4 Myths and Facts About Holiday Eating

You can still indulge in your favorite fare while maintaining your weight goals.

a group of young adults enjoys sampling items from a holiday breakfast buffet

Medically reviewed in June 2022

Updated on June 27, 2022

From the first slice of Thanksgiving pie until the last bite of brunch on New Year's Day, the holidays are often a great time to indulge in some of your favorite foods. But even amidst lavish spreads it's possible to keep your calorie intake under control. Doing so requires a mindful approach to eating as well as making decisions in advance about where to splurge or opt for smaller portions.

To mentally prepare for holiday buffet cruising, it can first help to separate a few holiday myths from facts.

Myth: Most people put on 7 pounds over the holidays.
Reality: The average gain is actually only about 1 pound, according to research. If your clothes feel tighter than usual come January 2, it's likely because that extra pound or so is fat, which takes up more space than muscle. It could also be a result of excess salt intake, which leads to water retention and additional water weight.  

If you’re seeking to manage your weight, the trick is to take off even a little extra weight right away instead of making that effort later in the year. Many of us put on 1 or 2 pounds annually and never lose it. Bit by bit, that adds up.

So, either try to hold steady with your post-New Year’s eating habits or cut back for a week until the additional weight is gone.

Myth: If you just stick to your exercise routine during the season, you’ll be fine.
Reality: Let’s face it: Working out over the holidays—with loved ones nearby, the TV running, and food aplenty—can be a tall order. The key is to be realistic and scale back your ambition, at least temporarily.

Instead of trying to cram your regular workout into an overscheduled season, do 10-minute bursts of activity when you can. If you’re going to the mall for some last-minute shopping, do what you always swear you will: Take the stairs instead of the escalator and park your car at the far end of the lot.

Got 10 minutes of downtime while dinner is cooking? Put on your favorite music and dance it out in the kitchen. Need a stress break at work? Walk around the building two or three times.

A few mini-workouts like these will cumulatively deliver the same mind-body benefits as a full 30-minute routine.

Myth: You can gain 5 pounds at one blowout holiday feast.
Reality: Five pounds is stretching it. But even if the scale seems to jump hours after a big meal, don't panic. That extra weight is almost certainly water. Salt may be to blame for that, but carbs from mashed potatoes and dressing are water holders, too, says Elizabeth Somer, RD, author of 10 Habits That Mess Up a Woman's Diet. Within a day or two, the water weight of a big meal will disappear as you return to normal activities and excrete the extra fluid.

Myth: It's okay to go overboard at parties and special holiday meals—just exercise more the next day and burn it off.
Reality: While it's true that the more you exercise, the more calories you burn—and the more you can eat while maintaining your weight—there’s a limit to how much this works.

Remember that calories can add up quickly at a holiday feast, and one typical meal can top 3,000 calories. A 150-pound woman who eats a 2,500-calorie meal, for example, would have to walk briskly for roughly 10 hours to burn it off. Unless you're planning to do nothing else but walk and eat between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, consider going easy on second helpings. You probably don't really want or need them anyway.

As an added benefit for seeking moderation over the holidays, not only will you enter the new year with a leg up on sticking to your resolutions, but maintaining a desirable weight can make your RealAge six years younger.

Article sources open article sources

Yanovski JA, Yanovski SZ, Sovik KN, Nguyen TT, O'Neil PM, Sebring NG. A prospective study of holiday weight gain. New England Journal of Medicine. 2000;342(12):861-867.
Helander, Elina, Wansink, Brian, Chieh, Angela. Weight Gain over the Holidays in Three Countries. New England Journal of Medicine. 2016; 375:1200-1202.
Deborah Balfanz, PhD. Avoiding holiday weight gain. BeWell Stanford. Accessed June 27, 2022.
Mahaffey, Kinsey. How to Lose Water Weight Effectively. National Association of Sports Medicine. Page accessed on June 9, 2022.
Calorie Control Council. Calories & Fat in Popular Holiday Dishes. November 4, 2020.

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