For many, participating in the holiday season also means putting on a few pounds. Festive dinners, decadent desserts and boozy brunches all contribute to the increased waistline many end up with by the time the New Year comes. Resolving to eat better in the New Year helps to ratchet back the eating and slow or reverse the holiday weight gain, or so we thought. New research out this week indicates that the bad habits of the festive season may actually last much longer.
The research team wanted to find out just how early in the year bad eating habits started and how late in the holiday season they extended. Rather than invade the homes of those they were studying, the researchers monitored the spending habits of families at the grocery store over time. There is more food around in the house during the holiday season, and more food means more calories, which ultimately means weight gain. The researchers also recorded the healthfulness of purchased food using a rating scheme that scored foods from zero to three stars with three being the most nutritious and zero being the least nutritious.
Grocery-store purchases were tracked from July of 2010 to March of 2011. The researchers looked at how much money families spent per week, the number of calories purchased per week and how healthy the food was based on their star scoring system. Unsurprisingly, they found that food spending spiked the week of Thanksgiving and remained an average of $20 higher per week than pre-holiday shopping. Total calories also spiked at Thanksgiving to about 700 calories per week more than the pre-holiday amount.
The surprise came in looking how long those two spikes lasted. Spending and calories dropped briefly the first week of the New Year, but then surged back to even higher levels where they remained into March.
To get a better sense of where this additional money was being spent, the research team looked at the health rating of the food items being bought. They found two interesting things. First, the spending on unhealthy food that started at Thanksgiving continued well into the post-holiday season. Rather than dropping back down after New Year’s, spending on less nutritious foods remained high months after the holiday season.
Second, the spending on healthy food increased during the post-holiday season by about three times compared with the holiday period. Interestingly, this health food was also more expensive than the health food families bought during the rest of the year. All told, this additional spending increased the weekly food bill by about one quarter from $105 per week pre-holidays to $130 per week post-holidays.
These spending trends indicate that most people aim to reach their resolutions by buying more health food, but still fall into the habits set during the holiday period when they hit the stores. The increased cost of the healthy items they buy seem to show that many grab the latest low-calorie and diet products, but also sneak in the same guilty pleasures they’ve enjoyed during November and December.
The research ended in March without any indication that unhealthy holiday eating would return to normal. As a result, it’s unclear when people finally drag themselves back to the better habits seen in July. The team thinks the summer may be the impetus for reducing spending and calories as many attempt to lose weight for swimsuit season.