Why Do I Gain Weight–And Feel So “Blah”–During the Holidays?

IMG_0129 (2)By Warren Holleman

The smart-ass answer is because you eat too much, and you exercise too little. But you already knew that.

So let’s go a layer deeper and ask: What are the reasons behind our unhealthy, holiday behaviors? Here are six, along with some lessons we can learn from them.

  1. Everyone else is doing it. 

Humans are social animals, and the holidays are our most social time of year. When everyone else is in the holiday spirit, you don’t want to be the Party Pooper. Or, the Scrooge–the one who puts coal in everybody else’s stocking. After all, it’s really nice that everybody is coming together. The feast is more than just food and calories—it’s a vehicle for creating family and community, fellowship and friendship, love and support. It’s a way of saying that for everything there is a season, including a time to celebrate. It’s a way of reminding ourselves to be generous and thankful. It’s really nice to have a feast . . . every once in a while.

The problem is that the feasting goes on for so long! Christmas Day becomes Christmas week, and before we know it, we’ve got dinners and parties from Thanksgiving all the way to New Year’s Day. And it’s not just the eating—it’s the sedentary lifestyle that goes with it. If we don’t figure out how to channel our inner Scrooge, we’re going to gain a ton of weight. And the joy of the holidays will be eclipsed by the guilt and shame of gaining that weight and the hard work required to take it off.

So, the trick is to figure out a way to enjoy the holidays with friends and family without being a Party Pooper or gaining too much weight. One suggestion is to talk with your family and friends in advance and find out if others share your concerns. If so, you might be able to make changes to your holiday feasting and exercise patterns. Another very simple suggestion is portion control. Go ahead and feast with everyone else, but put about half as much food on your plate as you used to. Or at least don’t go back for seconds.

  1. Maintaining my weight is not an important goal for me—at least not as important as fitting in with the family and enjoying all the good food this time of year. 

That’s fine. Perhaps there are other concerns in your life that are dominating your attention right now. Or perhaps you need the comfort of all that comfort food.

My advice would be to go ahead and enjoy the food, but do one thing differently this holiday season. Keep a log of what you eat and drink, and how much, and calculate the calories. Also make a note of how much exercise you get, and how strenuously you exercise. And note how many pounds you gain, if any. In other words, you don’t have to restrict your diet, but you do commit to doing the math. After that, take some time and write down everything you learned about yourself, what you enjoy eating, why you enjoy eating, etc. You might also want to discuss this with a trusted friend–after all, we are social animals!

  1. Maintaining my weight is important, but I don’t want to take the time and energy to count calories. 

I understand–it seems like such a laborious and killjoy process. But it doesn’t have to be.

After fighting this for years, I finally broke down and tried it. It only took me twenty minutes to make a list of calories in the foods I like to eat. Turns out there are tons of calorie counters and other useful resources on the Internet. Some of really simply, like the one I used, and other are more sophisticated. After taking twenty minutes to calculate the calories for the foods I usually eat, it’s quick and easy to estimate or look up the rest.

Dietary GuidelinesUsing this chart, I allotted myself the right amount of calories for each meal and snack, and now it’s second nature to count my calories as I go. By the end of the day I know how many I’ve consumed and how many I’ve burned through exercise, and I know whether I can have that glass of wine—or that chocolate. Or both!

  1. Maintaining my weight is important, but over the holidays I go into a feeding frenzy and later plead “Temporary Insanity.”

If this sounds like you, then you’re in “relapse” mode. It’s just like a recovering alcoholic who goes to a party and temporarily forgets everything she learned in AA.

My advice is the same as above. However badly you do, don’t beat yourself up, but do take the time to count your calories. Make a note of which foods did you the most damage, and think about how you might do things differently next year. That way “it’s all good,” because you learned something that will help you in the future.

Also, think about why you go into this feeding frenzy. Were you lost in the woods and without food for six days? Did you just run two marathons? From asking myself these questions, I’ve learned that the main reason I overeat isn’t because I’m hungry, but because I’m bored. The other reason is that I’m addicted to sugary things. Thus, the feeding frenzy. I’m not that different from the heroin addict getting his fix.

  1. Maintaining my weight used to be important to me, but I failed, and now I’ve given up.

In other words, you don’t believe you have the ability to discipline yourself at the table or to motivate yourself in the gym, and it makes you discouraged and depressed just to think about it.

If this sounds like you, I’d recommend trying two things. First, trust the math. Your heart may be discouraged, but let you head rule here. Just stick with the plan, and trust that the laws of mathematics will prevail.

Second, establish a network of support. This can be as simple as finding one friend who has been successful in this area and asking him to mentor you through this process. Or, you can join a more formal support group such as Weight Watchers. Whatever you do, don’t try it for two days and then quit, and say the program failed you. More likely, you failed the program.

  1. Maintaining my weight is important to me, and I understand that the guidelines apply to most people, but somehow I just don’t believe they apply to me. 

Young people often think this way. So do highly educated people–they think they can outsmart this problem.

If this is a way you sabotage your success, I recommend testing your hypothesis by counting your calories and weighing yourself before and after the holidays. If you are exceptional, then more power to you! It’s good being a king! But if you turn out to be like the rest of us, then that’s not so bad either. You just conducted an experiment, got some clear results, and you can use the findings to help you plan for the future.

Wrapping up

I hope these tips help. They’re basically things I’ve learned by experimenting on myself over the years. I’ve also benefitted from the clients I’ve counseled in my psychotherapy practice. They do the hard work, while I get to watch and learn vicariously! One other helpful resource for me has been a theory called “the Transtheoretical Model” of behavior change–AKA “motivational interviewing” and “the stages of change.” I’ve taken several workshops over the years and found this to be the most practical way to understand and modify bad habits and problem behaviors.

If you enjoyed this post, check out my “holiday stress” series. Let me know which topics you’d like me to address, or send me your own stories and tips, and I’ll post them. And please share–you might help make someone’s holiday better.


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