As the number of individuals medically diagnosed with obesity continues to increase — part of a broader upward trend of 50% growth over the past ten years — uncontrolled weight gain remains an issue for approximately half of American adults. And because obesity is such a difficult condition to reverse once established, it is important to develop and implement preventive strategies throughout one’s life.
Certain time periods — including adolescence, mid-life, marriage, and pregnancy for women — often include increased susceptibility to uncontrolled weight gain. Financial, geographical, environmental, and seasonal changes are also thought to contribute to fluctuations in one’s weight. And, importantly, cultural factors like holidays centered around food can undeniably impact or undermine your efforts to keep a healthy weight. Which led us to wonder, “How concerned are Americans about gaining (or losing) weight this holiday season?
To better understand Americans' potential concerns and behaviors when it comes to weight gain (or loss) during the holiday season, we surveyed 545 adults about their usual strategies for maintaining a healthy weight when faced with mounting holiday temptations.
We also analyzed data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on national weekly sales of sweets and other “junk foods” to determine when people were most likely to indulge. Using this data, we determined which regions of the U.S. typically spend the most on holiday-related foods per capita during the holiday season.
It seems that holiday eating has become such an issue for Americans that even the U.S. Army has decided to weigh in on the issue (no pun intended). According to the Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington state, fluctuations in weight during the holidays can most readily be attributed to increased stress and the frequency of social gatherings, which contribute to the increased consumption of high-calorie foods and drinks, as well as a general decrease in physical activity. Around the holidays, they state, people tend to be less concerned about their physical health and spend more time enjoying the three Fs: family, friends, and food.
With plenty of extravagant meals and lively parties, it’s easy to get swept up in the holiday spirit and let your health and nutrition commitments lapse. However, eating 200 extra calories a day — that extra piece of pie or glass of spiked eggnog — for five to six weeks could lead to a weight increase of two to three pounds (on average). This isn’t a large amount by any means, but even a small amount of weight gained over a short time can be exceedingly difficult to lose.
Despite the majority of respondents (80.1%) claiming that “staying fit” during the holidays is important to them, an even larger percentage (90.6%) stated they typically gain somewhere between 1-12 lbs. over the holidays.
Here’s how much our respondents tend to gain during the holiday season:
Of the women we surveyed, 82.5% claimed to prioritize staying fit over the holidays, compared to 78.2% of men. We also found a slight difference between generations in terms of maintaining one’s physical fitness during the holidays. Gen X was the most likely to feel it’s necessary to stay on top of their weight (84.1%), followed by Gen Z (82%) and millennials (79.5%)
Even as our culture has gradually begun embracing different body types, there’s still a lot of pressure on people — especially women — to fit a specific physical mold. Helped along by the indomitable flood of fitness influencers on social media, many people are left worrying about how they “should” or “are supposed to” look. This imbalance of focus on physical appearance over overall health only adds to the pressure many people feel to look a certain way, which, in turn, negatively impacts their mental health. It essentially defeats the purpose of routine exercise: improving your mental and physical well-being.
With this in mind, it’s plausible that the pressure women (and men) of all ages feel to stay fit during the holidays stems from continued societal and cultural pressure, driven largely by commercial advertising and social media.
When asked what behaviors they typically lean on to avoid gaining weight around the holidays, the plurality of participants (45.7%) said they increase the frequency and effort of their exercise routine, while more than a third of participants (37.4%) said they typically drink more water.
Other common efforts taken to ward off holiday weight gain included:
When explicitly asked, over half of all participants (61.5%) claimed they would skip a holiday party entirely for fear of food temptations. This was the case for 63% of the men and 58.2% of the women who participated in our study.
For those who had previous self-imposed dietary restrictions, the vast majority (92.8%) claimed to loosen those restrictions during the holidays. As far as bending specific restrictions, indulging in lactose (33.3%) was the most common, then gluten (25.7%), then meat for vegetarians and vegans (22.1%), followed by various other restrictions (11.6%). These dietary restrictions are lifestyle choices for some, but for those with allergies and illnesses like lactose intolerance, these indulgences can cause a resurgence of uncomfortable symptoms. Sometimes, it seems, enjoying your favorite childhood cookies with your family can take priority over avoiding pain or discomfort.
When asked what their strongest temptations were during the holidays in terms of eating and drinking, 31.6% of participants claimed holiday foods to be their Achilles’ heel, but only 13.8% said they have the most trouble saying no to holiday desserts. 30.7% said holiday cocktails most tempt them, and another 21% said holiday drinks (hot chocolate, eggnog, cider, etc.) are the most tempting.
Our respondents who drink alcohol claimed they consume an average of 2.9 drinks during a typical night out at any point in the year. While attending a holiday party, however, this same group stated they consume an average of 3.1 drinks. We also found that women drink slightly more on average at holiday parties than men (2.5 drinks vs. 2.3 glasses).
Most people who drink alcohol over the holidays do so responsibly, but this time of year can also be a time of increased — often dangerous — imbibing for many alcohol consumers. In general, experts agree that problematic consumption of alcohol increases during the holidays and can occasionally result in long-term health consequences.
Alcohol often gets tangled up with the many holiday rituals we know and love. However, shorter days, colder weather, and increased social and financial pressures can leave many more vulnerable to alcohol misuse and abuse.
There are a number of ways to get ahead of any potential problems:
Most of our respondents (61.8%) stated they would stick with classic desserts this year instead of healthier alternatives. Still, though, about a third of participants (33%) said they would opt for sugar-free baked goods to maintain a healthy weight over the holidays.
We also found that women are more likely than men (41.8% vs. 30%) to go for available sugar-free alternatives, which correlates with our earlier finding that women are typically more concerned about staying fit over the holidays.
Studies show that there are several gender-specific differences when it comes to dieting and nutrition. For women, higher awareness and better nutrition knowledge often emerge in childhood or adolescence; they are also more likely than men to seek nutritional counseling. Women also generally eat more fruits, vegetables, cereals, dairy products, and whole grain products, whereas men tend to consume more red meat, pork, eggs, alcohol, and foods high in sucrose.
In terms of their approach to dieting and nutrition, men generally adopt less complicated, more pleasure-oriented methods, whereas women utilize dieting techniques that restrain eating or restrict calories. More severe dieting methods, as well as the cultural and societal factors mentioned earlier that often lead women to be less satisfied with their weight, make women more susceptible to developing eating disorders.
Men’s more relaxed dieting approach could explain why 27.9% claimed they eat “a lot more” during the holidays, compared to only 22.4% of women. In turn, fewer men (10.9%) than women (12.2%) said they typically eat the same amount as normal while attending a holiday party. Fewer men than women, too — 61.3% vs. 65.8% — said they are likely to restrain themselves and just eat “a little more” over the holidays.
According to the FDA, national sales of our favorite sweets and treats increase dramatically several times a year. This encapsulates everything from boxed mixes for cakes, muffins, and pies to frozen desserts and ready-to-eat baked goods. We found that each one of these spikes corresponds exactly with a major holiday:
It’s clear: Americans certainly love their sweets. In the weeks leading up to any one of these holidays, mountainous grocery store displays piled high with the newest holiday treats tend to spring up from nowhere. Every fast food and coffee chain seems to introduce a pumpkin-spiced this or peppermint twist that. It can be difficult to track how much you’re eating when indulging in so many things you can only get once a year.
The excitement and novelty of holiday treats and the increased frequency of holiday gatherings likely contribute to these predictable increases in sales. But the holidays — especially Thanksgiving and Christmas — are not always a joyous occasion for everyone.
Many people find the holidays to be an extraordinarily lonely or stressful time. Life issues that would not normally be so taxing are often amplified or exacerbated during the holidays, including:
Just as others do with alcohol, drugs, sex, shopping, and social media when feeling depressed, stressed, or bored, some people turn to food for comfort. Consciously or unconsciously, emotional eating can easily lead to overeating, especially high-calorie, sweet, or fatty foods.
Our tendency to use sugary foods as a coping mechanism might also contribute to these periods of increased sales. To get ahead of emotional eating, however, experts at the Mayo Clinic offer some simple recommendations:
As you’ll see below, many of these tips also apply to managing holiday eating in general.
The states with the highest sales of sugars, sweeteners, and commercially prepared items around the holidays (between November 1st and January 15th) were split almost evenly between the Northeast (New Hampshire, Maine, and West Virginia), the Midwest (Iowa, Kansas, Wyoming, and South Dakota), and the South (Kentucky, Alabama, and Florida).
For many reasons, these split findings were not surprising: the state with the highest total holiday-food sales per capita, New Hampshire ($130.88), was also found in a previous Innerbody Research study to be the second most festive state in the U.S., and the number one most festive state in the U.S., West Virginia ($109.40), also showed up at number five in the top 10 states for holiday-food sales per capita.
Following the same trend, New York ($72.57) and California ($70.04) were found to have the lowest sales of sugars, sweeteners, and commercially prepared items per capita during the holidays and were found, in our previous study, to be among the five least festive states in the U.S.
In another Innerbody Research study conducted in 2022, we found that Utah was the most candy-loving state in the U.S. In this survey, however, Utah ($85.52) was among the bottom 10 in terms of holiday food sales per capita. Perhaps this means that the people of Utah are bigger fans of Halloween candy than they are treats associated with Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Three-quarters of our respondents (75%) claimed to start their New Year’s resolutions on January 1st, while a very small percentage (2.9%) said they wait until the first Monday of the new year to get going. The rest (21.3%) said they do not participate in New Year’s resolutions.
In terms of actually following through with their proposed New Year’s resolutions, our respondents were even more divided:
We also found that a higher percentage of men (64.7%) do not participate in New Year’s resolutions, despite our finding that women prioritize staying fit during the holidays more than men (82.5% vs. 78.2%). Again, this finding points back to the heightened pressures women feel to stay in shape as much as possible.
In terms of a generational divide, our Gen Z participants (91.8%) were the most likely to participate in New Year’s resolutions; our Gen X (77.6%) and millennial (74.7%) respondents were about on the same page, and the baby boomers (61.9%) were the least likely to change their ways in 2023. Age could certainly be a factor here, given that the older a person gets, the more likely they are to have solidified their habits and lifestyle.
The biggest temptation among our respondents was holiday food. However, out of those who claimed to participate in New Year’s resolutions and stated that losing weight is one of their goals, we found holiday cocktails (34.8%) to be most tempting, followed by holiday drinks such as hot chocolate, eggnog, or cider.
We also found that most of those who participate in New Year’s resolutions and have losing weight as one of their goals (61.1%) still indulge in the classic, sugar-filled desserts instead of opting for sugar-free alternatives.
Only about 19% of individuals who make New Year’s resolutions actually keep them. Most people abandon their plans to lose weight or learn a new language by mid-January. One reason for this low success rate is that acknowledging a given problem is only the start of the process; simply wanting to change and adding a date to the calendar is not enough. You have to conclude that the benefits of changing your life are worth the effort it will take.
When someone starts a resolution on January 1st, they make a big life change based on a calendar date, not when they truly feel ready to put in the work required. Those who are prepared, however, who get organized and seek out support before committing themselves to a goal that takes a significant amount of time and energy — such as losing weight — are more likely to follow through. Just wanting it to happen generally isn’t enough to succeed at a goal, especially a New Year’s resolution.
Many factors contribute to holiday weight gain and unhealthy eating: tradition, stress, social pressure, easy access, and temptation. But many tips and tools used for sticking to your New Year’s resolution, or maintaining a healthy diet in general, can also be used to eat healthier during the holidays:
To better understand Americans' potential concerns and behaviors regarding weight gain (or loss) during this holiday season, we surveyed 545 adults about their usual strategies for maintaining a healthy weight when faced with mounting holiday temptations. We also analyzed data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on national weekly sales of sweets and other “junk foods” to determine when people were most likely to indulge in these sorts of foods. Also using this data, we were able to determine which regions of the U.S. typically spend the most on holiday-related foods per capita during the holiday season.
Innerbody Research is committed to providing objective, science-based suggestions, and research to help our readers make more informed decisions regarding health and wellness. The reason why we invested the time and effort into creating this report was to explore holiday weight gain and what people may do to avoid (or allow) it from happening. We hope to reach as many people as possible by making this information widely available. As such, please feel free to share our content for educational, editorial, or discussion purposes. We only ask that you link back to this page and credit the author as Innerbody.com.
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