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Holiday Weight Gain

Thursday, January 08, 2009 Posted by Travis Saunders
Ok, I know the holidays are done and gone, but today's topic was too good to pass up. Several of our colleagues attend a fitness chain which had a poster of a chubby gingerbread man on the wall throughout the holidays. Under the gingerbread man was a caption that read "The average person gains 8-10 lbs over the holidays". 8 to 10 pounds?? This poster immediately raises a few questions:

1. Where does this information come from? Who is the "average" person they are speaking of? Aged 18-80? Does it include kids? Seniors? Different ethnicities?

2. If the average person gains 8-10 pounds, that means that some people are gaining much more. Is that even physically possible over a 1 or 2 week period (the definition of 'holiday season' varies pretty widely from person to person)? Canada has a population of roughly 33 million - if we gained an average of 9 lbs over the holidays, as a nation we put on 297 million lbs this year alone!

This 8-10 lb weight gain statistic seems a bit strange, so I decided to look it up on google scholar. Fortunately, I came across an excellent article from the New England Journal of Medicine which examines this very issue. Back in 2000, Yanovsky and colleagues examined the amount of weight gain during the American holiday season (from American Thanksgiving until New Year's). Then, as now, this claim of 8-10 lbs holiday weight gain was quite common - Yanovsky reports that organizations ranging from CNN to the Texas Medical Association used the information in press releases during the holiday season of that year. In addition, self-report studies tell us that people believe that they gain 5 lbs or more over the holidays, but that does not necessarily mean that they do.

Fortunately, Yanovsky and colleagues objectively measured the body weight of 195 men and women over the course of the year. They report that the average weight gain from mid-November to mid-January was less than 1 lb! Less than 10% of the participants gained 5lbs or more. The weight gain during the holiday season was, however, significantly greater than that during the pre- or post-holiday period, and the holiday weight-gain was not lost over the course of the year.

So, what does this study tell us? First of all, it tells us that the statement on the gingerbread poster is completely bunk. While it might be appealing to rip on the gym chain for using such false information, the same information has been peddled by medical associations, so it's hard to say they are completely to blame. Still, the article by Yanovsky and colleages was published 8 years ago (and was the first study to pop up on google scholar), so it wouldn't have been too tough to realize that they were spreading false information.

And on a somewhat more serious note, it also tells us that on average, people do gain a small, but significant amount of weight over the holidays which is maintained throughout the course of the year. Not enough to warrant fear mongering, but enough to cause some concern - a pound or two a year can add up over time. And some people do experience significant weight gain, a phenomonen which was sigificantly more common in overweight and obese individuals. It is an issue which is worth following, but one that I hope people aren't losing sleep over.

So remember, as the holidays approach next year, don't let the gingerbread men (whether on your plate or a poster) get you down.

Big thanks to our friend Wendy for letting us know about the poster and for her helpful comments.


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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.


The opinions expressed here belong only to Peter and Travis and do not reflect the views of any organization. Any medical discussion on this page is intended to be of a general nature only. This page is not designed to give specific medical advice. If you have a medical problem you should consult your own physician for advice specific to your own situation.

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