How to help your patients avoid holiday weight gain

By Anastasia Climan, RDN, CD-N | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published December 19, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Most people gain one to two pounds yearly, which adds up to significant changes over time.

  • The holiday season takes place over 2 months but accounts for 50% of yearly weight gain.

  • Targeted interventions can help your patients “maintain, not gain” this season.

Holiday weight gain is a common issue among your patients that can be a lot more serious than it sounds. While the holiday season is a time of celebration, joy, and indulgence, it’s also marked by calorie-rich foods and drinks, disrupted routines, and stressful situations. 

Although many people intend to ditch the extra weight after New Year's, research shows they are rarely successful. Here's how to help your patients enjoy the festivities without packing on the pounds. 

What’s the big deal about holiday weight gain?

No one wants to be a Scrooge, but as healthcare providers, we know that holiday weight gain is a topic worth discussing. Studies show that 50% of the total pounds Americans put on each year is gained between mid-November and mid-January, a short span of time—and one when obese patients are particularly vulnerable.[] 

Environmental exposure to food cues (such as cooking more), dining out, and vacations can contribute to the motivation to eat more through the winter holidays. 

The average holiday gain only ranges from one to two pounds each year, and while this doesn’t sound like much, these sneaky, incremental gains add up to long-term implications for mobility, heart health, blood sugar, and other risks. Taking action during this critical time point may protect your patients from lasting negative effects.

Targeted interventions affect outcomes

When introducing the subject of potential weight gain during the holidays, use an approach that avoids placing blame or guilt. Ask your patients how they’re feeling about the holidays and whether they’re struggling to maintain healthy habits. 

"By opening up the conversation, you can plant a seed that may help shift your patient’s awareness and mindset."

Anastasia Climan, RDN, CD-N

Research suggests that brief interventions can make a positive difference as long as they’re well-designed. A study in the British Medical Journal randomized 272 adults into two groups to test this theory.[] The intervention group tracked their weight and was provided a list of 10 weight management tips. They were also given a handout detailing the physical activity equivalent required to burn off common holiday foods. The comparator group was provided with a more generalized healthy lifestyle brochure. 

Over the Christmas period, the intervention group showed greater cognitive restraint with eating and drinking, which helped prevent weight gain. This study showed that choosing engaging, specific, actionable recommendations can help effect more concrete change.

You can set your patients up for success by encouraging them to “maintain, not gain” during the season. Consider suggesting some of the following goals:

  • Balance intake: Fill up on healthier foods and enjoy smaller portions of treats.

  • Be mindful: Savor each bite and stay mentally present during mealtimes.

  • Check stress: Identify some coping strategies that don’t involve overindulging.

  • Get active: Set a timer and get moving; short home workouts count and can make a difference.

  • Plan ahead: Keep healthy foods readily available at home and when visiting others.

In addition, boosting accountability and support through the holiday season can help mitigate excessive weight gain. 

Providers can encourage patients to keep track of their eating habits and physical activity through food journals or phone apps, especially on the off days surrounding celebrations. Regular check-ins or appointments can also keep health goals from moving to the back burner.

If possible, set up dedicated appointments or group sessions focusing on holiday weight management. Provide patients with materials with clear goals and interesting insights. Consider involving other healthcare professionals, such as nutritionists, psychologists, or fitness trainers, for comprehensive care and diverse perspectives to benefit your patients.

What this means for you

The holiday season presents a unique challenge for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. By employing evidence-based behavioral interventions, HCPs can empower their patients to make informed choices, adopt healthier behaviors, and prevent holiday-related weight gain. Through education, support, and strategic planning, medical practitioners can play a pivotal role in promoting wellness during this festive period, fostering long-term health benefits for their patients.

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