Way too many holiday food temptations are usually a nurse's reality, but it's a health myth that holiday weight gain is a huge concern. According to a study that used wireless scale data from 2,924 people, holiday weight gain usually reaches just about 0.7% of a person's lightest annual weight, so about a pound for the average adult.
"This is far less than the 7 to 10 pounds often cited this time of year," said registered dietitian Cynthia Sass in Health. "One of the reasons you may feel like you've packed on more weight than you have is because many holiday foods trigger bloating and water retention. For example, any time you eat more carbs than usual, you store the leftovers as glycogen, the 'piggy bank' reserve of carbohydrate that gets socked away in your muscle tissue. Holding onto more glycogen than you usually do can cause you to feel sluggish, and make your jeans tighter, but as soon as you go back to your usual eating pattern, you'll shed the surplus."
But Sass quickly added two other holiday weight gain truths: Exercise didn't affect how much weight Texas Tech study subjects gained in the holiday season, and it's tough to lose even a pound or two of fat come January. "To put just one pound in perspective, think about tacking 16 ounces of shortening or four sticks of butter onto your frame," Sass cautioned. "Plus, other studies show that most of us never lose that holiday padding, possibly because after abandoning New Year's resolutions, many people gain back all (or more) of the weight they lose."
Where does this leave the nurse who wants to stay healthy while having fun? Ideally, taking the middle road between too much worry and too many white chocolate Oreo truffles, advised Atlanta nutrition and eating psychology counselor Margaret Schwenke. "As we head into the time of year known for festivities and feasts, many of us worry about gaining weight which can cause unnecessary stress," she explained. "When we tell ourselves we 'can't' have something, it becomes the very thing we want. As you approach holiday meals and celebrations, don't put too much pressure on your choices. At the same time, don't use the season as an excuse to just completely 'check out' of your health goals and eat with reckless abandon."
If you struggle with days that involve lots of calorie-laden side dishes and desserts or family pressure to eat more (or to pretend you don't want the handcrafted cookies it took three days to bake), refocus, Schwenke advised. "Go into it mindfully, focusing on the other positive elements of the holidays, like time with family and friends," she added.
If you do tend to worry about holiday weight gain, you can turn that tactic to your advantage by focusing on weight at a specific time once a day. This strategy resulted from a study published in the June 2019 issue of Obesity and authored by Jamie Cooper, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Foods and Nutrition at the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences.
Researchers found that simply settling on the idea of managing holiday weight gain reasonably and also weighing yourself daily could help an individual avoid problems. "Participants who weighed themselves on a daily basis on scales and received graphical feedback of their weight changes either maintained or lost weight during the holiday season while participants who did not perform daily self-weighing gained weight," according to the research.
Cooper also explained a second factor that could be at work in Science Daily: "The subjects self-select how they are going to modify their behavior, which can be effective because we know that interventions are not one-size-fits-all."
Another way to handle holiday food decisions by setting personal standards comes from Schwenke. On the Atlanta Nutrition and Eating Psychology Counseling blog, she encouraged those approaching a holiday meal to first "identify a deeper purpose for this gathering. Connection? Gratitude? Choose something meaningful to focus on instead of simply the food," she said. "Eat well that holiday morning and you will be less likely to mindlessly snack or gorge yourself when the big meal arrives."
Most importantly, according to Schwenke, hard-working nurses should remember to look after themselves amidst the holiday bustle. "Make sure you're taking plenty of time during the season for down-time and self-care, which takes a lot of emphasis off of food," she said.
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