response becomes a reflex. This conditioned response underlies the drive both in drug addiction and compulsive eating.”

    If the plasticity of the brain is the means by which the problem has been created, it makes sense that it would be the means to the solution. Fat loss itself doesn’t play a part in this process, hence weight re-gain.

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