Christmas time often goes hand in hand with overindulgence. There are festive events to attend, family and friends to host and Christmas films to watch; all of these situations tend to involve food, drinks and snacks.

The cold weather and shorter daylight hours can also encourage us to stay indoors and choose comforting food and evenings in front of the television, instead of heading outdoors to commit to exercising. And, as you might expect, a culmination of these circumstances can potentially lead people to put weight on at the tail end of the year.

Researchers at two universities wanted to see if seasonal weight gain could be prevented.

What was the study?

A small study, named the Winter Weight Watch Study and conducted by the Universities of Birmingham and Loughborough, has suggested that regular weigh-ins and access to calorie information on Christmas food could help prevent seasonal weight gain.

A group of 272 volunteers, all aged over 18 and with a BMI over 20, were placed randomly into one of two groups:

  • Intervention group. The 136 people in this group were provided with information on good weight management strategies over Christmas, as well as illustrated information on the physical activity calorie equivalent (PACE) for popular festive food and drinks.
  • Comparison group. The 136 people in this group were given a leaflet on healthy living and no further input.

The good weight management strategies provided to the intervention group included:

  1. recording their weight on a record card at least twice a week
  2. keeping to their usual meal routine
  3. checking fat and sugar content on food labels
  4. opting for fresh fruit as snacks
  5. avoiding sugar-laden drinks
  6. walking at least 10,000 steps each day
  7. remembering to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day
  8. and not overdoing portion sizes.

What did the results show?

Baseline weight assessments were carried out in November and December with a follow up conducted in January and February.

The results showed that the group exposed to the brief weight intervention gained less weight over the Christmas period. On average they lost 130g, about a quarter of a pound. Whereas the comparison group gained 370g, just under one pound.

This would indicate that people given more seasonally targeted information about weight management are less likely to see their weight increase over Christmas.

Enjoying healthier food at Christmas

It is estimated that the average person consumes over 5,000 calories on Christmas Day. Just burning off Christmas dinner itself, which can reach up to over 3,000 calories, equates to a hefty amount of activity. A healthy and well-balanced diet is important throughout the year, but enjoying the food you eat and how you spend your time over Christmas is also obviously important.

There is often a concentration on the unhealthy food options over Christmas but it is possible to stock your house with tasty and healthy treats too such as fresh fruit, nuts, cranberries and clementines.

When you put together your Christmas dinner, focus on the nutritious vegetable dishes. Remember that some centrepiece meats are more calorific than others; pork, goose and gamon are higher in calories than turkey, salmon or nut roast. Try to have fewer fatty processed dishes (like pigs in blankets and sausage meat), or just offer them in smaller portions.

As Sarah Coe explained to us a few Christmases ago, using olive oil instead of animal fats to cook your meat and potatoes can help you to lower the saturated fat content of your big meal Christmas meal.