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Holiday Weight Gain: Fact or Fiction?

Monday, December 21, 2009 Posted by Travis Saunders



Today I'd like to revisit an issue which we first reported on last January, and which unfortunately appears to be happening again this holiday season.  Several of our colleagues attend a major Canadian fitness chain (I have decided not to post the name yet, but it shouldn't be too hard to guess) which has a poster of a chubby gingerbread man on the wall throughout the holidays (both in 2008 and again this year).  Under the gingerbread man is a caption that reads "The average person gains 7-10 lbs over the holidays!".  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 7-10 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 are about to put on 297 million lbs this year alone!  In the USA, it would mean a collective holiday weight gain of roughly 3 billion lbs!!

This 7-10 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 7-10 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 complete bunk. While it might be appealing to rip on the gym chain for spreading this 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 9 years ago (and was the first study to pop up on Google Scholar), so it wouldn't have been too tough to realize that the statistic might be questionable.  Keep in mind that I also emailed the Yanovsky paper to the gym chain last February to alert them to the issue, and I received a pleasant reply stating that my feedback had been passed along for future consideration.  So I was more than a little bit disappointed when I heard that the posters are back up on the walls this holiday season (it appears that Obesity Panacea may have less clout than I had hoped!). 

On a somewhat more serious note, the Yanovsky study 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 we move deeper into the holiday season, don't let the gingerbread men (whether on your plate or a poster) get you down.

Big thanks to our friends Wendy and Geoff Stephen for letting us know about the poster and for their helpful comments.

UPDATE: We now have a picture of the poster itself, which you can see at the top of this post.

Travis Saunders

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Yanovski JA, Yanovski SZ, Sovik KN, Nguyen TT, O'Neil PM, & Sebring NG (2000). A prospective study of holiday weight gain. The New England journal of medicine, 342 (12), 861-7 PMID: 10727591





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11 Response to "Holiday Weight Gain: Fact or Fiction?"

  1. Anonymous Said,

    Indeed, I saw the poster this weekend - and was calculating to myself how many "extra" calories that would entail... 1-2wks holiday, so about 3500 extra calories per day, or almost triple what the average person needs, every day of the holidays... Ok, on the occasional day there may be a celebratory binge on delicious holiday food... but I have trouble imagining the "average person" is that consistently overeating to such extremes every day for 1-2wks!

    Posted on December 21, 2009 at 1:42 PM

     
  2. Calli Arcale Said,

    I wonder if in some subgroups, it might be more common to gain significant amounts of weight, perhaps even 10 pounds -- in particular, chronic yo-yo dieters, who may even be starting out the holiday season a bit underweight. These would be the subgroup most vulnerable to weight gain when they go off their diets, and the group most vulnerable to the advertising.

    I am not surprised that the average person doesn't gain that much, but that pound or two is interesting and concerning.

    Posted on December 21, 2009 at 1:43 PM

     
  3. Anonymous Said,

    That poster at my gym annoys me every time I see it. Adults gain 1/2 - 1 lb per year on average, the reason it's a concern is the accumulation over time. Can't they be responsible and post accurate information, not alarmist and incorrect information.

    Posted on December 21, 2009 at 2:22 PM

     
  4. Amby Burfoot Said,

    Thanks for this post. I remember reading in another report that essentially all weight gain takes place during the short Holiday period and on weekends. In fact, I seem to remember reading that most people are in negative energy balance during the weekdays. Have you seen anything like this?

    Posted on December 21, 2009 at 4:57 PM

     
  5. Peter Janiszewski, PhD (Cand.), MSc Said,

    Thanks for all the comments everyone! Glad to see we're not the only ones peeved by the misleading and alarmist posters.

    @Calli Arcale - Interesting thought. It is possible that people who have been dieting intensely, who then let themselves go over the holidays due to all the pressures of eating with family, may gain a greater amount of weight. I have no idea if there exists any empirical evidence of such an effect. Great hypothesis though!

    @ Amby - Yet another interesting hypothesis! Not sure about Travis, but I have never come across such a study. From my understanding, we tend to make up for a hypocaloric day by having a hypercaloric day the very next day. That is, any caloric imbalances tend to be corrected for rather swiftly. While the lifestyle can vary drastically during days spent at home versus work, I find it hard to believe that the physiological responses to relative starvation would only kick in over the weekend causing people to overeat only on those specific days. Nevertheless, I have been wrong before:) I wonder if Travis has come across any such research.

    Posted on December 21, 2009 at 8:27 PM

     
  6. Amby Burfoot Said,

    I found this:
    Obesity Research (2003) 11, 945–949; doi: 10.1038/oby.2003.130
    Weekend Eating in the United States Is Linked with Greater Energy, Fat, and Alcohol Intake

    Objectives: To determine if macronutrient consumption for the U.S. population is greater on weekend days than weekdays.

    Research Methods and Procedures: The nationally representative 1994 to 1996 Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals was used for this analysis. Dietary intake was assessed using two independent days of dietary recall data. Ordinary least squares multivariate analysis was used to analyze dietary outcome variables to explore the effect of weekend day vs. weekday intake.

    Results: This study's results indicate that statistically significant dietary intake differences occur for different days of the week but not for all age groups—nor for all nutrients. The average American, 2 years and older, consumes 82 kcal more per day on each weekend day (Friday through Sunday) than they do on weekdays (Monday through Thursday). These overall increases in dietary intake are significant for the overall sample and are largest for the 19- to 50-year-old age group; among this age group, the weekend day increase (vs. weekday) is 115 kcal/d. The increased proportions of energy from fat and alcohol consumed on weekends are greater for this adult age group by 0.7% and 1.4%, respectively, whereas the proportion of energy from carbohydrate decreases 1.6%.

    Discussion: The effects of weekend days on nutrient intake are substantial and should be considered in future clinical and population-based interventions and in dietary monitoring and research in the U.S.

    Posted on December 21, 2009 at 11:06 PM

     
  7. Peter Janiszewski, PhD (Cand.), MSc Said,

    @ Amby - Thanks very much for the reference. As I have not come across this paper before, I will give it a good read through and maybe post on it on the blog. I'll comment on it here as well. Thanks again!

    Posted on December 22, 2009 at 9:56 AM

     
  8. Travis Saunders Said,

    Wow, great comments! Thanks for the reference, Amby, I'm looking forward to reading the paper!

    Calli, you make a good point. Interestingly, in the Yanovsky paper they found that it was overweight and obese individuals who were most likely to gain weight during the holidays. It seems reasonable that the same reasons that you give for weight gain in the underweight could explain weight gain in these individuals as well.

    If anyone sees the poster in their gym, I'd suggest you mention it to the staff. My last post on the topic obviously didn't convince them to take down the poster, but hopefully if their customers make a request they will be a bit more responsive.

    Posted on December 22, 2009 at 11:06 AM

     
  9. julie Said,

    It makes sense to me that weight gain would mostly occur in the already overweight, whether it's because they're disinhibited eaters, or active dieters who eat something off plan, thus deciding that they blew it anyway and might as well eat a whole lot more.

    Posted on December 24, 2009 at 12:25 AM

     
  10. Anonymous Said,

    I belong to this gym and I thought that the poster was cute. To me it doesn't matter how much the "average" person gains over the holidays...we all know we indulge a bit more over the holidays. But instead of feeling down (and chubby like mr. gingerbread man) why not do something good for ourselves and our body and go work out? They're encouraging a healthy lifestyle over the holiday season so who can really argue with that? Our culture could do with a bit more exercise zest!

    Posted on January 26, 2010 at 2:52 PM

     
  11. Travis Saunders Said,

    You'll get no argument from me about the value of exercise :) But I think it's wrong to mislead people in order to get them to exercise, especially when you stand to benefit from it financially. I think that there are probably better ways to get people to exercise/buy gym memberships, that don't involve (knowingly or unknowingly) using fake statistics.

    Travis

    Posted on January 26, 2010 at 4:45 PM

     

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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.

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