How Much Weight Do We Really Gain Over the Holidays?

Holiday weight gain may be less than you think

close-up of cheesecake
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If you find yourself dreading the onslaught of delicious sweets and cocktails in November and December, you're not alone.  Conventional wisdom tells us that on average, we gain anywhere from 5-10 pounds during the holiday season, starting with Thanksgiving turkey and pie.  It's a New Year's resolution waiting to happen.

But hold on - how much weight do we really gain during the holidays?  Fortunately, not as much as is commonly believed, according to a number of small studies.

A small investigation published in 2000 in the New England Journal of Medicine was the first to quantify how many pounds are actually put on, on average, during the winter holiday months.  Led by Jack Yanovski, head of the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) - Section on Growth and Obesity, the study examined 195 adults between 19 and 82 years of age. 

The participants were weighed several times over the course of a year: before the holiday season began (in September or early October), again mid-November, and after New Year's (sometime between mid-January and early March).  A final weigh-in was conducted several months later, in September or October.

Weight increased, but not by much:  Yanovski's team found there was a significant weight gain during the holiday months of November and December.

  On average, however, the gain was only less than half a kilogram, or just one pound - far below the often-reported jump of 5-10 pounds thanks to holiday excess.  Interestingly, many of the subjects believed they'd gained more weight than they actually had.

Some subjects - only fewer than 10% - did gain 5 pounds (2.3kg) or more in the study; they were more likely to be classified as obese (with a BMI greater than 30) at the beginning of the trial relative to the other subjects.

In an effort to tease out the specific causes of the holiday weight gain, the researchers examined potential influencing factors like stress, changes in activity, seasonal affective disorder, and number of parties attended.  Only activity and hunger levels made a difference, with those reporting a decrease in physical activity or increase in perceived hunger recording the greatest weight gain.

Since that study was published in 2000, others have found much the same thing: minimal weight gain among subjects of normal BMI (under 25), with a higher risk of extra pounds among those considered overweight (BMI over 25) or obese (BMI over 30) before the holidays begin. 

Good news and bad news:  While the trend of holiday weight gain may involve fewer extra pounds than we suspect, more than one study has revealed a worrisome trend: we tend not to lose the extra weight in the months that follow. 

In fact, Dale Schoeller, Professor of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Wisconsin writes in his 2014 paper that while minimal, this seasonal weight gain very nearly matches the annual average gain of 0.3 kg (0.6 lb) which has "fueled obesity epidemics beginning in 1960".

  It all adds up, notes Schoeller, who points out that two-thirds of this increase happens within a small window of time, between (no coincidence) mid-November and mid-January.

So how to prevent holiday weight gain?  Schoeller laments the lack of research into which strategies are best at preventing even incremental weight gain over the holidays.  Still, some interventions have been promising; he cites a 1999 study in which subjects were encouraged to monitor their food intake more closely, with better weight management throughout the high-risk holiday time as a result.  In addition, a 2007 paper describes an employee program that combined diet and fitness advice with low-calorie meals in the staff cafeteria over the holidays - with the workers actually reducing their weight by an average of 1kg (2.2 lbs) by the new year!

Bottom line for your own bottom:  Take heart, you're less likely to gain a lot of weight over the holidays than you might believe.  And if you want to engage in a little preventive medicine to avoid holiday weight gain, keep track of your calorie intake, increase your activity level to balance off those extra treats - and you'll have less to regret come January.


Eleese Cunningham. "What's the Latest on Holiday Weight Gain?" Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Volume 113, Issue 11, November 2013, Pages 1576.

Schoeller DA. "The effect of holiday weight gain on body weight." Physiol Behav. 2014 Jul;134:66-9.

Jack A. Yanovski, Susan Z. Yanovski, Kara N. Sovik, Tuc T. Nguyen, Patrick M. O'Neil, and Nancy G. Sebring. "A Prospective Study of Holiday Weight Gain." N Engl J Med 2000; 342:861-867.

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