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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