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Holiday Weight Gain Is More Complicated Than One Thanksgiving Dinner

Roasted turkey, apple pie, smashed potatoes, rolls and buns. Jello salad. Gravy boats. Green beans drowned in french onions. Even as our souls cry out for the comforts of Thanksgiving, the media is bombarding our eyeballs with concerns about dreaded holiday weight gain. The result is an internal mess. We want to be healthy … and we want to enjoy life … and we want to understand whether fatness is even a reasonable way to measure health to begin with. It’s a conundrum worthy of a little emotional eating.

The reality is a mixture of good news and bad. Turns out, holiday weight gain is likely a real phenomenon — but the effect seems to be smaller than you might guess. And while the weight gain is small, it also represents a disproportionate amount of the average adult’s annual weight gain. The results suggest you shouldn’t be dismissive of holiday weight gain but also not overly anxious about it, either.

A paper from 17 years ago is credited with really beginning scientific research on the subject. When Jack Yanovski and his colleagues began their study of 200 National Institutes of Health employees, they were responding to a media environment that frequently cited holiday weight gain averages of 5 to 10 pounds. But they found their subjects gained an average of only 0.8 pounds between mid-November and early January, and that those same subjects overestimated their own weight gain by a factor of 4.

Since then, many other studies have come up with comparable results. A 2014 review of six different studies found an average holiday weight gain of 1 pound. A 2017 summary of the research found similar results. Just 1 pound — but a significant pound because research also suggests that it could account for most (if not all) of our average annual weight gain. “Yup, it’s small,” said Dale Schoeller, professor emeritus of nutritional sciences at University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of the 2014 review paper. “But because it’s a large percentage, it’s not unimportant.” Schoeller calculates total annual weight gain by comparing the average weight of a 20-year-old in 1960 to the average weight of a 60-year-old in 2000. By his calculation, Americans gain about 0.8 pounds a year. Over the course of 20 years’ worth of Thanksgivings, he pointed out, it can start to add up.

But the point here is not that holidays are dangerous, or that joy should be experienced only in the presence of a plate of celery. Instead, it’s more about how changes in everyday American eating habits — we eat an extra 500 calories a day than we did in 1970, with most of the increase in the form of fats, oils, grains and sugars — can change the meaning of a holiday tradition. It’s likely that people were picking up an extra pound over the holidays 50 years ago, too, Schoeller said. But that extra pound a year had a different impact on bodies back then, and on the number of Americans we categorize as being obese. Today we’re all starting from a heavier set point, so that extra pound a year means that more people will eventually end up classified as medically overweight or obese. In the past, it was just a little extra stuffing.

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.