One of the benefits of the myriad body sensing devices on the market is the ability to analyze big health data trends on large populations. A study done at Cornell University, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, used Withings wireless weigh scales to measure body weights for individuals in the United States, Japan and Germany over an entire year starting in August 2012. Americans made up 1,800 participants with around 800 from Germany and 400 from Japan.
The results showed that October is typically the month where we weight the least and that weight typically climbs from this period through the holidays and peaks around New Year's day. More importantly, these pounds are hard to lose and on average take about 5 months to come off. From my experience with patients, losing this weight becomes tougher as we grow older and is especially difficult to lose for women.
Shouldn't be a shock since October is a critical transition month between sunnier and warmer weather where individuals tend to be more physically active and the impending flood of holiday festival season.
Asian Indian individuals living in the US like me and those from other cultures face the double edged sword of celebrating US and their own cultural festivities. For Indians, if you're married to and socialize with individuals from other parts of India, you are often celebrating Diwali, regional festivities like Durga Puja, in addition to US festivities like Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
There are invitations from family, friends and work which can mean a few events per each holiday. No wonder the next few months show such a rapid escalation in weight.
Putting holidays aside, colder weather and darker days promote inactivity and the pursuit of “comfort foods” which unfortunately lead to our clothes fitting rather uncomfortably.
How do we survive the season?
The study paints a grim picture, but I think it's important for us to be prepared. Do you want your New Year's resolution to be losing 5, 10, 15, or 20+ pounds? I don't expect my patients to lose weight during the holiday season, but can they “maintain little to no gain?” That's the more realistic goal I set.
I don't want people to fear or avoid invitations, but perhaps we can be a bit rationale about the choices we make and how we can recover from some of those epic eating binges. Here are a few tips on post-feasting recovery that will help keep your weight stable:
- Monitor your weight: Check your weight now and I recommend every 1-2 weeks throughout the season. I'm amazed at how my patients lose track and all of a sudden show up 15 pounds heavier in the new year, shocked at their weight/waistline gains. Set a recurring weigh-in reminder on your phone and use the same scale to keep weight changes standardized. Don't obsess and overcheck your weights too often.
- Avoid “back-to-backs” when possible: What really destroys weight and our metabolic numbers (lipids, glucose, etc.) are when we feast consecutively without caloric rest intervals. A Saturday lunch invitation followed by dinner out and then a heavy breakfast with little to no activity or exercise in between is a recipe for weight gain. If you understand the carb traffic diagram from my book and this blog post, you should know that a single “feast meal” is enough to overfill your muscle parking lot. That means any high carbohydrate meals eaten after that will lead to glucose, cholesterol and waistline surges. Also, is it possible not to overschedule feasts and just say “no” to some of the invites to prevent these damaging “back-to-backs?” Or maybe show up before or after the feast so you fill your social obligation without filling your plate.
- Fast after Feasting: A Saturday night dinner feast should be followed by a Sunday intermittent fast. Read this post for details on intermittent fasting. Fasting the next morning allows your body to metabolically cleanse from the prior night's feast. Even the “healthiest” high carb breakfast (oats, whole wheat toast, etc.) after a feast night will likely go towards belly fat and/or surges in glucose and cholesterol because of the muscle parking problem I described above. If you wake up hungry the next morning, pick the lowest carb, cleanest option possible. Eggs, unsweetened full fat yogurt, nuts, seeds,etc. are great options.
- Clean Eating after Feasting: In addition to fasting, there are foods that can help your body clear toxins as well. Focus on plant-based foods (lots of greens in particular), herbs, spices, healthy fats like coconut oil, clean proteins (nuts, seeds, grass fed meats and wild fish), green and herbal tea, and lots of water. I typically do a green smoothie for my first meal after a feast night that has some combination of greens (kale, spinach, green apple), berries, nuts, seeds (chia, hemp, flax) and ginger with filtered water as a base.
- Exercise after Feasting: In order to clear out muscle parking space and restore some insulin sensitivity, which helps lower blood glucose, cholesterol and body fat, you need to be physically active and get in an exercise session after feasting. Muscle parking space will not magically appear unless you exercise vigorously. So when you accept an invite for a feast night, schedule yourself an appointment the next morning for exercise. A casual walk is healthy and can dampen post-meal glucose and cholesterol spikes, but won't create much parking space. You need to feel a burn and notable fatigue in your major muscle groups (legs, buttocks, core, etc.) to indicate parking space is being cleared. You can do this just by using body weight exercises like squats and the ones outlined in my book. Check out my squat post/video here.
- Healthy Options: Whether you are hosting or bringing food to a potluck event, ensure some healthy choices for guests to enjoy. Even the combination of phytonutrients from plant based foods (veggies and fruits) can help your body digest unhealthy foods with fewer toxic byproducts. In other words, mixing “dirty” foods (sugar, excess carbs, deep-fried crispy snacks) with some “clean” foods (veggies, fruits, etc.) will cause less damage to your body than eating “dirty” foods alone. If you can eat more clean options and savor just a few dirty ones (a handful of crispy snacks or 1-2 small sweets eaten slowly), then even better!
Willpower is tough in the midst of the holidays, so hopefully some of these strategies to help you recover after feasts can minimize weight gain and maximize enjoyment. Wish you and your loved ones a happy and healthy holiday season!
Now for a classic holiday beverage recipe from our dietitian, Prerna Uppal, that provides potent antioxidants while curbing your sweet tooth.