The leaves turn brown and crunchy, the air gets crisp and cool, and you know fall and winter are approaching. This transition signals travel, family time, holiday parties and another signature seasonal element -- gaining weight. The good news is, the reports you'll see splashed across the Internet and local TV news programs are largely blown out of proportion. While you may see a health report stating weight gains as much as 10 pounds from Thanksgiving to New Year's Eve, the average weight gain is more like one pound, according to a 2007 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Overweight individuals do tend to gain more (up to five pounds) and further studies have revealed that most all of us tend to keep the weight [source: Pope].
Here are five things that may lead to weight gain over the holidays.
Winter weather is a big reason why people put on weight in colder months. Not all of us can afford a gym membership, leaving us to fend for ourselves as we try to walk or run in the elements. While there are other indoor options, like yoga, Pilates and home gyms, many people with modest exercise schedules simply abandon the practice when it turns cold. Winter also means shorter days, which don't lend themselves to getting out on the sidewalk or hiking trails. When darkness and cold have arrived before you get home from work, only the dedicated are inspired to get out and burn some calories. Residents that live where the climate is warm year-round have an easier time, but much of the United States suffers through moderate to severe weather conditions during the winter.
This one ties in with the weather and general wintertime blues. Short days and cold weather are more likely to inspire you to curl up with a warm fire and a hot toddy than to head outside and pound the pavement. Even if you don't count a drop in exercise, there's a marked difference in the activity level between winter months and more moderate ones. Spring and summer will likely find you tackling home projects, doing yard work, maybe hitting the pool or taking part in an organized team sport. Even going to the park and tossing the Frisbee is going to burn a lot more calories than roasting chestnuts on an open fire. So even if you do manage to brave the cold and hit the gym, or you're an active person in warm weather, you'll notice a drop off in your daily activity level. This is why even fit people can gain a little weight over the holidays.
Millions of years ago, humans lived out on the open plains and tundra. We hunted and gathered and braved the elements. Despite the use of shelters and fire, winter life was a lot colder back then. Because of this, humans packed on a few extra pounds when winter approached. A little excess fat reserve was necessary for us to keep warm and get us through leaner months when food was scarcer. All these years later, it's still natural for humans to gain a little weight in the winter. Our bodies need to generate more heat to keep warm, forcing our cells to operate on overdrive. Humans supply the fuel by eating a little more. This is why you may notice being hungrier when you're consistently out in cold weather. Although we don't hibernate, it's a similar concept that many other mammals experience during the winter in order to survive the elements.
Even dedicated gym-goers have a difficult time maintaining the regularity of their normal workout schedule during the holiday season. Many travel to visit relatives for extended periods of time, which inherently disrupts exercise opportunities. If you don't do the traveling, chances are a car full of distant cousins may pull into your driveway with plans to loaf around on your couch for a week. Playing host to a house full of guests is also sure to get you off your workout routine. Another thing that can put a wrench in your plans is holiday parties. Attending multiple soirees means fattening finger foods, cheese balls, creamy dips, more alcohol and further schedule disruption. Polishing off a few glasses of rum-laden eggnog after some mashed potatoes and gravy isn't much of a recipe for weight maintenance.
Most people, even those who generally eat well, tend to let things get out of hand during the holiday season. Many holiday traditions are based around specific meals, and they generally aren't composed of raw veggies and tofu cakes. Heavy foods and the holidays have become synonymous with each other. Thanksgiving means turkey, sweet potatoes with marshmallows melted on top, bread-based stuffing, rich gravy, buttered rolls, sugary cranberry sauce and whatever other traditional family foods you make or bake. Desserts are usually in the rotation a little more than other times of year as well. And when guests visit, they each bring their own decadent specialty for all to devour. Grandma's cheesecake and Aunt Suzy's peanut butter balls will definitely add up to some extra poundage.
If you love history and cookies, you might want to try this ancient twist on the gingerbread cookie. Learn more at HowStuffWorks Now.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- "8 Steps to Surviving Holiday Weight Gain." clevelandclinic.org, 2009. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/heart/prevention/nutrition/holidayeating12_01.aspx
- Pope, Tara Parker. "The Skinny on Holiday Weight Gain." nytimes.com, November 22, 2007.http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/11/22/the-skinny-on-holiday-weight-gain/
- Rotz, Nina. "How Not to Gain Weight Over the Holidays." associatedcontent.com, December 11, 2008. http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/1274402/how_not_to_gain_weight_over_the_holidays.html
- Temporary Weight Gain Over The Winter Holidays... Might Be a Good Thing." sciencedaily.com, December 3, 2004. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/12/041201145710.htm