Good news! Science says the holidays won’t make you fat

December 2, 2012

Sadly, science cannot do anything about ugly Christmas sweaters.

Along with the slew of holiday parties about to kick off come the inevitable complaints of holiday weight gain. Is it possible to make it through the stretch from Thanksgiving to Christmas, between the cookies and eggnog, without packing on some serious pounds? 

Turns out, it's not only possible, it's actually quite likely: A classic study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that, despite some pretty big claims about weight gain, the average American gains less than a pound during the holiday season. 

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health had seen claims on the news that the average American would gain somewhere between eight and 10 pounds during the holidays. Studies that rely on self-reporting find Americans estimating they gain five pounds during the time period.

The researchers decided to investigate, recruiting 200 people between ages 19 and 82. The sample was representative of the United States in terms of the prevalence of overweight and obese individuals. 

The individuals came in to be weighed in September or October, and then again in February or March. The reserachers found that, on average, the participants gained .37 kilograms, or 0.81 pounds. 

"The subjects believed they had gained four times as much weight as their actual holiday weight gain of 0.37 kg," the researchers conclude. "Fewer than 10 percent of subjects gained 2.3 kg or more, and more than half of all measurements of weight after the initial one were within 1 kg of the previous measurement."

It's also worth noting that much of the weight gain seemed to be concentrated in a smaller group of study participants, with more than a half not seeing weight gain above 1 kilogram. Higher amounts of weight gain, above 2.3 kilograms (5 pounds), was more prevalent among the overweight or obese study participants.

For those trying to lose weight during the holiday season, the effort seemed to be futile: None of the 29 self-identified dieters had results any different from those of the rest of the group. 

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Brad Plumer | December 1, 2012