WASHINGTON — The season of giving can also be a season of gaining — extra pounds, that is. The average American gains a pound between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. While that may not seem like much, most people don’t lose the added weight come January.
According to health experts, compounded weight every year is the real problem. New population data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that 22 states have an adult obesity rate of 35% or higher, compared to just 19 states the previous year. For comparison, just ten years ago, no state had an adult obesity rate at or above 35%.
“Once weight gain happens, it can be much harder to lose it,” says Registered Dietitian Whitney English. “Only 20% of individuals who attempt to lose weight are successful in maintaining their weight loss long-term, and excess weight is a risk factor for chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and asthma.”
A 2023 survey of Americans found that half of survey participants typically gain 4-9 pounds over the holiday season, while another 18% said they gained over 10 pounds. That’s higher than the average, but excess weight gains can vary widely between individuals. American adults typically gain 9 pounds over a 10-year period.
The best advice, then, is to avoid holiday weight gain in the first place. “Put simply, the less you gain over the holidays, the less you’ll have to work to lose,” says English.
Seasonal weight gain isn’t just about an extra glass of eggnog or too much pumpkin pie. English says that many factors affect weight gain, including stress, being less physically active, and increased alcohol consumption.
She notes that while the holiday season should be a period of celebration, “What you do most of the time matters most. Regarding holiday weight gain, it’s important not to let these changes in healthy habits continue for months into the new year.”
Fill Up on Fiber
Fiber, the indigestible carbohydrates in plant foods, can help reduce weight gain. Consuming enough fiber, especially viscous fiber in foods like oats, flax seeds, lentils, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts, can help suppress your appetite.
When digested, viscous fibers create a gel-like substance, which can delay emptying and increase digestion and absorption. This creates a prolonged feeling of fullness while reducing appetite.
Michelle Saari, MSc, RD, Health and Nutrition Specialist at The National Coalition on Health Care, offers this advice. “Be the person who brings the vegetable dish to a party. Every holiday party, people will bring their baked goods, sweet treats, and carb-heavy dishes. This can leave you feeling bloated, tired, and with a sugar crash after each meal.”
There is typically little in the way of vegetable dishes at most gatherings, so eating vegetables is an easy way to add more fiber. Saari adds, “Eating a fiber dish such as a vegetable platter before you dig into the main dish or desserts can help to manage blood sugars by releasing glucose slower into the bloodstream. This reduces the ups and downs that we feel in terms of our energy after a meal.”
No Need to Fast
Popular weight loss advice is skipping meals before a big event to “bank calories” for later. However, experts agree that this approach can backfire.
Cheryl Mussatto, Outpatient Clinical Dietitian at the Cotton O’Neil Endocrinology and Diabetes Clinic, explains, “Going all day without eating can also lead to a dangerous blood sugar drop. Skipping meals will leave you feeling sluggish, tired, and with little get-up-and-go. That’s because your body has run out of fuel you get from the food you eat, which is no different from a car that has run out of gas.”
Johna Burdeos, Registered Dietitian and freelance health writer, adds that skipping meals before a big event can make you more likely to overindulge. “The negative effects of overeating include heartburn, being uncomfortably full, and possibly even sleep disturbance from that.”
‘Tis The Season for Mindfulness
For a healthier holiday season, practice mindfulness. Kristie Simmons, RD, CEDRD-S, shares this tip: “Intermittently pause to do a body and setting scan. Check in with how you are feeling physically (hungry, full, tired, etc) and emotionally (stressed, excited, sad, etc).”
This approach can help you honor what you need in a mindful way. She adds, “If food choices are taking up a lot of headspace, see if you can shift your focus to what you want to get out of the holiday experience to defuse from food holding so much importance.”
Therapist and dietitian Jill Gulotta wants people to treat each holiday as a meal. “So, for example, if you have your Thanksgiving meal around lunchtime, then that is your lunch. Do not go into each holiday or event thinking it’s permission to overeat but rather just as a normal day and a normal meal. This mindset shift is hugely helpful to successfully navigate the holidays.”
Since the holidays are a season of indulgence, it’s essential to remove any expectations of perfection. Burdeos says, “Give yourself permission to experience joys during this wonderful time of the year with friends and family. Part of living a healthy life is connecting with others and experiencing joyful moments.”
Gulotta agrees. “At the end of the day, try to be flexible and kind with yourself, knowing this day and season are temporary.”