Good and bad news about holiday weight gain

An article in today’s Wall Street Journal (December 13, 2005) reports that most people don’t actually gain as much weight as they think during the holiday season. That’s the good news:

Although it has been widely asserted that people pack on five to 10 pounds during the holiday season, research shows that holiday weight gain has been greatly exaggerated. Not only have media and even some medical reports overstated how much weight people tend to gain during the holidays, but individuals themselves also think the problem is worse than it is.

The WSJ article references a report appearing in the New England Journal of Medicine in March 2000 which tracked the weight of 195 healthy adults over the course of a year, and found that the average weight gain for the study group during the holidays was about 1 pound (0.48 kg).

Some people gained more or less than others, in particular people who were already overweight or obese gained an average of about 5 pounds. Immediately after the holidays, the average person in the study also lost a little weight, and gained a little weight during the rest of the year.

The bad news about holiday weight gain is that while the actual amount of weight gained is usually less than individuals think, the study also found that participants had a net gain at the end of the study, even after losing weight during the post-holiday season. The average weight gain for an entire year was around 1.5 pounds.

The holiday season offers many fun and festive occasions featuring food and other treats. Rather than trying to avoid the Christmas cookies and cakes altogether, a good strategy is to simply pay attention to what you’re eating and try to avoid binging. A study in the International Journal of Obesity reported that consistent eaters were nearly twice as likely to succeed in managing their weight compared with those who took weekends and holidays off and only ate healthy diets during the weekdays.

It’s also important to maintain your exercise and activity routine. During the holidays it can be tempting to skip workouts, but staying on a regular routine and maintaining healthy daily eating habits will give you a much healthier start to the New Year!


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Recovering from anorexia – It’s not just about the weight

by Insook Jeon, M.S., R.D.

Patients entering treatment for anorexia sometimes resist getting help from what they perceive as various authority figures such as doctors, psychiatrists, and nutritionists trying to make them fat and gain weight. This is partly in response to some of the screening and evaluation methods used with eating disorder patients, especially the widely used height and weight charts from MetLife or the USDA.

For example, a 20 year old woman might enter treatment at 5′ 5″ and weighing 80 pounds, which corresponds to a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 13.3. The standard BMI chart range for this age is between 19 and 26, or between 114 to 159 pounds, with a 50th percentile target of 130 pounds. It would be difficult for most anorexic patients to contemplate gaining 34 pounds, not to mention 50 pounds at the outset of their treatment program.

One response to the perception of “unrealistic” goals set by treatment programs can be that patients will actually work diligently at gaining weight as quickly as possible, in order to be declared “cured” and thus “escape” from their treatment program, free to resume their old behavior. It is not uncommon to see some women who have gone in and out of treatment facilities with this pattern.

Rather than trying to force a struggle with an overwhelming increase in weight, I often ask new clients, “What weight do you think you manage without hating yourself?” This helps us set a “safe” goal that we can work towards together, and allowing a focus on recovery through changes in nutrition, behavior, and attitudes, rather than a focus on weight gain. By the time the initial goal is achieved, we are ready to set a secondary goal, building on the improved health and behaviors, and progressing toward levels that seemed unattainable at the beginning.

Link: Interactive age-adjusted BMI calculator (Baylor University)

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Ross’ Story

Ross, one of Insook’s patients, shares some thoughts about his experience with developing and recovering from an eating disorder:

Words to Inspire
by Ross F.

Regardless of what side of the spectrum those who suffer from eating disorders fall on, the battle to get better is truly epic. Many of those who are lucky enough to find, afford, and receive quality treatment do not always make it out alive. With eating disorders becoming as mainstream as low-rider jeans or The O.C., the people who have devoted their lives to curing this epidemic seem to be fighting a losing battle

It has become the crusade of the twenty first century to eradicate eating disorders, in all of its forms, and it could not have come at a more crucial time. Both sides of the “eating disorder spectrum” have been swarmed with and it seems as if anorexia has become socially acceptable. Our culture is infatuated by those who live lives the general population can only dream about and it is feeding the fires of this growing epidemic.

I, personally, have spent more than half my life not only consumed by anorexia and bulimia, but hiding it from my family and friends. My eating disorder was born from chaos. My life, it seemed was presented to me and enforced for my own good. When you live a life that is not yours, control becomes the focal point of your existence. That was my curse, control. In a world I didn’t belong, in a life I did not choose, the only thing I could control was what I put, or in this case, what I didn’t put in my mouth.

It started innocently enough, a way to get back at the one who ruled my life with an iron fist, however, it began to consume every aspect of my early life. A year or so in, I started believing that I didn’t deserve food, that if I wasn’t who everyone thought I should be, I stumbled, if I found life to be difficult, I was something less than human. These thoughts, these feelings might not be uncommon to an eleven year old, but my desperation grew exponentially until my depression peaked at thirteen.

There was no where else to go. I found myself carefully compiling my final thoughts on this earth, apologizing to those I had failed, wishing my peers luck, praying and hoping that there was some other way, but at that age, options are few and far between. And as I sat on the foot of my bed with a .357 magnum in my hand, tears pouring from my eyes, I knew this would be the tragedy of Ross Edward Farley III.

My only saving grace was the thought of leaving my mother and my sister to grieve, and the guilt I felt for the potential mess I was about to make for my father to clean up. I put the gun back where it belonged, and spent six more years tormented by my disease.

I have been in treatment for two years with one of the most brilliant nutritionists I have ever met. She has truly saved my life, and I will never be able to thank her enough for taking my case, no matter how risky it was.

To those who continue to suffer, please do not give up hope. Life is precious. Every pound I gain is the most I’ve ever weighed, and I couldn’t be happier.

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Common Symptoms of Eating Disorders

Anorexia Nervosa* Bulimia Nervosa* Binge Eating Disorder
Excessive weight loss in relatively short period of time X
Continuation of dieting although bone-thin X
Dissatisfaction with appearance; belief that body is fat, even though severely underweight
Loss of monthly menstrual periods X
Unusual interest in food and development of strange eating rituals X
Eating in secret X
Obsession with exercise X
Serious depression X
Binging–consumption of large amounts of food  
Vomiting or use of drugs to stimulate vomiting, bowel movements, and urination  
Binging but no noticeable weight gain  
Disappearance into bathroom for long periods of time to induce vomiting  
Abuse of drugs or alcohol  
* Some individuals suffer from anorexia and bulimia and have symptoms of both disorders.

(source: NIH Publication No. 94-3477, 1994)

What is Binge Eating Disorder?

People with binge-eating disorder experience frequent episodes
of out-of-control eating, with the same binge-eating symptoms as
those with bulimia. The main difference is that individuals with
binge-eating disorder do not purge their bodies of excess calories.
Therefore, many with the disorder are overweight for their age and
height. Feelings of self-disgust and shame associated with this
illness can lead to bingeing again, creating a cycle of binge eating.

Community surveys have estimated that between 2 percent and 5
percent of Americans experience binge-eating disorder in a 6-month
period. Symptoms of binge-eating disorder include:

  • Recurrent episodes of binge eating, characterized by eating an excessive amount of food within a discrete period of time and by a sense of lack of control over eating during the episode
  • The binge-eating episodes are associated with at least 3 of the following: eating much more rapidly than normal; eating until
    feeling uncomfortably full; eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry; eating alone because of being
    embarrassed by how much one is eating; feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty after overeating
  • Marked distress about the binge-eating behavior
  • The binge eating occurs, on average, at least 2 days a week for 6 months
  • The binge eating is not associated with the regular use of inappropriate compensatory behaviors (e.g., purging, fasting,
    excessive exercise)

(source: NIH Publication 01-4901, 2001)