Holiday weight gain can leave you feeling down after the festive season, but experts say you shouldn’t stress about a few extra pounds. Hint: The scale isn’t really painting the full picture. Here’s what they had to say.
The holidays bring so many fun things: time with friends and family, cozy nights by the fire, and, of course, delicious food and drinks (hello, Starbucks seasonal menu!). All that celebrating—while fun—can lead to some seasonal weight gain. While the number on the scale or the snugness of your pants may freak you out, experts we spoke to said there’s no cause for concern.
There’s no reason to be stressed about holiday weight gain, but if you are, we put together a guide on everything you need to know. We’ll never tell you that you need to lose weight. And while the number on the scale is one way to monitor your health, it’s not a comprehensive or accurate measure (more on that below).
The most important takeaway? You might gain some weight over the holidays (most people do!), but not nearly as much as you think. All kinds of factors influence the number on the scale, but gaining a large amount of weight in two weeks simply isn’t physiologically possible—you’d have to be eating a huge excess of calories.
We spoke to experts to find out how much weight people gain over the holidays on average, why this weight gain happens, and what to do in order to have a healthy holiday season. Read on to see what they said.
Is It Normal to Gain Weight Over the Holidays?
In short, yes. Weight gain during the holiday season—from late November to early January—is extremely common due to celebrations and social gatherings, which are known to have high-calorie foods like desserts, sugary drinks, and alcohol. There’s also evidence of a decrease in physical activity during this time of year.
“Studies show that on average, people do gain weight, but it is less weight gain than commonly thought,” says Jennifer Martin-Biggers, PhD, MS, RDN, vice president of scientific affairs and education at HUM Nutrition. “Note this is an average, so some gain more and some don’t gain weight or even lose weight.”
Average Holiday Weight Gain
So, how much weight do people usually gain in a week? “In general, people gain less than one pound over the several-week season in totality,” Dr. Martin-Biggers says. Of course, it’s definitely possible to gain more if you’re consuming excess calories.
A review published in 2017 examined 15 publications that have been conducted to research the effect of holiday season weight gain. In all but one of the studies they evaluated, there was an increase of weight gain ranging from 0.37 kilograms to 0.9 kilograms (or .8 pounds to 2 pounds). “In general, people who are overweight or obese gain more weight than people at a normal BMI, but even people who identify as motivated and self-monitor their intake gain some weight,” Dr. Martin-Biggers explains.
Why the Number on the Scale Isn’t Totally Accurate
While the scale can be used as a tool to track weight gain or loss, the number might not always be the most accurate (especially during the holidays). Here are some factors that can affect your weight on the scale:
Eating Salty Foods
“Eating salty foods can contribute to water retention or ‘water weight,’ which may affect the number on the scale and make you feel bloated, but is not an accurate representation of long-term body composition,” explains Danielle Gray, NASM-certified personal trainer and founder of Train Like A Gymnast. While it may seem counterintuitive, hydration can help with this.
Another thing that leads to water weight? Drinking alcohol. Alcohol dehydrates our bodies, which can cause our bodies to hold onto water. This can cause the number on the scale to spike unexpectedly. If you’re celebrating over the holidays, drinking alcohol will likely happen. Rather than trying to cut it out entirely, Gray recommends spacing out your drinks (or trying mindful drinking). “Try to drink one glass of still or bubbly water between each alcoholic beverage,” she says. “Alcohol has lots of calories and not many nutrients, so you’re better off consuming calories with nutritional benefit and limiting your consumption since it can lead to hunger and prevent your body from burning fat in a vicious cycle.”
Efficiency of Excretory System
Believe it or not, going to the bathroom can affect the number on the scale. If you’re backed up (due to stress, travel, or something you ate), you might see an increase in weight. So, make sure you’re weighing yourself at the same time every day (in the morning right after you use the bathroom, for example).
If you’re currently menstruating, you may notice an unwelcome change on the scale. The hormonal fluctuations you experience during your period can actually cause water retention, which will impact the number on the scale. Keep in mind that this is temporary, and your weight will likely return back to what it was beforehand.
How to Avoid Holiday Weight Gain
It is possible to stay on track over the holidays. In fact, it’s also possible to lose weight just by being mindful over the festive season. A study in the UK provided a behavioral intervention to a group of adults over the holiday season to prevent weight gain. They found that the group that received the intervention (which consisted of regular self-weight, weight management, and nutrition advice in the form of the amount of activity needed to offset food intake) actually lost weight (0.13 kilograms lost) compared to a control group that gained 0.37 kilograms.
Below are some expert tips on how to avoid holiday weight gain.
“If you are attending a party later where you really want to try something delicious like someone’s famous eggnog or pie, go ahead and indulge,” Dr. Martin-Biggers says. “But earlier in the day, don’t also have a really calorie-dense meal.” Simply look for a high-protein, lower-calorie meal ahead of time and drink plenty of water.
Be Conscious of Portion Size
You may be tempted to load up on every delicious food in sight, but that only lends itself to accidental overeating. Instead, be mindful of your portion sizes. Take a small amount of everything. If you’re still hungry for more, you can go back. And, if you’re full, you can always take a little food to go (or save the recipe to make another time). Another trick? Fill your plate up with mostly veggies. This will prevent you from consuming too many salty, sugary, or fatty foods. If you know you’re going to be feasting, you can also take a digestive enzyme like HUM’s Flatter Me to help your body digest all that food.
Don’t Skip Meals
When it comes to the holidays, many save their appetite for the big meal. But this can lead to overeating. “What I recommend is eating a normal breakfast and lunch or a normal breakfast and dinner so that you aren’t so hungry going into the main meal,” Gray says. “We all know there will be plenty of leftovers for days, so most of us don’t need to eat like this is the last time we’ll see food for the foreseeable future.”
The key to staying healthy over the holidays? Keep moving. “Go on walks with family, play active indoor games like charades, try a VR headset game, make silly TikToks, show someone your way of working out, or try someone else’s,” Gray says. “Never stop moving—the more active you are, the more energy you will burn and you won’t need to concern yourself with overeating or weight gain.” Pro tip: Research has found that going on a walk right after you eat can help with weight loss.
Stick to Your Pivotal Practices
“Pivotal practices” is a term coined by Gray herself, and they’re something she recommends to her own clients for the holiday season. “These are things that you do to stay at peak performance as your best self, but for this, it will be wellness-focused,” she explains. “Maybe it’s eating three nutritious meals a day, maybe it’s drinking three bottles of water a day, maybe it’s exercising at least three times per week for 30 minutes at a moderate intensity.” (Hint: Try the 12-3-30 workout for a fast, effective form of exercise.)
All of these routines can get thrown off while traveling, so it’s important to define these individual practices beforehand so you can best prepare and plan ahead. “The more specific you can be about the absolute minimums, the more objectively you can look at the next few weeks to make sure you find a way to stay consistent,” Gray says.
What to Do If You Gain Weight Over the Holidays
If you gained weight over the holidays, remain calm. Now is not the time to do anything drastic. “You should absolutely not exercise to ‘undo’ any decisions you have made or restrict yourself post-holidays,” Gray says. “This not only creates a negative mindset around food and exercise as ‘punishment,’ but it also is not healthy to yo-yo back and forth and up and down around any holiday.”
Focus on getting back into your normal workout routine, drinking enough water, and eating whole, unprocessed foods. If your digestive system needs a little help, you can also load up on detox foods. They’ll support your body’s natural detoxification process and supply your body with some much-needed nutrients.
Ultimately, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Remember that any weight gained can be lost over time (in a healthy way, of course). “Weight gain is not something that will 100 percent happen over the holidays,” Dr. Martin-Biggers says. “It is important to have healthy habits and relationships with food all year—not just at the holidays.”
In short, there’s no need to stress about seeing a change on the scale during the holiday season. “It’s important to know it’s a time of year that weight gain can happen, but you should not stress about it and be prepared,” Dr. Martin-Biggers says. “One of the joys of food, aside from nourishing us, is the social and cultural connections it brings. Enjoy that time and the connections that food brings you.”