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As the leaves fall, temperatures cool and the clock clicks closer to the holiday season, weight controllers face the daunting task of making it through the most challenging weeks of the year. When families gather for feasts, when parties come in bursts, and when outdoor activities lose much of their appeal, weight control becomes especially difficult.

Two studies underscore the value of nurturing a very consistent type of focusing on eating and activity control during this time of year. At Wellspring, we call this type of focusing a “healthy obsession” – meaning “a sustained preoccupation with the planning and executing of target behaviors to reach a healthy goal.”1 When weight controllers maintain this attitude in full force, keeping their healthy obsessions especially healthy, they can get through the holidays in great shape. Consider these results:

Drs. Kerri Boutelle, Daniel Kirschenbaum and their colleagues2 tested the effects of an approach to help weight controllers stay focused very clearly during the holidays. Half of the overweight adults in their treatment programs continued to attend their usual weekly group sessions during the holidays (the Comparison Group). The other half (the Intervention Group) received daily mailings and an extra phone call from their therapist once a week. The mailings and the call focused on only one thing: encouraging Intervention Group participants to write down what they were eating and how much they were moving/exercising (i.e., self-monitoring eating and activity).

During the two weeks prior to Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Years, both groups lost weight at about the same rate. However, once the intervention started (during Thanksgiving week and then again during Christmas/New Years week), only those in the Intervention Group continued losing weight (about 1 lb. per week) whereas the Comparison Group participants gained weight (about 1 lb. per week). The Intervention Group maintained a high level of consistent self-monitoring during the holiday weeks (about 75% consistency), whereas the Comparison Group’s consistency declined from about 75% consistency to 50% consistency.

Drs. Suzanne Phelan and Rena Wing and associates3 found dramatic differences between successful weight controllers and those that never had weight problems during the holidays. The successful weight controllers developed far more explicit plans for how to handle the holidays. For example, 59% of weight controllers committed to maintain a strict exercise routine vs. only 14% of the non-weight controllers. Despite the greater planning and focusing of these successful weight controllers, more of them gained more than 2 lbs. (39%) than the non-weight controllers (17%). However, those weight controllers who maintained a strong focus on the details of their eating and activity plans fared better than those whose attention decreased.

Conclusions
The Phelan-Wing study showed that successful weight controllers rely on a “healthy obsession” to keep their weight under control during challenging times. Both studies showed that those who attend to the details of their weight control programs (for example, by self-monitoring consistently), either continue losing weight or maintain weight control better than those whose healthy obsessions weaken during the holidays.

So, if you’re a weight controller at this time of year, try to do the following to nurture your healthy obsession:

  • Plan your activities to keep them at a high level (bowling? touch football games? walking? – even on Thanksgiving or Christmas day).
  • Determine in advance what foods will be served at the family gatherings and parties that you’ll attend. Then, make sure some appealing low-fat alternatives are available to you (e.g., sweet potatoes made without butter; low-fat gravies and stuffing; fat-free pumpkin pie).
  • Self-monitor every day throughout the holidays.
  • Find a friend who wants to follow this regimen with you and swap self-monitoring records every day via email.
  • Attend self-help groups like Take Off Pounds Sensibly or Weight Watchers even during the holidays.

References
1Kirschenbaum DS, Craig R, Tjelmeland L. The Sierras Weight Loss Solution for Teens & Kids. NY:Avery, 2007.
2Boutelle KN, Kirschenbaum DS, Baker R, Mitchell E. How can obese weight controllers minimize weight gain during the holidays? By self-monitoring very consistently. Health Psychology. 1999, 18;364-368.
3Phelan S, Wing RR, et al. Holiday weight management by successful weight losers and normal weight individuals. J Consulting Clinical Psychology. 2008, 76; 442-448.