Obesity 101This is a difficult time of year for people trying to lose weight.  Just as we turned the corner on Halloween candy, we are barraged with the Thanksgiving cornucopia of gravy, stuffing, and pumpkin pies; and don’t forget the eggnog and holiday cookie baskets just around the corner.

One piece of good news – while most adults believe they gain about 5 pounds over the holiday season, research suggests that the average weight gain is only about 1 pound.  Now the bad news – the average holiday weight gain is higher for adults who are already overweight or obese, and about 15% of adults gain 5 pounds or more.

What explains this pattern?  For starters, temptation is everywhere. The office is full of holiday cookies and those Thanksgiving leftovers call from the refrigerator. The more available food is, the more likely we are to succumb to temptation. Second, unless you live in Miami, it is probably too cold to burn off those extra calories with some outdoor activity.  Third, we often set ourselves up for failure by allowing ourselves to splurge and saying that we’ll fix it later with our New Year’s resolution. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard, “this day is ruined, so I might as well give up and start again tomorrow (or next month).” The problem is that New Year’s resolutions don’t work. Research has shown that once someone has gained a few holiday pounds, they tend to stick.

All is not lost, though. Studies of people who have successfully lost weight and kept it off point to a few strategies that can help:

1) Self-monitoring.  It is pretty simple – be aware of how much you weigh and how much you eat.  Staying on top of these numbers on a regular basis (i.e., daily) can help you immediately correct any lapses before too much damage is done.

2) Don’t let a lapse become a collapse.  Everyone slips up at some point - the key is to get back on track and keep going.  Just because a former smoker had a cigarette does not mean he should give up and let himself smoke a pack/day the rest of the week (or month). And so it goes with food.

3) Stimulus control.  This is a fancy way of saying remove temptation from sight. If you have to have holiday treats in the house, hide them (or better yet, have someone else hide them for you).  If you can manage, get rid of temptations altogether by donating them or throwing them out.

4) Burn some extra calories.  Exercise, while not great for weight loss, is very helpful for weight maintenance. Burning a few more calories every day – by taking the stairs or a 10-minute walk at lunch – can provide a bit of a cushion against overdoing it on Thanksgiving.

For a more comprehensive review of weight loss tools and programs, the impacts of obesity on physical and mental health, and many other topics, check out our book Obesity 101.