Health & Wellness

Holiday weight worries? Why it's OK to indulge a little at Christmas

Warnings about holiday weight gain are as plentiful as eggnog, chocolate and Christmas cookies. So it may come as a surprise that some experts say it’s OK to indulge a bit through the season.

Giving yourself permission to eat a little more during the holidays can actually help you control your weight in the long run, said Charlotte Markey, a psychology professor at Rutgers University and author of the upcoming book, “Smart People Don’t Diet: How the Latest Science Can Help You Lose Weight Permanently.”

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Don’t feel guilty about having good stuff in moderation, but don’t be over- indulgent either, experts say.

“We don’t want people to feel guilty about enjoying themselves because that’s going to be counter-productive. Guilty and negative feelings about food are not going to lead to healthy weight management,” Markey told TODAY.

“Just sort of acknowledge: ‘It’s Christmas or it’s the holiday party and I’m probably going to eat a little bit more’ and that’s it. You don’t have to lose a lot of sleep over it.”

That doesn’t mean you can eat the whole pumpkin pie, but being indulgent a few times this month is not going to lead to substantial weight gain, she said.

Indeed, research shows people don’t pack on as much weight during the holidays as widely thought. In one study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2000, most subjects gained less than a pound during the period between Thanksgiving and early January.

Another study, conducted by a Texas Tech University professor in 2009, found people gained 1.5 pounds on average during the holidays.

That can still add up, of course, and once you get started gaining, it's harder to stop.

And it’s important to remember that 78 million adults in the U.S. — more than one third of the population —are already obese

Both studies warned that the extra holiday pounds account for most of a person's annual weight change. 

So have a strategy as you become surrounded by treats:

  • Focus on moderation and portion control, Markey said. 
  • Rather than vowing to skip a particular food group, or appetizers or dessert, tell yourself you’re going to have one or two and then stop, she advised.
  • To counter the extra calories, stay active or increase your activity level. Even just an extra 10 minutes a day helps — perhaps take a longer walk during your lunch break.

“Set a realistic plan but not an overly restrictive one, because that’s likely to fail,” Markey said. “(Deprivation) triggers overeating… so if you go into it saying, I’m not going to have dessert at all then you’re more likely to have two helpings.”

And come January, when interest in dieting peaks, don’t turn to any extreme or drastic eating regimens, which can set you up for failure, Markey noted.

“Dieting makes you miserable, it makes you cranky. It actually makes you more likely to overeat and to binge and fast,” she said.

“Don’t feel guilty about having good stuff in moderation. Don’t feel deprived, but don’t be over-indulgent either. There’s got to be some middle ground.”

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