The holidays are here, and society would have us believe this also means impending doom for your health and your waistline. “The traditional American Thanksgiving dinner averages 3,000 calories — that’s more than your full day’s requirement in one meal,” seasonal articles warn. Magazines declare that the average person will gain at least five pounds during the holidays; then, they explain how you can sidestep this fate with the help of joyless and unrealistic strategies, such as filling up on crudités so you have no room for pie. But here’s the thing: The whole concept of holiday weight gain is largely a myth — one that’s been debunked by science. In a study of 195 adults published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers wrote that “it is commonly asserted that the average American gains five pounds or more over the holiday period between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, yet few data support this statement." Those same researchers concluded that the real number is more like one pound — max. A 2013 study out of Texas Tech University yielded similar results. “Changes that happen to your body when you switch up your diet are almost always temporary, especially if you’re eating differently for only a short period of time,” says Traci Mann, PhD, a professor at the University of Minnesota who researches eating behaviors, weight loss, and body image. (Check out some of her findings in her recent book, Secrets From the Eating Lab.) The reason a little holiday excess won’t do much to tip the scales is that your body works to keep you within a set weight range, Dr. Mann explains. “People understand this when you talk about losing weight: You drop a few pounds, and your body pushes back. Your metabolism slows down, so there’s more left over to store as fat.” The opposite is also true, Dr. Mann says: Your body adjusts to keep you from gaining a lot of weight. Even if, hypothetically, you were to eat fistfuls of Aunt Mabel’s homemade cookies every day through New Year’s, your body would probably return to its current state once you stopped. Dr. Mann points to an older study in which 12 sets of adult twins were overfed an extra 1,000 calories per day for 84 days and were not allowed to exercise. “The study participants gained between 10 and 30 pounds during that time, so there was a huge variability,” Dr. Mann says. “And people tended to gain about as much as their twin, but a different amount than the other twins, which indicated that genetic factors play a bigger role in determining your weight than how much you’re eating.” Perhaps even more interesting, she says, is that most people returned to their starting weight shortly after the study ended.
Does this taste good? Am I actually enjoying it?
So now that we can all agree that holiday weight gain is bullshit, can we please stop talking about it? We’re not even sure it’s worth owning a scale. When it comes to eating, it’s about finding a balance that works for you. Food is fuel for your body, and the more nutrient-dense stuff you eat, the more vibrant and healthy you’ll feel. But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with indulging — especially during celebratory times like the holidays. The problem is, too many of us take an all-or-nothing approach: We either restrict ourselves or we “give in” and gorge on eggnog and stuffing until we feel sick. And even if we aren’t actually packing on pounds, weeks in a row of eating like crap is going to leave us feeling pretty bleh. For a more mindful method, we spoke with dietitian Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, co-author of the seminal Intuitive Eating book series. To start, she says, make sure you’re taking care of your basic needs: Get enough sleep, manage your stress, and fit in some exercise, which will help stabilize your mood. Then, she suggests, try to connect with the food you’re eating: “Ask yourself: Does this taste good? Am I actually enjoying it?” Christmas cookies, Tribole notes, often look beautiful, but when you bite into them, they’re dry and flavorless. But if something’s delicious, enjoy! “It’s time to get rid of the ‘naughty or nice’ mentality — you don’t need to apologize for anything you choose to eat,” Tribole says. Parties and other group gatherings pose their own challenges. For one thing, “it’s easy to get distracted talking to someone and absentmindedly eat,” says Tribole. Dr. Mann’s research has revealed that people will mindlessly graze the longer they sit at the table — or if the food is placed right in front of them. “When there’s good-looking food around us, we tend to reach for it even if we’re not hungry or are already uncomfortably full,” she notes. Then there’s what Tribole calls the “food pushers” — those family members who notice if you don’t take a slice of grandma’s pie or a scoop of Aunt Sue’s green bean casserole, and more or less insist that you do. “You have to respect your own boundaries; it’s not your responsibility to make someone happy,” Tribole says. “You can show that you appreciate the effort someone put into a dish but still say ‘no thank you.’” Of course, sometimes you really, really want something, but you’re completely stuffed. “It’s totally normal to feel sad or disappointed that you can’t have a favorite food,” Tribole says. She suggests you wrap up leftovers to savor later; if there aren’t any, remember that this isn’t the last time you can ever have this particular dish. “The bottom line," Tribole adds, "whether it’s the holidays or any other time of the year, is staying in touch with your body and honoring how you feel in the here and now.”