The Truth About Holiday Weight Gain

Today I’d like to revisit an issue which is becoming a bit of a holiday tradition here at Obesity Panacea.  We first reported on this issue in January of 2009, when a number of our colleagues noticed an interesting poster at the local gym throughout the holidays.  Despite my post (and an email to the gym’s head office), the poster was back again last year.  And so this year I have decided to put up the post preemptively, in the hopes that the misinformation in the poster is not used by any gym chain (or anyone else) this holiday season.

What’s the big deal with this poster?  As you can see from the image at the top of this post, the poster contains a picture of an overweight gingerbread, under which it reads “The average person gains 7-10 lbs over the holidays!“.  This poster immediately raises a few questions:

1. Where does this information come from? Who is the “average” person they are speaking of? Aged 18-80? Does it include kids? Seniors? Different ethnicities?

2. If the average person gains 7-10 pounds, that means that some people are gaining much more. Is that even physically possible over a 1 or 2 week period (the definition of ‘holiday season’ varies pretty widely from person to person)? Canada has a population of roughly 33 million – if we gained an average of 9 lbs over the holidays, as a nation we are about to put on 297 million lbs this year alone!  In the USA, it would mean a collective holiday weight gain of roughly 3 billion lbs!!

This 7-10 lb weight gain statistic seems a bit strange, so I decided to look it up on Google Scholar. Fortunately, I came across an excellent article from the New England Journal of Medicine which examines this very issue. Back in 2000, Yanovsky and colleagues examined the amount of weight gain during the American holiday season (from American Thanksgiving until New Year’s). Then, as now, this claim of 7-10 lbs holiday weight gain was quite common – Yanovsky reports that organizations ranging from CNN to the Texas Medical Association used the information in press releases during the holiday season of that year. In addition, self-report studies tell us that people believe that they gain 5 lbs or more over the holidays, but that does not necessarily mean that they do.

Fortunately, Yanovsky and colleagues objectively measured the body weight of 195 men and women over the course of the year. They report that the average weight gain from mid-November to mid-January was less than 1 lb! Less than 10% of the participants gained 5lbs or more. The weight gain during the holiday season was, however, significantly greater than that during the pre- or post-holiday period, and the holiday weight-gain was not lost over the course of the year.

So, what does this study tell us? First of all, it tells us that the idea that the average person gains large amounts of weight during the holidays is completely untrue. On a somewhat more serious note, the Yanovsky study also tells us that on average, people do gain a small but significant amount of weight over the holidays which is maintained throughout the course of the year. Not enough to warrant fear mongering, but enough to cause some concern – a pound or two a year can add up over time. And some people do experience significant weight gain, a phenomonen which was sigificantly more common in overweight and obese individuals. It is an issue which is worth following, but one that I hope people aren’t losing sleep over.

So remember, as we move deeper into the holiday season, don’t let the gingerbread men (whether on your plate or a poster) get you down.  And if you do notice the poster at your gym, please leave a comment below to let us know, and feel free to send them a copy of this post!

Big thanks to our friends Wendy and Geoff Stephen for letting us know about the poster and for their helpful comments.

Travis Saunders

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Yanovski JA, Yanovski SZ, Sovik KN, Nguyen TT, O’Neil PM, & Sebring NG (2000). A prospective study of holiday weight gain. The New England journal of medicine, 342 (12), 861-7 PMID: 10727591

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11 Responses to The Truth About Holiday Weight Gain

  1. Stephanie says:

    Cute post Travis! I have an “in” with these gingerbread men, they promised I can burn it all off after the holidays 😉 Merry Christmas!

  2. Megan E says:

    A very similar poster to this is currently posted in the ladies’ change room at the new Goodlife in the west end of Kingston. I think it says 5-7lbs of fat this time.

    I found it funny. Thanks for confirming their silliness.

  3. Wendy says:

    Like Megan, I too noticed posters at GoodLife here in Kingston. They have one in the locker room and a different one when you first walk in the front door. Nothing professional as far as I’ve noticed, they’re all homemade by the staff. Ugh. Given our conversations on the topic over the past couple of years I was floored to see this unfounded fact stated again this year.

    I would be very interested to hear about it if you decide to contact head office again. Compared with other gyms, GoodLife has a pretty good thing going but the misinformation drives me crazy!

  4. Rachel says:

    Gyms are often not the most reliable source of nutrition information which is too bad.

  5. I’ve seen similar posters in gyms around Boston, MA.

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  7. Catherine S says:

    Great post! For the last two years, I’ve also seen these posters up at the GoodLife gyms I go to. As a nutrition professional working in public health, I also questioned the validity of this so called “fact” they had up on their poster. After a quick google scholar search I saw the same result- the average 1 lb or less weight gain for the majority of people, and I mentioned something to the staff. The frustrating thing is that they label it as a “fact”! Thanks for clearing this up for everyone!

  8. Andrew says:

    I saw a poster at my Lifetime fitness gym in MN last night that claimed 10 lbs gained from what I remember. I wanted to investigate which is how I stumbled on this article. Thanks for the information. Although offensive, I find the ads for “liposculpure” they have plastered in all of their gyms even more offensive. This is also a company that has huge advertisements for lay’s kettlechips (like 8 foot tall standing posters) claiming the “all natural” ingredients make them a healthy choice and urging me to pick some up in their lifecafe today! Its pretty sad.

  9. Great post and well written and thought out! Thanks

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