Twenty-Something Science

Happy holiday weight gain

Is it possible to avoid the holiday pudge?

December 24, 2012

Pumpkin pie comes but once a year. So does peppermint ice cream, Thanksgiving turkey, green bean casserole (with those crispy fried onions,) and my mom’s Christmas cookies. I’m certainly not alone in my joy for holiday (over)eating, nor am I alone in the inevitable dread that comes with stepping on the scale New Year’s Day. But is it possible to avoid the holiday pudge?

What if we’re plump to begin with? In this video, addiction researcher Gene-Jack Wang of the Brookhaven National Laboratory details the relationship between obesity and the mood-enhancing neurotransmitter, dopamine. Involved in the reward circuitry of the brain, dopamine is required to derive pleasure from activities like eating. In Wang’s study, obese patients had lower dopamine activation and response rates compared to non-obese patients. This suggests that overeating in obese people is a pathological behavior done to compensate for the decreased pleasure they experience.

But that’s a lifetime of overeating. What about just during the holidays?

Research on weight change and body fat percentage out of Utah State University suggests that maybe holiday weight gain is all in our heads. The study results showed that most patients perceived their weight gain between Thanksgiving and New Year’s to be greater than it actually was. On average there was no difference between pre-holiday and post-holiday body weight or body fat.

Maybe the extra pounds are all in my head, but holiday food marketing sure plays a lot into my Christmas cravings. My heart melts for green bean casserole when I see a commercial for French fried onions, or for M&M’s when I see that cute little red one fainting in front of Santa.

If food marketing is unavoidable, then maybe the trick to making it through these next few weeks is to understand how our brain’s hard wiring can actually work against us. David Kessler, former head of the FDA and author of “The End Of Overeating”, gives a neurological and food marketing perspective as to why we are so easily swayed towards food with a combination of sugar, fat, and salt. “I wanted to understand why it was so hard to control what we eat,” he says in this Wall Street Journal Q&A, where you can get a taste for what he explores in his book. “The loss of control in the face of highly palatable foods, lack of feeling full – is reward-based eating,” he said.

Or maybe we just take the emphasis off of the food this holiday season. Trade the Christmas cookies for some carrots, pop in a Jillian Michaels DVD and enjoy the merriment that comes with gatherings of family and friends.

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About the Author

Alexa Kurzius has always loved to write. After receiving her B.A. in English and psychology from Johns Hopkins in 2006, she moved to New York and became a pharmaceutical advertising copywriter. It was a delightful awakening; she realized she loved writing about health and had a knack for translating medical jargon into easy-to-understand print and web content. She’s eager to share her experience and to learn all she can about science journalism at SHERP.

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