The winter holiday season in the United States, which spans mid-November to mid-January, contributes to over half of annual body weight gain. Although self-reported data have linked this weight change to both increased energy intake and reduced physical activity, objective techniques have never been used; and thus, the actual cause of holiday weight gain is controversial. Here, we aimed to determine changes in components of energy balance leading to the holiday weight gain.
Body weight change was compared between the pre-holiday (mid-September to mid-November) and the holiday period (mid-November to early January). Total energy expenditure (TEE) was measured using doubly labeled water during holiday time (early to mid-December). Subjective (ratings) and physiological (appetite-regulating hormones) measures of appetite, eating-away-from-home frequency, and incentive salience of food pictures were also evaluated.
In 23 obese adults (87% female), body weight change during the holidays (0.41 ± 0.42 kg) was significantly higher (P = 0.02) than the body weight change during the pre-holiday period (−0.86 ± 0.42 kg). TEE was unchanged during the two periods, suggesting no role of energy expenditure on weight gain. However, participants reported lower satisfaction after a meal pre-load which was significantly correlated with increased body weight during the holiday period. An increase in number of episodes of eating at sit-down restaurants was also reported during that period. Overall, these changing behaviors were supported by a non-significant increase in energy intake (+80 kcal/day, P = 0.07) observed during the study holiday period.
We conclude that a decrease in energy expenditure does not result in the weight increase, but that increase in food intake is the more likely cause. Our data imply that compromised internal satiety mechanisms in presence of external food cues and diet-related behavioral variables during the holidays may influence weight gain.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $9.92 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Flegal KM, Kruszon-Moran D, Carroll MD, Fryar CD, Ogden CL. Trends in obesity among adults in the United States, 2005 to 2014. JAMA. 2016;315:2284–91.
Hull HR, Hester CN, Fields DA. The effect of the holiday season on body weight and composition in college students. Nutr Metab. 2006;3:44.
Hull HR, Radley D, Dinger MK, Fields DA. The effect of the Thanksgiving holiday on weight gain. Nutr J. 2006;5:29.
Yanovski JA, Yanovski SZ, Sovik KN, Nguyen TT, O’Neil PM, Sebring NG. A prospective study of holiday weight gain. N Engl J Med. 2000;342:861–7.
Schoeller DA. The effect of holiday weight gain on body weight. Physiol Behav. 2014;134:66–9.
Cook CM, Subar AF, Troiano RP, Schoeller DA. Relation between holiday weight gain and total energy expenditure among 40- to 69-y-old men and women (OPEN study). Am J Clin Nutr. 2012;95:726–31.
Stevenson JL, Krishnan S, Stoner MA, Goktas Z, Cooper JA. Effects of exercise during the holiday season on changes in body weight, body composition and blood pressure. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2013;67:944–9.
Rees SG, Holman RR, Turner RC.The Christmas feast.Br Med J. 1985;291:1764–5.
Watras AC, Buchholz AC, Close RN, Zhang Z, Schoeller DA. The role of conjugated linoleic acid in reducing body fat and preventing holiday weight gain. Int J Obes. 2007;31:481–7.
Painter JE, Wansink B, Hieggelke JB. How visibility and convenience influence candy consumption. Appetite. 2002;38:237–8.
de Castro JM. Family and friends produce greater social facilitation of food intake than other companions. Physiol Behav. 1994;56:445–5.
Baier M. The “holiday blues” as a stress reaction. Perspect Psychiatr Care. 1987;24:64–8.
Sominsky L, Spencer SJ. Eating behavior and stress: a pathway to obesity. Front Psychol. 2014;5:434.
Caplan C. Ode on health and the holidays. CMAJ. 1998;159:1499.
Reichelt AC, Westbrook RF, Morris MJ. Integration of reward signalling and appetite regulating peptide systems in the control of food-cue responses. Br J Pharmacol. 2015;172:5225–38.
Bhutani S, Schoeller DA, Walsh MC, McWilliams C. Frequency of eating out at both fast-food and sit-down restaurants was associated with high body mass index in non-large metropolitan communities in midwest. Am J Health Promot. 2018;32:75–83.
Stunkard AJ, Messick S. The three-factor eating questionnaire to measure dietary restraint, disinhibition and hunger. J Psychosom Res. 1985;29:71–83.
Bhutani S, Racine N, Shriver T, Schoeller DA. Special considerations for measuring energy expenditure with doubly labeled water under atypical conditions. J Obes Weight Loss Ther. 2015;5(Suppl 5):002.
Finlayson G, King N, Blundell J. The role of implicit wanting in relation to explicit liking and wanting for food: implications for appetite control. Appetite. 2008;50:120–7.
Rosenthal NBG, Wehr T. Seasonal Pattern Assessment Questionnaire (SPAQ). Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Mental Health; 1984.
Robotham DR, Schoeller DA, Mercado AB, Mirch MC, Theim KR, Reynolds JC, et al. Estimates of body fat in children by Hologic QDR-2000 and QDR-4500A dual-energy X-ray absorptiometers compared with deuterium dilution. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2006;42:331–5.
Wang Z, Deurenberg P, Wang W, Pietrobelli A, Baumgartner RN, Heymsfield SB. Hydration of fat-free body mass: new physiological modeling approach. Am J Physiol. 1999;276:E995–E1003.
Schoeller DA. Hydrometry human body composition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 1996. pp. 25–43.
Thomas DM, Schoeller DA, Redman LA, Martin CK, Levine JA, Heymsfield SB. A computational model to determine energy intake during weight loss. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;92:1326–31.
Weir JB. New methods for calculating metabolic rate with special reference to protein metabolism. J Physiol. 1949;109:1–9.
Cole TJ, Coward WA. Precision and accuracy of doubly labeled water energy expenditure by multipoint and two-point methods. Am J Physiol. 1992;263:E965–73.
Gibbons C, Finlayson G, Dalton M, Caudwell P, Blundell JE. Metabolic phenotyping guidelines: studying eating behaviour in humans. J Endocrinol. 2014;222:G1–12.
United States Department of Agriculture. Dietary reference intakes calculator for healthcare professionals. The Health and Medicine Division of the National Academies of Sciences. https://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/dietary-reference-intake-calculator-healthcare-professionals.
Flint A, Raben A, Blundell JE, Astrup A. Reproducibility, power and validity of visual analogue scales in assessment of appetite sensations in single test meal studies. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2000;24:38–48.
Nieto FJ, Peppard PE, Engelman CD, McElroy JA, Galvao LW, Friedman EM, et al. The Survey of the Health of Wisconsin (SHOW), a novel infrastructure for population health research: rationale and methods. BMC Public Health. 2010;10:785.
Thompson C, Stinson D, Fernandez M, Fine J, Isaacs G. A comparison of normal, bipolar and seasonal affective disorder subjects using the Seasonal Pattern Assessment Questionnaire. J Affect Disord. 1988;14:257–64.
Rosenthal NE, Genhart M, Jacobsen FM, Skwerer RG, Wehr TA. Disturbances of appetite and weight regulation in seasonal affective disorder. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 1987;499:216–30.
Greenwald AG, Nosek BA, Banaji MR. Understanding and using the implicit association test: I. An improved scoring algorithm. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2003;85:197–216.
Bhutani S, Kahn E, Tasali E, Schoeller DA. Composition of two-week change in body weight under unrestricted free-living conditions. Physiol Rep. 2017;5:e13336.
Lachat C, Nago E, Verstraeten R, Roberfroid D, Van Camp J, Kolsteren P. Eating out of home and its association with dietary intake: a systematic review of the evidence. Obes Rev. 2012;13:329–46.
Hirsh SP, Pons M, Joyal SV, Swick AG. Avoiding holiday seasonal weight gain with nutrient-supported intermittent energy restriction: a pilot study. J Nutr Sci. 2019;8:e11.
Mason F, Farley A, Pallan M, Sitch A, Easter C, Daley AJ. Effectiveness of a brief behavioural intervention to prevent weight gain over the Christmas holiday period: randomised controlled trial. BMJ. 2018;363:k4867.
Roberts SB, Mayer J. Holiday weight gain: fact or fiction? Nutr Rev. 2000;58:378–9.
Diaz-Zavala RG, Castro-Cantu MF, Valencia ME, Alvarez-Hernandez G, Haby MM, Esparza-Romero J. Effect of the holiday season on weight gain: a narrative review. J Obes. 2017;2017:2085136.
Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Fryar CD, Flegal KM. Prevalence of obesity among adults and youth: United States, 2011–2014. NCHS Data Brief. 2015;1–8.
Heymsfield SB, Thomas D, Nguyen AM, Peng JZ, Martin C, Shen W, et al. Voluntary weight loss: systematic review of early phase body composition changes. Obes Rev. 2011;12:e348–61.
Academies IoMotN. Water. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 2005.
Cooper JA, Tokar T. A prospective study on vacation weight gain in adults. Physiol Behav. 2016;156:43–7.
Elliston KG, Ferguson SG, Schuz N, Schuz B. Situational cues and momentary food environment predict everyday eating behavior in adults with overweight and obesity. Health Psychol. 2017;36:337–45.
Boswell RG, Kober H. Food cue reactivity and craving predict eating and weight gain: a meta-analytic review. Obes Rev. 2016;17:159–77.
Bilman E, van Kleef E, van Trijp H. External cues challenging the internal appetite control system-Overview and practical implications. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2017;57:2825–34.
Johnson AW. Eating beyond metabolic need: how environmental cues influence feeding behavior. Trends Neurosci. 2013;36:101–9.
Jahns L, Johnson LK, Scheett AJ, Stote KS, Raatz SK, Subar AF, et al. Measures of diet quality across calendar and winter holiday seasons among midlife women: a 1-year longitudinal study using the automated self-administered 24-hour recall. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116:1961–9.
Cornier MA, Grunwald GK, Johnson SL, Bessesen DH. Effects of short-term overfeeding on hunger, satiety, and energy intake in thin and reduced-obese individuals. Appetite. 2004;43:253–9.
Levitsky DA, Obarzanek E, Mrdjenovic G, Strupp BJ. Imprecise control of energy intake: absence of a reduction in food intake following overfeeding in young adults. Physiol Behav. 2005;84:669–75.
SB and DAS conceived and designed the experiment; SB conducted the experiment and acquired the data; SB, DAS, NW, and GF analyzed and interpreted the data; SB, DAS, NW, and GF wrote the paper. The corresponding author is supported by NIH MANTP training grant (T32 DK 007665). The project described was supported by the Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) program, through the NIH National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), grant UL1TR002373. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH.
Conflict of interest
The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Bhutani, S., Wells, N., Finlayson, G. et al. Change in eating pattern as a contributor to energy intake and weight gain during the winter holiday period in obese adults. Int J Obes 44, 1586–1595 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41366-020-0562-2