The Science Behind Holiday Weight Gain

The Science Behind Holiday Weight Gain

Christmas day is the highlight of the holidays, marked by festivity and cheer while also bringing unique challenges to maintaining a healthy weight and managing your insulin response. From cultural traditions to psychological triggers, the holidays give a lot of additional opportunities to eat without consideration of what the body requires to stay energized and feel good. But it is less about what you eat, and more "how you eat", that makes you gain weight.

3 Ways Small Meals Make It Worse

We all look forward to the variety of sweet and savory foods that comes with our own holiday traditions. But grazing all day also creates excess glucose that isn't needed immediately for energy. The body then stores this glucose, in the form of glycogen, in our liver and muscle storage facilities for future use as energy. Some body tissues, such as the brain, red blood cells, and parts of the kidney. use glucose as their primary energy source. And our muscles and organs buzz with activity as they become fueled by all of the extra sugar. But continuous snacking, especially on high-sugar and highly-processed foods, creates so much extra glycogen that this energy source is converted to undesired weight gain, and an increased risk of metabolic diseases. By making conscious food choices and paying attention to your body's hunger signals, you can enjoy the benefits of grazing without the negative impacts on your blood sugar and overall health.

1) Creating Insulin Resistance Through Snacking

With so many choices and so little time to enjoy them, it's easy to develop a pattern of continuous snacking is during times of celebration or through gradual changes in your lifestyle over time. Every time you eat, your body goes into action to break down carbohydrates into glucose, causing your blood sugar levels to rise. In response, your pancreas releases insulin, a hormone that helps your cells absorb this glucose. This is known as an "insulin response", and a signal your body uses to put different processes and functions into action.

Small meals, drinks of soda, or an extra cookie during the day keeps the body in a state of elevated insulin production, as the pancreas releases insulin to manage these frequent spikes in blood sugar in the body. Over time, elevated glucose production can lead to "insulin resistance", where the cells stop responding as effectively to insulin production. Insulin resistance has been identified as a precursor to type 2 diabetes while increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease and other metabolic disorders. Try sticking to an eating style focused on providing time for your food to digest properly while minimizing insulin response throughout the day.

2) Fat Storage + Weight Gain

Eating frequently throughout the day has become more than a holiday habit for many people who work from home, or have access to food outside of more structured meal times. This practice, especially when it involves high-calorie and nutrient-poor foods, can significantly impact how our bodies store fat and manage weight. When we eat, the glucose from our food is converted into an immediately available energy source. Or, excess glucose as glycogen moves into the body's natural energy storage areas, primarily located in the liver and muscles

Once these easily accessible energy stores are full, the body has no choice but to convert this excess glucose into fat, storing it for future use. This conversion is a more long-term energy storage solution, allowing the body to tap into these fat reserves when immediate energy sources, like glucose and glycogen, are depleted. However, if these fat reserves are not utilized through physical activity or calorie deficit, they accumulate leading to weight gain and additional associated health concerns. And eating continuously throughout the day can slow down fat metabolism, as the body consistently prioritizes processing immediate energy from food over burning stored fat because of access to a readily available energy source.

3) Changing Eating Patterns

The holiday cycle of frequent consumption and higher fat storage rate alters our physical health and also disrupts our body's inherent hunger regulation mechanism. The body, faced with a continuous supply of surplus food, remains in a relentless state of energy storage, contributing to incremental weight gain over time. And frequent indulgence in rich, calorie-dense foods alters the body's ability to accurately signal hunger and fullness in addition to a persistent pattern of overconsumption, further compounding the challenge of managing weight effectively.

Normally, hormones work in a delicate balance to regulate feelings of hunger and satiety. But persistent overeating can dull these hormone signals, leading to a misinterpretation of hunger cues until things can be reset. That's why it is common post-holiday to find yourself eating out of habit, boredom, or response to external cues like the sight and smell of food, rather than true physiological hunger. Resetting these cues requires a conscious effort to re-tune into the body's signals, eating mindfully, and re-establishing regular, balanced meals. Exploring changes to eating patterns, like short- and long-term intermittent fasting, can help reestablish eating patterns while also reducing the rate of insulin response in the body.

Excuses To Eat More

Snacking on sweets and holiday treats is only part of the equation as we begin to change our normal eating habits in response to our environment. Social eating, where people may eat due to peer influence or the desire to partake in festive activities, is another reason we may find ourselves indulging. Many holiday traditions are characterized by social gatherings, traditional feasting, and the notion of "'treating oneself" to create a perfect backdrop for justifying overeating. And the holiday season often includes multiple social events, from family gatherings to office parties, where food usually plays a central role. With an array of traditional and new dishes, there's a natural inclination to try different foods, some of which may be rich in calories and served in generous portions. These eating excuses usually fall into two categories:

A) Special Occasion Eating

The holidays make it easy to cultivate a "special occasion" mindset, serving as a convenient excuse for many to indulge in eating more than usual. This mindset is supported by a festive atmosphere and social expectation that normal dietary rules are relaxed, and indulgence is not just accepted, but encouraged. People also turn to food for personal reasons during the holidays – as a form of celebration, for emotional comfort, or as a way to connect with coworkers and teammates. To be mindful of "Special Occasion Eating" while watching your weight, focus on savoring small portions of your favorite treats, balancing indulgences with healthy choices, and listening attentively to your body's hunger and fullness cues.

B) Family + Social Norms

Sharing meals is often a primary way of gathering and celebrating together between both families + friends, and it often feels more acceptable to eat in excess in the company of others who are doing the same. The prolonged nature of holiday festivities, often stretching over several days or weeks, also can lead to undesirable eating patterns. What might begin as a single day of indulgence can easily turn into a season-long departure from regular, healthier eating habits. Consequently, the holidays become a period where finding excuses to eat more becomes part of the celebratory norm. When watching your weight, being mindful of "Family + Social Norms" involves politely setting boundaries around food choices, engaging in conversations that shift focus away from food, and practicing portion control while still enjoying the social experience.

Nutrient Sufficiency Helps Rebalance Things

Nutrient sufficiency means ensuring that your body gets all the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients it needs to function optimally. When your body is nutrient-sufficient, you're less likely to experience cravings and overeat. And your natural functions can efficiently counter the effects and damages of higher-sugar intake.

By understanding the science of sugar metabolism, insulin response, and how the body keeps itself balanced, you are able to improve your personal health strategy to keep yourself ready all year round.