Why? And what to do about It?
Perhaps some of us have successfully lost weight over the past few months and are panicking over the potential weight gain associated with the holiday season.
I know you are shaking your head at me, “Not I, not this year.”
Here is why I am shaking my head up and down instead of right to left: Research has consistently shown that on average, most Americans gain weight over the holiday season, which starts just before Thanksgiving and ends shortly after New Year’s Day.
But, why do we gain weight during the Holiday season?
1) Holidays are in the Fall/Winter seasons.
Studies have shown that on average, Americans consume more calories in these seasons. Dr. Ma, at university of Massachusetts, has shown that daily caloric intake was higher by 86 kcal per day starting in the fall, and that the increase in calories came mainly from total and saturated fat intakes. According to Dr. de Catro, we eat more starting in the Fall and desire larger meals to be satisfied.
But, why do we eat more in the winter?
There are seasonal biological changes that facilitate this increase in caloric intake. For example, some of the feel-good brain chemicals decrease in the winter; the one most talked about is serotonin because it’s implicated in food consumption patterns, mood and other important social behaviors.
In one study, researchers found that post-mortem brain specimens contained less serotonin metabolites in the winter. When serotonin is depleted, we crave carbohydrates, and we feel down. This is an important feedback mechanism, because carbohydrate consumption increases serotonin release. If you are a female, you might have experienced an increase in carbohydrate cravings and sadness during PMS, when serotonin levels are low. So, during the winter, we increase food intake to make ourselves feel better, compensating for the decrement in the feel good brain chemicals.
Secondly, the day gets shorter and colder in the Fall and Winter, which promotes a more sedentary life-style.
The problem is exacerbated when we are also surrounded with scrumptious leftovers from all the holiday parties. All of a sudden, we find ourselves dipping the deformed apple pie slices directly into a pint of ice cream.
Also, as the day gets shorter and our exposure to daylight is decreased, brain chemicals such as serotonin decrease with it. This explains why many people experience winter blues. Being stranded at home because of the darkness, cold and depressed mood, all while being surrounded by plenty of mood-enhancing foods, is a recipe well proven to cause weight gain.
2) We have strong associations between holidays and specific foods.
These are well-learned, strong links ingrained in our memory and comfortably residing in our unconscious. We have many well-established food associations; for example, birthdays and birthday cakes. Along the same vain, there are certainly holiday foods: decorative cookies, pies, or, to summarize, high sugar and high fat foods.
Also, we get invited to multiple holiday parties, work (of course we have to go with our partners, and they have to reciprocate), family dinners and New Year’s Eve—plenty of appetizers and junk all night long gatherings, not to mention the festive, calorie-saturated drinks.
3) This is an economically stressful time.
This is the shopping season, whether it is buying presents for others or taking advantage of the sales for ourselves. This might add additional financial and social stress, and I am sure I don’t need to convince you that stress makes some of us eat junk.
Unfortunately, stress selectively packs the weight gain in the middle, extending our waistlines.
Is there anything else gained—other than weight?
Yes, yes, and yes!
The holidays make us happy overall! There is another brain chemical that is also affected by the onset of the holidays—a socially induced one.
We certainly become more social around the holidays. For many of us, the only time we see our families is over the holidays. We are all born with the intrinsic need to affiliate and crave social interactions. These interactions are promoted and rewarded by oxytocin, which is a brain chemical that is responsible for the desire to meet a good friend over coffee to talk about nothing important.
Let’s all keep it real this holiday and respect our biological and social natures: let’s give ourselves permission to increase food intake and not feel one bit guilty about it.
However, let’s also have some general guidelines to make the best out of this.
1. When given a choice between high fat and high calorie desserts, go for the high fat one.
Go ahead and read my article on “How I lost Weight swapping Low-Fat for Full-Fat Everything,” but don’t read it ’til January 2nd.
2. Always have a big to-go cup (preferably not disposable) filled with your favorite herbal, non-caffeinated drink.
Mint, raspberry, ginger, lemon, anise, cinnamon, or a mixture of teas are some suggestions—I love pomegranate, hibiscus and raspberry. If you like them sweetened, sweeten with natural honey and not processed white sugar. Invest in a personalized non-disposable cup with a very safe lid, and take it everywhere. This habit leaves your stomach always partially full.
3. If you have the choice between cake and ice cream, go for natural ice cream.
Ice cream has a high percentage of calcium, whereas many cakes have no nutritional value.
4. Share your favorite desserts.
Making others fat makes you look skinny. Okay, just kidding. Sharing gets your oxytocin high, makes you happier and decreases the amount of calories and fat consumed, but still satisfies your nagging cravings.
5. Avoid commercials displaying mouth-watering foods.
Make your phone calls, offer to make tea, go to the bathroom, whatever you can do to avoid watching these commercials.
6. Don’t start a strict diet during the holidays.
Many diets end up depleting the brain from necessary amino acids required to make serotonin, which causes depressed mood and irritability. Don’t make it hard on yourself during a time when your biology is already making you vulnerable. Don’t miss out on good memories because you have to decline some holiday invitations or ruin others’ spirits because your diet is making you irritable and difficult to accommodate.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Marwa Azab
Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: Jenene Chesbrough/Flickr