Many people just accept the fact that they will probably gain weight during the holidays.
After all, delicious food and drink are everywhere, from school and office parties to candy bowls on the coffee table. And many are already planning their New Year’s resolutions to start yet another diet.
But substantial short-term weight gain followed by restrictive dieting could have dire long-term consequences. Research has shown that people with frequent weight fluctuations are more apt to gain weight over time. In fact, habitual dieting is more likely to lead to long-term weight gain than weight loss.
As a researcher in nutritional sciences, I think most people are not aware of the potential for lasting effects of holiday weight gain.
We now know a great deal about the intricate and redundant mechanisms in the brain that control eating behavior and body fat stores. Our brains are incredibly good at keeping our body weight stable.
This is one reason it’s so hard to keep the pounds off after a weight loss diet. Brain signals kick in to increase hunger and lower metabolic rate in an effort to regain what the brain perceives to be our “optimal weight.” The good news is that the brain also works to decrease hunger and increase energy expenditure when we’ve gained weight as well.
The problem of weight gain over time arises from the fact that the regulation of body weight at the upper and lower limits of our optimal weight is likely due to two different body systems working in a somewhat disjointed manner.
The disconnect between the two regulation systems — combined with a range, rather than a fixed value of our optimal weight — is designed to ensure that contradicting forces that influence weight gain and weight loss do not occur at the same time.
Unfortunately, our bodies are much better at offsetting weight loss than weight gain. It is estimated that only an extra 11 calories a day will result in a pound of weight gain over a year. The problem is that rapid weight gain, which often occurs during the holidays, can alter the ability of our brains to efficiently regulate the upper limit of body weight.
Binge eating results in alterations in the brain that promote excessive intake of highly appetizing high fat, sweetened food. These brain alterations potentially influence sensitivity to the pleasurable feelings associated with food intake.
This means that holiday binge-eating may promote a vicious cycle of increased appetite and overeating throughout the year. And if you’re going into this year’s holiday season without having lost all the weight you gained last year, you may be at an even further disadvantage.
So what should people do?
For starters, people need to understand that when we start that New Year’s diet, multiple pathways in our brains act to defend against weight loss in order to ensure that a minimal body weight is maintained, one that can support the maintenance of key organ systems.
When we lose weight, we feel hungry and fatigued, physical signals from our brains telling us to replenish the fat stores we’ve lost. Unfortunately, we’ve probably lost some lean muscle as well when we diet, which serves to maintain a lower metabolic rate and make it even more difficult to sustain weight loss.
As we go through the holidays, people need to keep the goal of limiting the number of pounds gained during the holidays to a minimum. Many studies have indicated that daily exercise can also help to stabilize body weight and lean body mass.
Ultimately, all evidence supports the benefits of maintaining body weight and avoiding the rapid weight gain associated with holiday binge eating. Not only will people be healthier in the long run, they will be happier in January when the inevitable diet season begins.
Molly Bray is a professor and the Susan T. Jastrow Chair for Excellence in Nutritional Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin.
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— Texas Perspectives (@TexPerspectives) December 22, 2015