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Holiday weight gain worse for successful dieters


If you've gained weight over the holidays, you're not alone. Dieters actually
gain more weight over the holidays. © Lisa F. Young |

If you've packed the pounds back on since Thanksgiving despite your best efforts, you're not alone. A study published in June of 2008 in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that successful dieters put on more weight during the holidays than folks that had always been thin.

In the study, researchers at Brown Medical School studied 178 men and women from the National Weight Control Registry who had successfully lost a mean of 77 pounds and managed to keep of at least 30 pounds of that weight for six years. Despite expressing plans to stick to their exercise routines and be "extremely strict" about their diets through the winter holidays, almost forty percent of the successful dieters had gained a kilogram (2.2 pounds) or more during the holiday season. By February, three-quarters of the of the dieters still hadn't lost their holiday weight. Of the normal-weight control subjects who had no history of obesity, less than seventeen percent gained a kilogram or more between Thanksgiving and New Years, and only 10.7% maintained the weight gain by Valentines' Day. "Despite their greater efforts, [successful weight losers] appeared more vulnerable than did [normal-weight participants] to weight gain over this high-risk period," the study concluded.

Keep in mind that the dieters weren't the festively plump types who could never stick to a diet for more than a week or two. These were committed and successful dieters who had lost the equivalent of a fifth grader and kept it off for more than half a decade. These people had the tools in their tool box to stay away from the bonbons and eggnog. The survey showed that the successful dieters showed greater restraint at the buffet table, greater attention to what they put in their mouths, and exercised more than those with no history of obesity, but the temptations of the holidays were just too much for them. By the time it came time to set out cookies for Santa, the successful dieters' commitment to weight control strategies were as strong as ever, but their will power had declined significantly. "During the holidays, [successful weight losers] maintained nearly all of their more extreme weight-controlling behaviors; however, their attention to weight and eating decreased significantly more than was true for [normal weight participants]," the study explains. Apparently those with no history of obesity just didn't have the devil on their shoulder urging them to reach for the cookies that the successful dieters had.

The study offers no genetic or biological hypotheses for why the successful dieters lost control during the holidays, concluding that the lapses were behavioral. "Self-monitoring increases awareness of behaviors and allows the individual to catch “lapses” in weight quickly and to adjust behaviors accordingly to prevent larger weight 'relapses,'" the researchers conclude. "Studies have shown that promotion of increased awareness of eating through self-monitoring during the holidays can promote better weight control during this high-risk period," (italics mine). 

This insight might apply to many triathletes who were former butterballs themselves. For many, the lifestyle that triathlon requires can be the pillar that keeps former porkers making good food and activity choices. But during the off season, when the need to stay at peak fitness is remote, it's easy for triathletes to fall off the wagon. It can be especially hard to maintain motivation through the New England winter months, where the weather turns bitter cold around Thanksgiving and we say goodbye to the sun around Halloween. To avoid falling victim to the dieter's holiday paradox, set winter process goals for yourself and remember that part of being stronger than your competitors is passing on rich holiday food when they are stuffing their faces with figgy pudding. And if you did go overboard on the fruit cake this year, resolve to get right back into the gym with the throngs of new dieters on January 1.

For more info: Read the full study here.