Every year after the holidays, people inevitably swear they'll make amends for the extra calories they consumed in December by eating less when the new year comes. They'll buy more broccoli, and fewer chips; serve themselves more salad, and skip more desserts. Talk of New Year's weight resolutions begins well before the ball drops. And that talk is cheap.
It turns out that people actually eat the most right around the time they say they're going to eat the least—and by a big margin. Americans buy roughly twice as many calories per serving in food in the first three months of the new year than during the holidays, according to a new study. And that's saying something, because the holidays are already quite the gluttonous stretch.
The researchers tracked grocery spending habits for more than 200 households in New York over the course of seven months. The findings were split into three periods—a baseline period, between July and Thanksgiving; a holidays period, between Thanksgiving and New Year's; and a post-holidays period, between New Year's and March. And the foods were divided into health and unhealthy buckets, based on a rating system used at grocery stores in the participating area.
What they found is that the post-holidays period is by far the most caloric.
"Despite New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier, people tend to hang on to those unhealthy holiday favorites and keep buying them in the New Year," Drew Hanks, one of the study's authors, said in a statement.
On a per-serving basis, Americans buy about 440 extra calories during the holidays. After the holidays, when everyone is supposed to be detoxing, people are instead filling up their pantries with even more food. Food purchases jump another 450 calories per serving post-holidays.
What seems to happen as each new year unfolds is the combination of a couple things. People's desire to eat healthier is earnest. Look no further than the spike in purchases of healthier foods after the holidays in the chart above for evidence. But their plan of attack has a huge flaw. Instead of buying green beans in place of french fries, they're buying both.
"The finding that after New Year’s purchasing of healthy items increased and relatively less-healthy items remained the same as during the holiday period suggests that even though many people make a New Year’s resolution to eat healthier or lose weight, consumers are making purchasing decisions that only partly support these goals," the researchers wrote.
But it's no wonder people have trouble reducing their food consumption after an extended holiday feast, running from Thanksgiving through Christmas, when overall eating goes up, skewing normal food purchasing habits. The new status quo, in which households spend more money on more calories, becomes the norm, and that norm becomes all the more difficult to kick.
"Even when people recognize that making a change would be best for them, they still continue to follow their behavioral scripts," the study says.
So people cope as best they can, by buying the healthy foods they promised themselves they would, along with the unhealthy foods they promised themselves they wouldn't. Coupled together, the result is further evidence of the futility of New Year's resolutions.