Paleo for the Holidays, Part 1: What Science Actually Says about Holiday Weight Gain

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Welcome to the Paleo Diet Lifestyle Paleo for the Holidays series! Kicking off with Part 1 on weight gain and how to avoid it, we’ll be back throughout the month with all kinds of other tips and tricks for staying healthy through December without losing your mind.

If you’re starting to feel a little twinge of worry about staying Paleo – or just staying sane – between now and New Year’s Day, you’re not alone. The holidays are supposed to be a time of joyful celebration, but they usually come with a heavy dose of stress attached for anyone who’s trying to eat healthy, lose weight, or maintain a weight loss that they’ve already accomplished.

Unfortunately, most of the advice you’ll see is the same old generic list of recycled tips: don’t show up hungry to a party, choose your indulgences wisely, be aware that alcohol has calories…most of this you could have guessed on your own, and the rest of it you only needed to hear once. And if it really did work, holiday weight gain wouldn’t be such an issue! So instead of dressing up the same advice with a new photo, this article takes a look at what the research actually says about seasonal weight gain and how you can fight back.

Who Gains Weight, and How Much?

First off, the facts. Forewarned is forearmed, so take a look at what you’re up against:

Estimates of weight gain vary.

Depending on how you measure, the estimates of how much the average person gains over the holiday season varies. The number you usually see thrown around is anywhere from 5-10 pounds between Thanksgiving and New Years, but this is based on self-reporting, which (unsurprisingly) tends to be skewed with a hefty helping of post-holiday guilt.

The actual research is a little more optimistic. This study from the New England Journal of Medicine found that people’s perceived weight gain varied between 0 and 6.7 pounds with an average of 3.5, but their actual weight gain was just under 1 pound. So in reality, the “holiday weight” is nothing to panic over: it’s nice to avoid it, but if you can’t, it’s not a catastrophe.

The overweight are the most at risk.

Study after study (e.g. this one and this one) has tracked holiday weight gain and found that people who start at a higher BMI tend to gain more weight. In the same 2000 study that busted the 5-10 pound myth, 20% of obese subjects and 10% of overweight subjects gained more than 5 pounds, compared with only 5% of non-overweight people.

The formerly overweight also struggle.

This study tracked 178 successful weight losers (people who had lost at least 77 pounds and kept it off for at least a few years), and 101 normal-weight people who had never been overweight. Despite making more careful plans and working harder to maintain their weight, 39% of the weight-losers gained at least 2.2 pounds over the holiday, compared to 17% of the normal-weight group.

What does this Mean for Me?

Know your risk, so you can plan accordingly. If you’ve always been at a healthy weight, you can take it a little easier; if you’ve fought long and hard to get rid of the extra pounds, you’ll have to stay vigilant. Is this fair? Absolutely not. But it’s true, and wouldn’t you rather know up front than get a nasty surprise in January?

candies with measuring tape

What About the Holidays Causes Weight Gain?

This might seem like a no-brainer. Obviously, people gain weight over the holidays because they eat more. But that doesn’t answer the really important question: why are the holidays such a flurry of overeating?

  • Social pressure: The holidays are a socially sanctioned time to relax, stop caring about health, and eat what you want. But people still feel a little guilty about this, so they’ll pressure you to join in so they can feel better about their own indulgences. This study also shows how people eating with a group tend to match their intake to the group “average,” so even if nobody’s pressuring you about it, there’s a constant psychological cue to overeat at every meal.
  • Stress: Holiday commitments mean stress, stress means comfort eating, and nobody comfort-eats celery sticks. Cortisol (the stress hormone) also promotes weight gain, especially the dreaded “belly fat.”
  • Broken routines: Traveling means you spend a lot of time sitting, you get thrown off your regular exercise routine, and you aren’t always in control of your food.
  • Emotional associations. Maybe it’s no struggle for you to pass up any random candy on the street, but if Grandma made it just for you, it gets a lot harder, especially if you have fond memories of eating it in years past.

All of these facts about the holiday season represent cues to overeat. If you don’t deliberately try to respond in a different way, you’ll end up following the cues and overeating. But if you’re trying to stay healthy, you don’t want to just passively accept and follow these cues. Instead, you want to make smart choices, enjoying treats when they’re worth it and passing them up when they’re not. So your job for the holidays is to plan, prioritize, and act accordingly.

What can you do?

Believe it or not, despite the growing body of anxiety-inducing statistics, you can actually fight back against the holiday bulge. Take a look at what tactics have been tried and shown effective:

Eat the right fat.

With the holiday season, you’re always playing a little bit of damage control with food quality. That’s normal. But here’s one area to focus on even if you’re letting a few other things slide: prioritize fat quality. The proof is in this study, where scientists studied overweight subjects during the holidays. The subjects got either 3.2 grams/day of conjugated linoleic acid (a naturally occurring fat found in grass-fed beef and pastured eggs) or a placebo, and the results were dramatic. The CLA group showed:

  • Lower body fat (an average of 2.2 pounds lost)
  • Less weight gain (in the subjects who did gain weight)
  • Fewer negative emotions
  • Less endothelial dysfunction (“endothelial dysfunction” is a fancy term for your gut not being happy with you, so less of it is a good thing!)

And all this despite having no difference in total calorie intake or physical activity. And this is in adults who were overweight to begin with – the group most at risk for holiday weight gain! The moral of the story: eat healthy fat from grass-fed animals (or eggs, dairy, and butter).

You can make this happen almost anywhere: pastured eggs are even available in some Wal-Marts now, and butter will stand up to a whole lot of traveling. Going to Grandma’s for a week? Toss a stick or two of grass-fed butter in your carry-on, and offer to help with the cooking. Getting a healthy dose of the good fats will give you a solid foundation of “good enough” nutrition, and a very strong defense against the health consequences of anything else you might eat.

Set Smart Goals and Track your Choices

One of the hardest problems of holiday food is balancing your health goals with the desire to relax, have fun, and enjoy the festivities. It’s tempting sometimes to just say “whatever; I don’t want to wreck my holiday worrying about Paleo; I’ll just eat what I want and get back on track on January 1st.” But this is just another name for giving into every overeating cue that comes under your nose – which is exactly what you’re trying to avoid. You want to make choices that make you feel good, not just act randomly because other people are eating.

The opposite isn’t any better: “I’m going to stay 100% Paleo no matter what!” is a rigid, inflexible model that’s just setting you up for failure. This paper describes all kinds of fascinating social determinants of how much we eat, but one of the most relevant to holiday eating is the “I’ve blown my diet” scenario. The researchers took a group of dieters and gave them all ice cream to eat – but some of them got milkshakes first, while others got nothing.

You’d think the milkshake group would eat less ice cream (since they just had a milkshake), but actually, the milkshake group ate a lot more. As it turns out, if you make a dieter blow her diet, she’ll give up completely and eat everything she’s been working so hard to resist. Trying to stay 100% strict will ultimately end up in giving in to all those overeating cues anyway…with a big helping of guilt to go with it.

Instead of falling prey to either of these two extremes, a better plan is to set a goal that lets you enjoy both the satisfaction of taking care of your health and the joy of indulging when it’s really worth it. Don’t just be a passive victim of all the overeating cues in your environment, but also don’t hold yourself to a superhuman standard of perfection. It’s like double the pleasure, with none of the pain.

To make this happen, sit down before party season starts and plan for a certain number of indulgences. This number may be bigger or smaller, depending on your weight loss goals and how much you value food traditions compared to other nutritional goals. There are no right or wrong answers: it’s whatever works for you.

You might already know what some of these indulgences will be (Aunt Linda’s sugar cookies, chocolate on Christmas morning…), but leave at least 3 “wildcards” to use whenever you want. That way, if you make one bad choice at a party, you haven’t wrecked everything: just consider it one of your wildcards and move on.

The next step: find some way of tracking those indulgences (this can be as simple as a note on your phone or a sticky note next to your computer), and be honest with yourself about recording them.

Using this method, you get the good parts of both “extremes:” you can congratulate yourself on your commitment to eating well but still experience the seasonal treats when you decide they’re worth it.

Take Charge of Your Environment

One way to resist all the “junk food” cues is to set up your own system of cues instead: cues to stick with the plan.

This study describes the many benefits of intensively surrounding yourself with reminders to stick to your goals. The subjects were 57 overweight men and women who had all lost at least 33 pounds. All the subjects monitored their food intake, but an intervention group also got 1-2 extra phone calls every week and daily mailings to help them stay on track. Astonishingly enough, the intervention group actually not only didn’t gain, but actually continued to lose weight during the holiday season – they dropped about 2 pounds on average, while the control group gained about 2 pounds.

This is huge. Overweight people who have lost significant amounts of weight are statistically the people most at risk for regain. And yet, in this study the researchers found an intervention that allowed them to not only maintain, but keep losing!

Another interesting thing about this study is that the participants didn’t even read all the mailings they got. Just getting the letter was enough to remind them of their commitment.

You can re-create this situation by yourself by:

  • Setting up automated daily emails or notifications on your computer to remind you of your goals and plans to stay on track. You can even put it on your Google Calendar, and then ask Google to text you with an automatic notification.
  • Leaving notes around the house with encouraging messages to yourself: buy a pack of holiday post-its or notecards and write yourself the kind of Christmas cards you’d receive from your fantasy best friend.
  • Pairing up with a buddy and texting or emailing each other at least once a day with some motivation or encouragement.

The intensive intervention worked best when it was daily, so aim for something you can see each and every day at a fairly regular time.

On the same theme, if you’ll be traveling re-read the article about staying Paleo on the road for tips on setting up a “foreign” food environment as well as you can. It’s all about planning ahead: a quick phone call to ask your mom to stock up on fresh meat and coconut oil can save you a lot of pain further down the road.

Don’t get Hungry

Hunger is, rather obviously, a cue to eat. So if you’re trying to avoid overeating, you also want to avoid the kind of ravenous hunger that might lead to it.

Unsurprisingly, one interesting finding from the 2000 NEJM study was that subjects who reported the lowest levels of hunger gained the least weight. This study backs that up: comparing subjects who successfully resisted temptation to subjects who didn’t, the researchers found that the successful resistance occurred about 3.25 hours after eating, with an average hunger level (on a scale of 1 to 10) of 4.26, while unsuccessful resistance occurred an average of 5 hours per meal, with a hunger level of 5.2.

This type of finding is probably the rationale behind all the advice to eat before you arrive at a party, and not to starve yourself all day for the sake of cheesecake later. But you can greatly increase the success of this tactic by being smart about what you choose to eat. Munching on sugar cookies before showing up at a buffet is not going to do the trick. Make sure to get at least some healthy fat and some protein in your pre-party snack: fat will give you sustained energy to make it through the evening, and protein is the most appetite-suppressing of all the macronutrients. Good snack ideas include:

  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Jerky
  • A couple pieces of cheese (if you do dairy)
  • A can of tuna with some olives

Use Active Coping Strategies

No matter how much you arrange your environment to minimize the cues to overeat, eventually you’re going to have to deal with some of them. And when that happens, you need a coping strategy: a specific, detailed plan for how you will deal with the situation.

Pretty much every study of dieters and relapses notes that dieters who used coping strategies to manage negative moods (stress, anger, boredom, loneliness…), social pressure, or environmental cues were much more likely to stay on track. Coping strategies allow you to take positive action in response to a craving or challenge, instead of feeling like a victim. Examples of some helpful coping strategies include:

  • Behavioral strategies: bring a Paleo-friendly dish or three to a potluck, station yourself as far away as you can get from the food, get yourself a glass of water to keep your hands busy, or take a brief break from the situation to get your thoughts together (lock yourself in the bathroom if you have to).
  • Mental strategies: have a mantra that you can focus on, remind yourself of the reasons why you’re choosing not to eat something, or count backwards slowly from 20 before you make a decision.

Plan ahead with these: before you’re in a situation, imagine what it will be like, and mentally “walk through” how you’ll use the coping strategy. Picture yourself at the office party, being pressured to try the brownies. Say your response out loud: “no, thank you.” Picture yourself excusing yourself to go talk to someone who isn’t being rude and aggressive about their food choices. It is possible. You don’t have to respond to overeating cues with the cycle of giving in now and beating yourself up later – at least, not if you have a coping strategy waiting and ready to go.

Have a Plan

All these techniques will do nothing if you read about them now and forget them. They will only help if you make a specific plan about when and how you can use them.

You can make a holiday plan very simply. Just copy out the following sentences onto a blank sheet of paper and fill in the blanks: “During the _______________ (name of event goes here), my biggest challenge will be ___________________________, and my goal is to __________________. I plan to make this happen by _______________, __________________, and _________________.

Repeat as many times as you need (you’ll probably need different sentences for each event). Congratulations; you have now done more to take charge of your health during the holidays than 90% of the people around you.

It might sound a little neurotic to actually write this out, but think of it this way: planning ahead allows you to relax and enjoy the season ahead, without carrying around a lot of guilt and nagging worry that you should be doing something else. So in the end, it ultimately saves a lot of pain.

scale with tinsel

But This Sounds Like So Much Work!

Not wild about the idea of spending so much time and effort trying to stay Paleo in an incredibly challenging holiday season? Worried you might look like a crazy person sticking up Post-Its all over your house with motivational messages? Already stretched too thin with holiday shopping and events to even consider such a huge load of additional responsibilities?

You’re not just lazy or unmotivated: all these strategies are very labor-intensive, because no matter what you do, you’ll be swimming against the current. It sounds like a lot of work because it is a lot of work.

If you already know that this just isn’t an effort you can take on during the holidays, don’t panic. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that something is always better than nothing. Re-evaluate your goals in light of what you can reasonably achieve: maybe your goal is not to keep losing weight, but just to maintain over the holidays. Or maybe it’s just to eat Paleo 3 days every week, and make sure you get at least 7 hours of sleep every night. That’s a perfectly legitimate goal – it’s a whole lot better than eating Paleo 0 days a week and sleeping 5 hours a night!

It might seem depressing to be “giving up so soon,” but in reality, it’s much easier to take a deep breath and accept what you can reasonably take on now than to crash and burn later because you tried to do too much. There are more important things in life than Paleo, and there’s nothing wrong with recognizing that and prioritizing accordingly.

Summing it Up

Science, as it turns out, has a lot more to say about holiday weight gain than “everything in moderation.” And knowing what the research actually says can help you go into the holiday party season feeling prepared and in charge. After all, it’s not supposed to give you an ulcer; the original idea of a holiday (as crazy as it sounds) is to enjoy yourself.

To quickly sum up, the best Paleo-friendly strategies for staying on track during the holiday:

  • Go in with a plan. Make it now. Seriously.
  • Eat enough grass-fed butter and meat to get plenty of CLA. If you have to do damage control on your holiday nutrition, this is what to prioritize.
  • Organize some kind of social support for yourself with daily reminders. Do what you can to replace cues to eat junk with cues to eat well.
  • Have a flexible plan, but keep track of it (otherwise “flexible” can easily turn into “conveniently forgetting every other thing you eat.”)
  • Cut yourself some slack. You don’t have to be the perfect model Paleo dieter 365 days a year. There should never be guilt attached to eating something a loved one cooked for you – some things are more important than food, and being part of a loving family is one of them.

Now go write out your plan, and take 5 minutes today to post a couple encouraging sticky notes around the house! And tune in next week for Part 2, with suggestions for ways to celebrate the holidays without junk food.

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