Researchers say preventing holiday weight gain starts at the scale

Adults who self-weigh themselves daily can better prevent holiday weight gain, according to a new study published in the journal Obesity.  

Researchers examined 111 adults between the ages of 16 and 65 years old, implementing a daily self-weighing intervention from mid-November 2017 to early January 2018, with a 14-week follow-up period. Participants in the intervention group were instructed to try to maintain their baseline weight throughout the holiday season. However, no additional instructions on how to achieve the goal were provided. Participants could self-select how they would modify their behavior, including becoming more physically active or eating less, according to the study abstract. Those in the control group were given no instruction.

The researchers found that participants who weighed themselves on a daily basis on scales and received graphical feedback of their weight changes either maintained or lost weight during the holiday season, while participants who did not self-weigh daily gained weight.

The findings support discrepancy theories of self-regulation, according to Michelle VanDellen, PhD, associate professor in the University of Georgia Department of Psychology and second author on the paper.

"People are really sensitive to discrepancies or differences between their current selves and their standard or goal," she said. "When they see that discrepancy, it tends to lead to behavioral change. Daily self-weighing ends up doing that for people in a really clear way."

Previous research has shown that the holiday season can lead individuals to gain weight that persists after the holidays are over, which could contribute to annual weight gain. Individuals with overweight or obesity are susceptible to gaining the most weight, researchers say. In contrast, individuals who regularly exercise are not protected from weight gain during the holidays.

Obesity is a major risk factor for more than 200 comorbid conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Approximately 1.9 billion people are overweight or obese, according to the World Health Organization.  

Future research is needed to determine if the act of daily self-weighing without graphical feedback would be effective at maintaining weight over the holiday season, said Jamie Cooper, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Foods and Nutrition at the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences, and lead author of the study. Replication in larger studies with more diverse participants would help to determine the generalizability of this approach for weight gain prevention.

"Vacations and holidays are probably the two times of year people are most susceptible to weight gain in a very short period of time," Cooper concluded. "The holidays can actually have a big impact on someone's long-term health."