Simple tips to curb overindulgence can help stop festive kilos piling on

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Simple tips to curb excess eating and drinking and encourage physical activity over Christmas can help stop people piling on the kilos, finds a trial in the Christmas issue of The BMJ. 

In the paper "Effectiveness of a brief behavioural intervention to prevent weight gain over the Christmas holiday period: randomised controlled trial", the researchers encourage people to weigh themselves regularly over the Christmas and New Year season and providing information on the amount of physical activity needed to burn off popular festive foods and drinks.

The researchers say these “low intensity” interventions targeting high risk periods, such as Christmas, “could be an important contributor to obesity prevention efforts in the population.”

On average, people gain a small amount of weight each year (0.4-1 kg). Holidays such as Christmas are responsible for most of this annual weight gain, and studies have shown that weight gained during holiday periods is subsequently not fully lost.

But could a brief intervention over the Christmas period prevent weight gain?

To find out, researchers at the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Applied Health Research and the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University, tested the effectiveness of a weight gain prevention intervention focusing specifically on the Christmas period.

They recruited 272 adults with a range of weight (BMI) categories prior to Christmas in 2016 and 2017. Baseline assessments were conducted in November with follow up assessments in January. Participants were mostly female (78%) and of white ethnicity (78%). Average age was 44 years. Average length of time in the study was 45 days.

Participants were randomly divided into two groups. The intervention group was encouraged to record and reflect on their weight at least twice a week. The intervention group also received tips on managing their weight and a list of physical activity calorie equivalents of popular festive foods and drinks. For example, the calories in a mince pie require 21 minutes of running and a small glass of mulled wine requires 33 minutes of walking to expend. Their goal was to gain no more than 0.5 kg of their baseline weight. The control group received a healthy living leaflet with no dietary advice.

The results showed that on average, participants in the comparison group gained some weight over Christmas but participants in the intervention group did not. After adjusting for potentially influential factors, follow up weight was lower in the intervention group than the control group (a mean difference of -0.49 kg between groups).

There was also a significant increase in cognitive restraint (limiting food intake to control body weight) for the intervention group compared with the control group.

There was no meaningful reduction in percentage body fat or differences in emotional eating and uncontrolled eating between the groups.

Although the difference in weight was marginally smaller than expected, it is still important, say the researchers, as any weight gain prevented will have a positive impact on health outcomes. They point to some limitations, such as the short follow up period and the fact that participants were mostly women in the healthy or overweight BMI categories, which may limit the generalisability of the findings.

Nevertheless, they say these results “should be considered by health policy makers to prevent weight gain in the population during high risk periods such as holidays.”