Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Dec. 16, 2020.
Between stuffing, gingerbread cookies, and pumpkin pie, it's no wonder adults gain up to two pounds over the holidays—but a study published this week in BMJ reveals that the annual holiday weight gain doesn't have to be inevitable, Karen Kaplan reports for the Los Angeles Times' "Science Now."
Most weight gain occurs around holidays
Research shows that the majority of individuals' annual weight gain happens around the holidays and, while gaining one or two pounds a year might not seem like a lot, it can add up to 10 to 20 pounds over the course of 10 years, Kaplan reports.
Knowing that the holidays are "likely to tax even the most experienced weight controller," Kaplan writes that researchers from the Institute of Applied Health Research at the University of Birmingham in England initiated the Winter Weight Watch Study to help participants avoid packing on holiday pounds.
Is weight management possible over the holidays?
For the study, researchers tested whether a group of 272 adults could avoid holiday weight gain if they checked their weight regularly and knew the calorie content of their favorite holiday treats.
The participants, who were of "normal" weight with a body mass index of at least 20 at the start of the study, were split into two groups. Half of the participants were placed in a control group and received a handout about the importance of healthy living. The other half were assigned to a "three-pronged prevention program." Participants in the prevention group:
- Received information about a weight-management program called "Ten Top Tips," which encourages participants to eat slowly, consume smaller portions, and walk every day;
- Received information on how much exercise it would take to burn off certain holiday foods; and
- Were told to check their weight at least twice a week.
All study participants were weighed in November and December. Researchers assigned the participants a "maximum weight" they were allowed to hit during the holiday season, which generally was about one pound heavier than the participants' current weight.
Participants placed in the prevention program not only avoided gaining holiday weight, but lost an average of 0.3 pounds by the end of December. In comparison, participants in the control group gained an average of 0.8 pounds by the end of December. After adjusting for the participants' baseline weight, the researchers found that the average weight difference between the groups was more than one pound.
The researchers' concluded that the prevention program successfully held participants accountable for their holiday weight gain, Kaplan reports. The participants placed in the prevention program also scored higher on a cognitive restraint test, meaning they were better equipped to turn down that second helping of Christmas dinner, Kaplan writes.
The researchers said further research, including a similar study with a longer follow-up period, is needed to determine whether the intervention program reaps positive effects long-term or year-round.
However, the researchers cautioned that while a one-pound weight gain over the holidays might not seem significant, trading a plate of Christmas cookies for a walk around the block could have long-term health benefits, Kaplan reports. "The relation between weight and mortality is linear and any weight gain prevented will have a positive impact on health outcomes," the researchers said (Kaplan, "Science Now," Los Angeles Times, 12/10).