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3 Tips for Preventing Holiday Weight Gain (And Why It’s so Important)


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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.
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Join the conversation

  1. Great post! When I’m on holiday I like to remind myself that food is all the more delicious if I have a true and earned hunger when I come to eat. So I make sure I spend plenty of time playing, moving and not snacking and then when it comes time to eat a meal I will indulge in whatever I fancy and enjoy it to the maximum!

  2. 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.

  3. 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),”

  4. 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.