Eggnog. Gingerbread houses. Peppermint bark. All those delightful cookies. There’s no doubt it’s the most wonderful time of the year — for putting on a few extra pounds.
Studies have found that most of our annual weight gain occurs during the holiday season, when adults typically bulk up by about 1 to 2 pounds. It may not sound like much, but over the course of a decade it adds up to 10 to 20 pounds — enough to fuel the obesity epidemic, researchers say.
Who are these busybodies who seem intent on spoiling our festivities? They are from the Institute of Applied Health Research at the University of Birmingham in England, and they would like to help us avoid this fattening fate.
“Christmas is likely to tax even the most experienced weight controller,” they explained with considerable sympathy in a report published Monday in the BMJ (formerly known as the British Medical Journal).
That’s why they launched the Winter Weight Watch study. Instead of asking people to follow restrictive diets or log extra hours at the gym, they wanted to see if they could minimize the impact of the holiday season by harnessing the power of guilt.
Their hypothesis was that if people knew the calorie content of popular foods and drinks — and the amount of exercise it would take to burn off these treats — they would think twice before putting an extra canape on their plate or refilling their mug of mulled cider. Even better, if people checked their weight regularly, they could see when they were starting to go off the rails and make adjustments before things got out of hand.
To test their hypothesis, the researchers recruited 272 adults with a body mass index of at least 20. (A BMI between 20 and 24.9 is considered a “normal” weight, 25 to 29.9 is overweight and 30 and above is obese.) Most of the volunteers were women, most where white, and the average age of the entire group was just shy of 44.
Half of the study subjects were randomly assigned to try the three-pronged prevention program:
• They were encouraged to weigh themselves at least twice a week and pay attention to their weight trajectory.
• They received information about a British weight-management program called “Ten Top Tips,” which emphasizes healthy habits like eating slowly, choosing low-fat foods, being mindful of portion sizes and walking every day. The tips were modified slightly to address holiday-season temptations.
• They got handouts showing how much exercise they would need to get to work off particular treats — 21 minutes of running to burn the calories contained in one mince pie, for instance, or 32 minutes of walking to compensate for a small glass of mulled wine.
The other half of the study subjects received a leaflet about the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle.
The volunteers were weighed, measured and tested in November or early December, before holiday eating could begin in earnest. During these appointments, study participants in the prevention program were given a target “maximum weight,” which was about 1 pound above their baseline weight.
Then they were sent out to contend with holiday enticements to the best of their abilities.
Although the program wasn’t designed to promote weight loss, the volunteers who tested it lost an average of nearly 0.3 pounds by the time they were weighed again in January or February, the researchers found. Meanwhile, the volunteers in the control group gained a little more than 0.8 pounds, on average.
After adjusting for the volunteers’ baseline weight and other factors, the researchers determined that those who tested the program gained less weight than those who only got the rudimentary health information. The average difference between the two groups was a little more than 1 pound.
Most likely, that’s because the program worked as intended. The volunteers assigned to follow it were more likely than those who weren’t to weigh themselves at least twice a week, the researchers reported. Those in the program also got higher scores on a test of cognitive restraint, a skill that could have helped them resist temptation.
The researchers acknowledged that the difference in weight gain wasn’t huge, but said that even a 1 pound difference can have important consequences for long-term health because “the relation between weight and mortality is linear and any weight gain prevented will have a positive impact on health outcomes.”
Another study with a longer follow-up period would be needed to see whether the program’s apparent benefits would persist over time, as volunteers were forced to confront Valentine’s Day and Easter treats — let alone whether it would be effective year-round, the researchers wrote.