search button
newscenter logo
Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Follow SDSU Follow SDSU on Twitter Follow SDSU on Facebook SDSU RSS Feed

The holidays bring tempting food cues and weight gain for many. Obesity researcher Surabhi Bhutani studied this phenomenon and offers insights. The holidays bring tempting food cues and weight gain for many. Obesity researcher Surabhi Bhutani studied this phenomenon and offers insights.

Why Our Bodies Upsize During the Holidays

Holiday weight gain happens to many. Obesity researcher Surabhi Bhutani studied why this happens and how to prevent it.
By Padma Nagappan

For many, it’s a familiar but unwelcome situation every year during the holidays — weight gain from eating rich, heavy food.

While there may be less socializing this holiday season due to COVID-19  shelter-at-home orders, grocery store aisles filled with seasonal chocolates and sugary, high-calorie desserts, sweet treats and drinks still tempt shoppers. And traditional holiday menus, whether cooked at home or in the form of restaurant take-out, tend to lean towards heavy foods.

It’s this annual phenomenon that Surabhi Bhutani studied, to understand why people gain weight during this season more than at other times of the year. An assistant professor at San Diego State University’s School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences, her research focuses on the senses of smell and taste and how it affects behavior, particularly eating habits. 

Bhutani shared insights with SDSU NewsCenter about what people can do this holiday season.

Why do many of us gain weight during the holidays, and who is more at risk?
The winter holiday season is the most critical time for weight gain. On average we may gain about one to two pounds within a short time between November and January. While this may not seem like much, it is a significant amount considering that average yearly weight gain in adults in the U.S is just over two pounds. This weight slowly creeps up and Americans could see a substantial increase of 15 to 30 pounds in body weight over several decades. The holiday weight gain typically occurs when the energy intake,  the number of calories you are consuming, becomes greater than the energy expenditure, the calories you are burning. And while we may think of using exercise to ‘cancel out’ the effects of eating all those candy canes and egg nogs, the reality is that we may not be able to make up for the calories consumed. This seasonal weight gain poses an even greater risk of weight gain and long-trem weight retention in individuals who are overweight or obese.  

Why do we eat more during the holiday season?
In our recent research we show that eating patterns change significantly during this time of festivities. We are constantly exposed to food cues during the holidays, whether it’s our tradition of baking cookies at home, attending holiday parties, or feasts we prepare for friends and family. In our study we particularly show that frequent social eating, especially at sit-down restaurants and an overall lower satisfaction after eating a calorie-rich meal are major contributors. It’s possible that with constant exposure to food cues during holidays, our internal system that signals hunger and fullness is overridden and undermined, making it difficult for people to regulate food intake.

What types of foods make the biggest culprits in upsizing?
Most holiday goodies are calorie-dense and high in fat, sugar, and salt. The main culprits are foods with  low nutritional value like simple carbs including cookies, cakes, baked goods and breads. All the festive holiday coffee drinks and cocktails have hidden sugars in them. While they may make you feel warm and comforted on cold days, the pumpkin spice lattes and other fancy coffee drinks are loaded with sugar. Another culprit is alcohol. Drinking alcohol will not only add additional empty calories to your day, but will also trick your  body and brain into thinking that you are hungry, even when you  are not. With those extra few drinks, you are sure to get a hankering for late night munchies.
What can we do to avoid this annual tradition? 
Unfortunately, the weight gain that we see around this time can lead to bigger problems, so the real resolution should be to not gain too much weight so you won’t have to struggle with losing those pounds afterwards. The trick is to enjoy the holiday but not stretch the eating a week before and after the festivals. My advice is to stick to your normal routine as much as possible and feast on one day when celebrating with friends and family. If you attend holiday parties — during normal years when we are not in a lockdown — make sure to have healthy and satisfying meals throughout the day with some light snacks before going to the party. Starting your day with veggies and eggs, high in fiber and  protein will keep you full for longer. While some may use the strategy of fasting all day in anticipation of overindulging at the party, this will backfire, because when you are beyond hungry it is hard to stay in control of food choices.
Post-holiday leftovers, though tempting, will add to those extra pounds, so avoid it as much as possible. Volunteer to make low-calorie options, such as a fruit or a vegetable platter to holiday potlucks. This way you know you will have a healthy food option, when you are surrounded by all the holiday goodies.
Exercise will be helpful in keeping your mood and sleep in check. So, if you exercise regularly, keep up, and if you do not, start engaging in some light exercise. It is also a great stress buster, which is common during holidays. Start a new holiday tradition that does not revolve around food. Walk in the neighborhood to see festival lights with family or have a holiday Zumba party with friends. Frequent self-weighing has been shown to help prevent weight gain.