Why You Shouldn't Worry About Holiday Weight Gain

December 23rd 2015

Corrie Shenigo

’Tis the season of cocktails, cookies, and all the gastronomical delights of the holidays. But should you indulge? (Your inbox is likely filling with Pilates studio and spin class offers, and articles on “avoiding holiday weight gain” are appearing at a furious rate.)

Well, we suggest you calm down. Like the best Italian grandma, we say this to you: “Eat … eat!” Here’s why.

  1. Let’s start by debunking the myth that you'll gain five to 10 pounds during the holidays. The media love a good exaggeration, and this oft-quoted statistic is no different. In fact, a person at a healthy weight actually gains only one pound annually, according to Physiology & Behavior. That's a far less daunting digit for you if you're considering hitting the gym post-holiday. Of course, that one pound can become dangerous to your health if you don't lose it (and many of us don’t): As it compounds year after year, it can become a health liability. 
  2. You can also console yourself with the thought that your Halloween-through-New Year's Eve weight gain isn't entirely your fault. You may have inherited a predisposition to increase fat stores in winter months under what some theorists call the “thrifty gene hypothesis,” which posits that your body has adapted to retaining weight during what was once a time of famine. (Of course, most of us no longer live in areas rife with famine. This also ignores the reality that more and more studies question the veracity of the “thrifty gene hypothesis” and its connection to obesity. But if you’re desperate for a scientific rationalization for your weight gain, you can use it.)
  3. You can also blame your carb cravings on seasonal affective disorder, a condition that affects nearly 14 million people during the winter months and results in depression and other symptoms. Some 79 percent of people affected with SAD report  heightened carbohydrate cravings. With fewer hours of sunlight, and more time spent indoors, your body produces less serotonin, an essential “feel good” neurotransmitter that regulates appetite and mood. Craving carbohydrates may simply be your brain’s way of creating more serotonin to counteract the effects of SAD. 
  4. There are other excuses for you to indulge during the holiday. Scientists have debunked the argument that winter weight gain helps keep you physically warm during cold weather, but there is a psychological benefit to eating and drinking something warm. Things that are warm — such as a hot shower or a warm drink — can help promote warm, happy feelings, according to a widely cited Yale University study. It seems our brain does not differentiate between physical warmth and psychological warmth.
  5. And that’s not all. Food is a strong reminder of our social ties, helping us feel connected and less lonely — as fundamental a need as food or water, according to a 2015 academic study. Smell is also linked with memory: The smell of holiday cookies, brisket, and spice are powerful reminders of happy times. And happy memories and nostalgia raise your self-esteem, which in turn heightens your optimism and brightens your outlook on the future, according to a study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Kind of suggests that denying yourself the edible joys of the season is downright cruel, right?
  6. Finally, it may cause you actual psychological harm to deny yourself. Michelle May, author of “Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat,” wrote this: “When we judge food as being ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ we also judge ourselves and other people as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ depending on what we ate.” All this leads to oversimplifying relationships, misjudging nutritional information, lowering your self-esteem and perpetuating a pattern of deprivation and overeating that is simply unhealthy. We're pretty sure that's not what the “good-tidings” in the holiday song had in mind.