Holiday Weight Gain Is Real, Study Says—and It Starts in October

Holiday weight gain is real, says new research from Cornell University, and it’s not just Americans who are affected. What’s more, the study showed that the extra pounds you put on between Halloween and Christmas can take more than five months to lose.

The new research, led by Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab as well as scientists in Finland and France, looked at year-round weight patterns of nearly 3,000 people in the United States, Germany, and Japan. Their data came from daily weigh-ins of consumers who’d purchased wireless Withings scales and had agreed to have their measurements collected and analyzed.

In the United States, the researchers found that the participants’ weight began to rise throughout October and November, and peaked 10 days after Christmas. The change wasn’t large, but it was significant: On average, people’s weight increased about 1.3 pounds during the Christmas-New Year’s season.

Related: 9 Healthy Holiday Eating Strategies

About half of that weight came off quickly after the holiday season ended, but the other half wasn’t lost until about five months later, after Easter.

Similar trends were noted in the other countries, as well. People in Germany tended to weight the most around New Year’s and Easter, and those in Japan packed on pounds around New Year’s as well as Golden Week—the country’s other major holiday—in April.

The findings were published last week as a research letter in the New England Journal of Medicine. “Different countries celebrate different holidays, but many such celebration periods have one thing in common: an increased intake of favorite foods,” the authors wrote.

Related: How to Actually Get Some Sleep During the Holidays

Although the topic of holiday weight gain comes up every year, some research has found that the phenomenon is more a myth than a reality—or at least that it’s greatly exaggerated in the media and pop culture. In a 2013 study from Texas Tech, for example, participants gained only about a pound and a half between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.

Brian Wansink, PhD, co-author of the new study, says that collecting weight measurements over a full year helped the researchers obtain accurate, real-life results—and, in doing so, helped show that holiday weight gain may be subtle, but that it really does happen.

“In past studies, results have been self-reported, or people would come into a facility to be weighed,” says Wansink, who is director of Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab and author of Slim by Design. “That means people could fib or change their behavior because they know they’re being monitored.”

Related: How to Start Working Out Again

The participants in this study also knew they were being monitored, but they didn’t know over what period of time or for what reasons—and measurements were taken when they weighed themselves daily, which they would have been doing anyway. “In that sense, we were getting behavior that was much more natural,” Wansink says.

Wansink says that, for people in the northern hemisphere, weight gain in the fall and winter is likely a combination of holiday foods and colder temperatures, which can lead to less outdoor activity.

“The weather may explain the gradual increase, but we also see these spikes that start about a week before the holiday and peak a few days after,” he says. “To me, that suggests that the holidays themselves aren’t the problem—it’s more the ramping up beforehand and all the Halloween candy or Thanksgiving leftovers or Christmas cookies you're eating afterward.”

Related: 15 Small Changes for a Leaner, Healthier You

The authors admit that the study participants were probably more engaged in weight-loss efforts than the general population—they’d purchased this scale and used it every day, after all—but they say the findings still provide insight that everyone can take to heart.

Wansink’s advice? “Instead of a New Year’s resolution to lose weight, have an October resolution not to gain too much weight in the first place. Then you won’t have to worry about five months of struggling,” he says.

That doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate special occasions or indulge in your favorite treats, either. "There’s nothing wrong with the holiday itself, but the key is to keep your eating to the holiday—not to the holiday season," he says. "You’re going to be in a lot better shape if you keep what happens on Thanksgiving to one day, rather than stretch it out for a week before and a week after."


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Eating Mindfully Could Help You Stay Slim, New Clinical Trial Suggests

FRIDAY, Sept. 30, 2016 (HealthDay News) — A weight-loss therapy that focuses on personal values and “mindful” decision-making may help people shed more pounds, a new clinical trial suggests.

Over one year, people who received the therapy lost more than 13 percent of their initial weight, on average.

To put that into perspective, current behavioral therapies typically help people drop 5 percent to 8 percent of their starting weight, the study authors said.

Researchers call the new approach acceptance-based behavioral therapy, or ABT.

The study authors said ABT addresses some of the biggest obstacles in keeping extra pounds off—including the difficulty of resisting temptation.

“The standard advice on weight loss only works if people are able to stick with it,” said Evan Forman, who helped develop ABT. He’s a professor of psychology at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

There is nothing new about using behavioral therapy to help people lose weight.

But, Forman said, the standard approaches don’t address the “main issue.”

“People are biologically driven to eat, especially foods that are rewarding and taste good,” he said.

Through most of human history, when food was scarce, that was an asset, Forman pointed out. Now, when so many people are surrounded by calorie-laden temptations every day, the biological drive to eat can be a problem.

“It takes special skills to resist those temptations,” Forman said. “It’s hard to turn down pleasure and reward. But those skills can be learned.”

ABT aims to teach people those skills.

The new clinical trial put the approach to the test by comparing it with standard behavioral therapy, which only encourages reducing calories and increasing exercise.

Forman’s team recruited 190 overweight or obese adults and randomly assigned them to either ABT or standard treatment. People in both groups went to 25 group sessions over one year, meeting with therapists with expertise in weight loss.

Both groups received help with diet changes and exercise, “problem solving,” and dealing with food cravings.

But ABT had added components.

For one, Forman said, people chose a goal based on their “personal values”—rather than aiming for a certain number on the bathroom scale.

A person might, for example, choose the goal of being a healthy, active grandmother.

“We emphasize the point, ‘Why does this matter?’ ” Forman said. “We get at the bigger idea of what people want in life, and how is weight related to that?”

Beyond that, ABT encourages people to accept the fact that weight loss is hard and they will inevitably feel deprived, have cravings, or find it unpleasant to opt for an apple over a brownie.

“They can say, ‘Of course, that’s how my brain is working,’ ” Forman said. Then, rather than trying to fix their thinking, they can focus on what they can change: their behavior.

How do you learn to choose the apple when your brain really wants the brownie? Patience and practice, according to Forman.

“It sounds weird, but you can literally practice tossing a piece of brownie in the trash and eating the apple instead,” he said.

Another aspect of the therapy is training in “mindful” decision-making.

“So many of the decisions we make around eating have no explicit thought process behind them,” Forman said.

During ABT, people learn to notice how “cues” from their environment—from TV to the presence of tempting food to sheer boredom—influence their decisions to eat.

In this new trial, the approach appeared to work better than standard therapy: After a year, ABT patients had lost a little over 13 percent of their starting weight, compared to just under 10 percent for people in the comparison group.

The ABT group also fared better when it came to keeping the pounds off: 64 percent had maintained at least a 10 percent weight loss at the one-year mark, compared with 49 percent of the standard-therapy group.

Dr. Steven Heymsfield is a spokesman for the Obesity Society and a professor at Pennington Biomedical Research Center, in Baton Rouge, La.

He had praise for the ABT approach.

“It recognizes the underlying biological drive to eat, and provides people with a powerful counterweight to that,” said Heymsfield, who wasn’t involved in the research.

Losing weight is not just about “willpower,” Heymsfield said. People have to overcome strong biological impulses — and that takes strong motivation, he said.

It makes sense that focusing on important personal values (such as being a healthy grandma) can work better than a “superficial goal” of fitting into smaller jeans, Heymsfield said.

Still, he pointed to some big remaining questions about ABT: Does the weight loss hold up over time? And does the therapy have to be ongoing?

Practically speaking, it’s not clear whether ABT can be disseminated widely.

In this study, it was given by Ph.D.-level professionals, Heymsfield pointed out.

“So can this program ‘transport’ well?” he asked. “Can it be incorporated into a Watch Watchers or Jenny Craig program?”

Forman agreed that practical barriers have to be addressed. He also said it’s possible that after the initial therapy sessions, people could have once-a-year “booster” sessions—or even get help through mobile apps—to make the approach more feasible.

The study is published in the October issue of the journal Obesity.

More information

The U.S. National Institutes of Health has advice on healthy weight loss.


New ABT approach results in greater weight loss than gold standard treatment, study shows

A new approach to weight loss called Acceptance-Based Behavioral Treatment (ABT) helped people lose more weight and keep it off longer than those who received only Standard Behavioral Treatment (SBT) – a typical treatment plan encouraging reduced caloric intake and increased physical activity – according to a new randomized controlled clinical trial.


Wearing a Fitness Tracker Won’t Necessarily Lead to Weight Loss

Adding a fitness tracker to your weight-loss routine might not help you shed pounds faster, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are cautioning. In fact, they recently found that people who used wearable technology actually lost less weight than those who logged their exercise manually.

Their study, published this week in JAMA, concludes that such devices “may not offer an advantage over standard behavioral weight-loss approaches.” But the researchers also point out that the way people use fitness trackers is very individualized. Their findings suggest that using them to slim down won’t work for everyone, they say—not that it won’t work for anyone.

John Jakicic, PhD, a distinguished professor in the department of health and physical activity, designed this study to see what would happen when wearable activity trackers were given to people who were already involved in a weight-loss program. So he and his colleagues recruited 470 overweight men and women, ages 18 to 35, and gave them instructions about limiting their daily calories and getting more physical activity.

The participants met for weekly check-ins for half a year, during which they all lost weight. “We generally see really good effectiveness for the first six months on these types of programs, then things start to slip away,” says Jakicic. “We thought if we added an activity tracker to what we know is an already pretty good intervention, that would make it better—that it would boost the effectiveness.”

But they actually found the opposite: When they divided the participants into two groups, and asked them to either wear an activity tracker or record their physical activity manually on a website for the next year and a half, the latter group came out on top. 

People in the fitness tracker group lost, on average, 7.7 pounds since the start of the study two years prior, while those in the self-tracking group lost an average of 13 pounds. “We were pretty shocked,” says Jakicic.

Another surprise? Those who wore fitness trackers didn’t even get more physical activity than those who didn’t. Both groups did see improvements—in body composition, fitness level, diet, and the amount of exercise they got each week—but there were no significant differences between the two.

But, Jakicic stresses, these results only focus on the overall picture. “That doesn’t mean that fitness trackers aren’t beneficial to some people,” he says. In fact, there were individuals in the study who lost lots of weight using a wearable tracker, just as there were people who didn’t lose much in the self-tracking group.

“There are a lot of people out there who live and die by these things,” he says. “They love it and it engages them and keeps them involved, and that’s really important. We’re not saying don’t use it if it’s working for you.”

If, however, you’ve been wearing a tracker and you’re not losing weight, this study may serve as a wake-up call of sorts. “We think it could be that people are paying so much attention to the tracker that they’re losing sight of all the other things that need to happen,” says Jakicic. “Maybe your tracker is telling you you’re doing well, so you take the liberty of eating another cookie or another cupcake.”  

Another possibility, he says, is that people who play an active role in recording their fitness data—by keeping track and physically writing it down or typing it into a computer—may hold themselves more accountable than those who use trackers.

“When you use a program like the one we used in our study, you’re taking responsibility,” he says. “You say, ‘I exercised for 30 minutes today,’ and you’re engaged in that process; you’re not relying on a device or a machine to do it for you. So maybe you have to be engaged and hands-on at that level for it to really be effective.”

The fitness trackers used in the study were BodyMedia Core Fit armbands, which connect to a website where users can view their progress. The self-tracking group used a computer program set up specifically for the study, but Jakicic says it’s similar to commercially available apps and websites like MyFitnessPal.

The researchers are now analyzing their findings more closely, to look for patterns among those study participants who did seem to benefit, from a weight-loss standpoint, from wearing fitness trackers.

“We don’t know yet what makes these people different from anyone else,” say Jakicic. “If we can identify people with certain characteristics that will really be motivated by these devices—and other people who won’t—then we can hopefully make some really helpful recommendations.” 

This article originally appeared on


Diet and Exercise Work for Weight Loss, Even If You Have the ‘Obesity Gene'

Time to scratch another excuse off the list of reasons you can't lose weight: According to a new study, improving diet and getting more exercise helps people lose weight—regardless of their genetic makeup.

Yes, there is a so-called “obesity gene." People who carry a specific variant of the FTO gene have been shown to be an average of 6.6 pounds heavier than those who don’t, and are 70% more likely to be obese. But when researchers at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom compared people who had the FTO gene variant with those who didn’t, they found that it had no effect on how well participants responded to weight loss interventions.

In other words, said co-author and professor of human nutrition John Mathers, PhD, in a press release, “you can no longer blame your genes.”

The new report, published in BMJ, is a scientific review of eight previous studies from around the world, involving more than 9,500 people in total. All eight studies were randomized, controlled trials of weight loss plans that included diet, exercise, medications, or some combination of the three.

RELATED: Take Our 30-Day Weight Loss Challenge

When the researchers combined and re-analyzed results from all of the studies, they found that changes in body mass, weight, and waist circumference were not significantly different between people with different FTO variants.

They also found no differences between gene types when they looked at results based on gender, ethnicity, age, or the type of weight loss intervention. (They do point out, though, that most study participants were Caucasian, and that more studies should be done on more diverse groups.)

These findings contradict those of a 2012 review including some of the same studies, which found a small genetic influence on weight loss efforts. But, the researchers say, the new analysis included more participants and more individual data, and they only looked at studies that carefully ruled out or controlled for potential factors that may have influenced the results.

“This is important news for people trying to lose weight as it means that diet, physical activity, or drug-based weight loss plans will work just as well in those who carry the risk version of FTO,” Mathers said.

It also suggests that a genetic predisposition to obesity “can be at least partially counteracted through such interventions,” the authors wrote.

While the FTO variant seems to play the largest genetic role in a person’s weight, it’s not the only gene that’s been implicated in weight gain or obesity. The gene IRX3, for example, has been found to also play a role in regulating body mass, and a variant of the MC4R gene may make people more prone to overeating.

RELATED: 57 Ways to Lose Weight Forever, According to Science

The authors acknowledge that their study only looked at one obesity-related gene, and that the effects of others are still unknown.

But many experts say that in the grand scheme of things, genes—all of them—likely play a very small role in obesity. In an editorial published with the new study, Alison Tedstone, PhD, writes that “the causes of obesity are multiple and complex,” and that the Newcastle study adds to evidence “suggesting that environmental factors might dominate over at least common obesity-linked genes.” 

Tedstone, who is chief nutritionist at the government organization Public Health England, also writes that weight-loss programs marketed as being customized based on a person’s genome “may not pay off, at least in the short term.”

Instead, she says, obesity research should focus on “whole systems approaches” including environmental causes and solutions, in order to benefit more people of all genetic makeups.