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Holiday Weight Gain

Quick Hit Summary

Holiday weight gain is a fear of many. However, the notion that you will gain a 1-2 lbs (~0.5-1kg) of solid fat is ludicrous. In this article we discuss the number of calories (kcal) that one would actually have to eat in order to gain 1 lb/0.5kg of fat per day.

Putting Holiday Weight Gain in Perspective

Figure 1. Are all of those holiday goodies adding a few pounds of fat to your butt, thighs and love handles? Image source7

I often am asked what to do about managing holiday weight gain. I could make a list of “Top 10 Tips to Avoid Holiday Weight Gain” or something of similar nature. However, the World Wide Web is already overflowing with these articles and I’m guessing you’ve probably read a few yourself. (FYI- A Google Search, completed on Nov 22, 2012, using the words “Top 10 Tips to Avoid Holiday Weight Gain” brought up 2,470,000 results in 0.26 seconds!). Thus, I want to take a different approach with holiday weight gain – Namely, PUT DAILY HOLIDAY WEIGHT FLUCTUATIONS INTO PERSPECTIVE!

Many individuals, especially those body image conscious individuals who religiously measure their physical progress via a 3 digit number on a weight scale, tend to flip out when their weight goes up a few pounds over the course of a day or two. Of course they assume that it HAS to be of belly/thigh/butt fat – right? Now let’s put this irrational fear into perspective using a basic example…

There is 3500 kcal in 1 lb (0.45 kg) of fat. Thus, even if one makes the incorrect assumption (More on this assumption later) that all the calories you eat will be stored as fat on your thighs, butt and love handles, this means that in order to gain 1 lb of fat per day, an individual has to eat 3,500 kcal. Not only would he/she have to eat that many kcal, but since their is 2 sides of the equation (energy input vs. energy output), we’d also have to completely shut down energy output including basal metabolism… in which case we’d die — Oops!

Physical Characteristics (age, weight, height) Basal Metabolism (BMR) Kcal Expenditure (Sedentary) 1 lb/0.45 kg gain of fat/day
Male 1 (30, 170 lbs/77 kg, 5’10”/178 cm) 1810 kcal 2172 kcal 5672 kcal
Female 1 (30, 140 lbs/63.5 kg, 5’7”/170 cm) 1437 kcal 1724 kcal 5224 kcal
Male 2 (50, 170 lbs/77 kg, 5’10”/178 cm) 1674 kcal 2009 kcal 5509 kcal
Female 2 (50, 140 lbs/63.5 kg, 5’7”/170 cm) 1344 kcal 1612 kcal 5112 kcal

Table 1. Kcal needed to gain 1 lb of fat per day. Column 1 is the physical characteristics of the example individuals. Column 2 represents basal metabolism (ie- the energy required just to perform bodily functions such as respiration, circulation, etc). Column 3 represents the energy expended if one is sedentary during the day. Column 4 represents the minimum added kcal required to gain 1 lb fat/day. These estimated daily kcal requirements were obtained using the Harris Benedict Equation. Table created by Sean Casey.

As seen in Table 1 the amount of kcal needed to gain 1 lb (0.45 kg) of fat per day is pretty extreme. Please note that these calculations are based off someone with SEDENTARY behavior (i.e. Lounging around all day after eating an abundance of kcal!). Similar to myself, I know that some of the faithful readers hear at CasePerformance like to partake in some sort of traditional holiday exercise/training session. Thus, as seen in Table 2 an added amount of kcal would be required by these individuals in order to gain 1 lb (0.45 kg) of fat/day (and yes, I know that these energy equations have limitations!). Please note that the same individuals are used in both tables. However, METS estimated energy expenditure equations do not take into account a person’s age; thus, only a male and female are listed below.1

Individuals Running 30 min Walking 30 min. Circuit Training 30 min. Resistance Training 30 min
Male 481 kcal 108 kcak 270 kcal 77-193 kcal
Female 397 kcal 89 kcal 222 kcal 63.5-159 kcal

Table 2. These calculation was done using METS1. Please note that these numbers do not take into consideration a person’s age, gender, or body composition. METS Values are based off body weight, activity and duration of activity alone. Table created by Sean Casey.

The Caloric Expenditure for the above activities takes into account only those kcal that are directly burned via exercise. Resting Metabolism has already been subtracted out of the equation.

Characteristics of above activities:
  • Running: 8 mph (7.5 min/mile); 13.5 METS
  • Walking: 3.5 mph, level & firm surface, walking for exercise; 3.8 METS
  • Circuit Training: Some aerobic movement with minimal rest, general; 8 METS
  • Resistance Training: Moderate to vigorous effort; 3-6 METS (Moderate – applies to most training sessions. Vigorous – Intensive body building type of training)

As aforementioned, I made an incorrect assumption when I said, “all the calories you eat will be stored as fat only your thighs, butt and love handles.” In all reality, this does not occur for a few reasons. Namely one’s resting metabolism varies depending on the amount of food one eats, etc. A perfect, simple to understand example of this is the thermic effect of food. For those who are not familiar with the principle, it more or less means that your body has to burn energy (ie-kcal) in order to break food down into a usable form. Thus, the more food you eat, the more “work” your body has to do in order to break the food down and distribute it throughout the body. Overall, depending on the macronutrient distribution in one’s diet, this value equals ~ 10% of your daily kcal intake (ie – if eat 2000 kcal, 200 kcal are burned by your body just to digest that food)2. This number can change though as protein, carbohydrates and fat have different thermic effects3:

  • Protein: 20-30% (ie- 20-30 % of the total kcal obtained from protein are burned simply by your body putting it into a form your body can absorb.)
  • Carbohydrates: 5-10%
  • Fat: 0-5%

Hopefully, I have calmed your fears and you’re breathing a little easier about the 1-2 lb (0.45-0.9 kg) weight gain you may have had in the past day or two. It is not added fat on your midsection, love handles, thigh or butt. Yes, some of the excess kcal will show up as fat somewhere on your body. However, not 1-2 lb (0.45-0.9 kg) worth! That said, you may be wondering, where is this added weight coming from… as we all know the weight scale can’t lie!

There’s a rather simple answer to the question – water weight. You may be scratching your head, saying to yourself, “This can’t be right; although I drank a little more water during the previous day, I went to the bathroom prior to weighing myself this morning and I KNOW my bladder is empty.” Although this may very well be true, it’s important to remember that you likely ate substantially more carbohydrates than what you do on a typical day (cookies, starchy potatoes, pies, etc). After indulging in carbohydrates all day, your glycogen stores are probably pretty well jammed pack (assuming that you’re of solid cardiometabolic health without any insulin resistance issues). Furthermore, it’s generally recognized that ~3-4 grams of water are stored for every gram of stored carbohydrate (ie – glycogen)45. Thus, with your glycogen stores brightly beaming, one is naturally going to be weighing a little heavier due to this water weight (especially if their diet was low in carbohydrates prior to loading up on carbohydrate rich foods!). This along with other areas where water is “hanging out”, along with added weight of food sitting in your GI tract, are primary factors to daily weight fluctuation.

Did You Know …Body builders have long taken advantage of this glycogen – water loading effect. Quite often, in the week leading up to their onstage appearances, they do a little carb loading (after depletion). By first running their stores down a little low, the body is able to “supercompensate”, pumping their muscles full of water and glycogen. Thus, their muscles seemingly POP through their skin. (Please note that this is only one of the many things bodybuilders do to make their muscles pop through their skin).

Long Term Weight Gain

In this mini look at holiday weight gain, I’ve only discussed weight gained over a couple day period, discussing how ridiculous it is to think that one has gained 1-2 lb (0.45-0.9 kg) of fat over a short time span. Rather, water weight and other factors are more likely to be contributing to this increased body weight (albeit your fat stores have likely expanded a little bit after a day or two of gorging).

Although I could go into an in-depth discussion of long term holiday weight gain, vs. the day-to-day discussed here, I’d be wasting my time. My friend, Adel Moussa, has already written an excellent article on this subject at SuppVersity which can be accessed by clicking here. Surprisingly it might not be as extreme as you’d think, but a few caveats do exist. Check out the article for more.

Weight Loss, Glycogen & Low Carb Diets

And while we’re talking about water based weight gain and carbohydrates, it reminds me of the famous low carbohydrate type diets (ie – Atkins Diet). Have you ever noticed how individuals seemingly lose 5-10+ lbs (2.25-4.5 kg) during the first few days when starting the diet or gain 5-10+ lbs (2.25-4.5 kg) immediately upon getting off the diet? If so, you’re not the only one and it’s long been suspected that fluctuations in glycogen content is the reason for this phenomenon. As stated by Kreitzman et al.

“Glycogen losses or gains are reported to be associated with an additional three to four parts water, so that as much as 5 kg weight change might not be associated with any fat loss. As glycogen stores are readily replenished after conclusion of any weight-loss program, it is necessary to account for these losses before comparing effectiveness of weight loss methods, before assessing recidivism, and certainly before criticizing dieters for lack of post diet control.”6

Please note that I am not encouraging/discouraging the use of a low carbohydrate diet. (That’s another article for another day!) Rather, I’m simply pointing out that the rapid weight fluctuations upon starting/ending a low carb diet can partially be attributed to water weight; not fat loss/gain.

Bottom Line

Holiday weight gain occurs in both the short and long term. However, it is not nearly as drastic as commonly believed. Furthermore, the weight gained (at least during the short term) is not fat. Thus, enjoy these holiday feasts. May big food fuel big workouts!


1 Ainsworth BE, Haskell WL, Whitt MC, Irwin ML, Swartz AM, Strath SJ, O’Brien WL, Bassett DR Jr, Schmitz KH, Emplaincourt PO, Jacobs DR Jr, Leon AS. Compendium of physical activities: an update of activity codes and MET intensities. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2000 Sep;32(9 Suppl):S498-504.

2 Gropper SS, Smith JL, Groff JL. Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism. 5th Ed. Belmont, CA. 2009

3 Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intake for Energy, Carbohydrates, Fiber, Fat, Protein and Amino Acids. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. 2002

4 Chan ST, Johnson AW, Moore MH, Kapadia CR, Dudley HA. Early weight gain and glycogen-obligated water during nutritional rehabilitation. Hum Nutr Clin Nutr. 1982;36(3):223-32.

5 Maughan RJ, Shirreffs SM, Leiper JB. Errors in the estimation of hydration status from changes in body mass. J Sports Sci. 2007 May;25(7):797-804.

6 Kreitzman SN, Coxon AY, Szaz KF. Glycogen storage: illusions of easy weight loss, excessive weight regain, and distortions in estimates of body composition.Am J Clin Nutr. 1992 Jul;56(1 Suppl):292S-293S.

7 Silar. Christmas Cookies In Poland. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Image accessed on December 28, 2011 from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:04578_Christmas_cakes,_PL_2010.JPG

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Written on December 28, 2011 by Sean Casey
Last Updated: November 22, 2012

This information is not intended to take the place of medical advice.Please check with your health care providers prior to starting any new dietary or exercise program. CasePerformance is not responsible for the outcome of any decision made based off the information presented in this article.

About the Author: Sean Casey is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison with degrees in both Nutritional Science-Dietetics and Kinesiology-Exercise Physiology. Sean graduated academically as one of the top students in both the Nutritional Science and Kinesiology departments.
Field Experience: During college, Sean was active with the UW-Badgers Strength and Conditioning Department. He has also spent time as an intern physical preparation coach at the International Performance Institute in Bradenton, FL. He also spent time as an intern and later worked at Athletes Performance in Tempe, AZ. While at these locations he had the opportunity to train football, soccer, baseball, golf and tennis athletes. Sean is also active in the field of sports nutrition where he has consulted with a wide variety of organizations including both elite (NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars) and amateur athletic teams. His nutrition consultation services are avalable by clicking on the Nutrition Consultation tab.