Resisting temptation can be tough during the holidays.
During the festive season, people's waistlines tend to expand as their self-control contracts.
While food and drink flow freely, restraint is in short supply, and sedentary activities abound. And, as we relax, we tend to throw caution to the wind and go back for a second helping.
Festive weight gain is so commonplace that it has become a running joke; however, it has a serious side.
Obesity is a growing problem in the United States, and reversing it through permanent lifestyle changes does not appear to work for the majority of people.
A new approach to obesity?
Research has shown that when we gain weight during the holidays, we rarely manage to lose it once the tinsel has gone from the tree. As the years go by, this type of seasonal weight gain adds up.
The authors of a recent study believe that targeting this time of year might offer an innovative way to reduce the impact of obesity. By focusing attention on times when weight gain is most significant, it might be possible to slow annual weight gain, overall.
The results from the so-called Winter Weight Watch Study were published earlier this month in the BMJ.
Scientists from the University of Birmingham's Institute of Applied Health Research and the School of Sport, Exercise, and Health Sciences at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom carried out the trial.
Specifically, they wanted to understand whether a relatively brief and straightforward intervention could reduce weight gain over Christmas. To find out, they recruited participants just before Christmas 2016 and 2017. In total, they involved 272 people; 78 percent were female, and 78 percent were white.
Researchers took the first weight measurements in November and then followed up in January.
The researchers divided the participants between an intervention group and a control group. Members of the intervention group were asked to record their weight at least twice a week, although preferably more often.
The authors explain why regular weigh-ins are essential:
"Regular weighing and recording of weight to check progress against a target (self-monitoring) has been shown to be an effective behavioral intervention within weight management programs."
The researchers encouraged the participants in the intervention group to think about their weight and how it was changing over time. As the authors explain, the intervention "aimed to promote restraint of energy consumption."
Also, the participants were given tips about managing weight and provided with a list of festive foods along with information on how much physical activity they would need to do to burn off the calories of each food they had consumed. For example, it would take 21 minutes of running to burn off the calories found in one mince pie.
The control group, on the other hand, only received a leaflet about healthy living.
Did it work?
After adjusting the data for confounding variables, the researchers found that the individuals in the intervention group had gained less weight than those in the control group — an average of 0.49 kilograms (1.1 pounds) less.
Those in the intervention group also showed more restraint, managing to limit their calorie intake more than those in the control group.
Although the difference in weight gain was smaller than the researchers had hoped, they are still excited by the results.
Because the holiday season is a yearly event, even if people only prevent a small amount of weight gain each year, it could add up to a considerable amount over a lifetime.
The authors note some shortfalls to their study. For instance, it involved a relatively small group of people, and the follow-up duration was quite brief. However, the results merit follow-up. Lifestyle change is challenging, but shorter bursts of focus on weight management may be more achievable for some people.
The authors believe that their findings "should be considered by health policymakers to prevent weight gain in the population during high-risk periods such as holidays."