“5 pounds”. This is how much weight people think they gain over the holidays. But what’s really going on? How does the body balance energy intake and expenditure on a long-term basis? And how is this affected by changes to our normal eating patterns during this holiday period?

Weight gain results from a discrepancy between energy intake and energy expenditure – eating more food than needed to meet the body’s energy requirements. The typical adult gains 1 lb of body weight each year. Averaged out over the year, this represents just 9 calories extra per day. Clearly this is the wrong way to look at long-term weight gain. Our bodies have several intricate (and poorly understood) mechanisms for adapting energy expenditure to match energy intake; this is a topic for another day. However, experimental studies do show that periods of indulgence are poorly managed by this system – i.e. long-term weight gain occurs because of short windows of significant excess intake.

Body weight is an easy target to focus on, but there are other metrics to examine when considering how holiday excesses may affect the body’s health. A key one is body composition – i.e. the proportion of body weight that is fat. Researchers from the University of Oklahoma found that although the average body weight of participants remained unchanged over the holiday season, there was a significant increase in body fatness and especially central body fat. This suggests that by merely measuring weight, people may not realise the potentially harmful effects of holiday indulgences on their body and their risk for future disease development.

So what can we do about this? The holiday season presents many challenges to the body, as we typically change our quantity, quality, and timing of food intake, while simultaneously becoming less active. Rather than try to “eat healthy” over the holidays, a sensible approach would be to take simple steps to minimise the size of disturbance to the body’s systems of energy balance.

  1. Keep your regular meal pattern – avoid skipping or combining meals. The body can more effectively absorb and manage nutrients provided by regular meals through the day, rather than by one large feast. For example, eating brunch followed by an early (and large) dinner changes both the quantity and timing of food intake.
  2. Enjoy your favourite foods. Eat the special dishes you look forward to, but decline the everyday foods that are available all year round. Allow yourself to indulge, just not on everything.
  3. Seek quality and variety. If confronted by a buffet table, consider trying small sample-size portions of many different dishes, rather than excessive quantities. Take the time to slowly savour and appreciate what you are eating.
  4. Monitor alcohol intake. Alcoholic drinks provide calories both from their sugar content and from the alcohol itself (each gram of alcohol contains 7 calories). This can quickly add up. Additionally, the proper processing of other nutrients is delayed while the liver metabolises this alcohol.
  5. Stay active. This is especially key to avoid a change in body composition from muscle mass toward body fat. In addition, including daily exercise will help avoid feelings of sluggishness and heaviness brought on by spending too much time indoors and sedentary.
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