A Christmas dinner table

Simple tips to curb overeating can help prevent weight gain at Christmas

A study by Loughborough University and the University of Birmingham has shown that regular weighing at home and simple tips to curb excess eating and drinking can prevent people from gaining weight at Christmas.

Researchers, supported by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and funded by the University of Birmingham, carried out the ‘Winter Weight Watch Study’ - a trial that aimed to prevent participants from gaining weight over the festive season by arming them with tips and techniques to avoid overindulging.

It saw 272 volunteers being randomly placed into either an ‘intervention’ or a ‘comparison’ group.  Those in the intervention group were asked to weigh themselves at least twice per week, but ideally every day, and record their weight on a record card to help them monitor their food and drink intake. They were also given 10 top tips for weight management and a list of how much physical activity would be needed to burn off calories found in popular food and drinks consumed at Christmas. For example, it takes 21 minutes of running to burn the calories in a mince pie and 33 minutes of walking to expend the calories found in a small glass of mulled wine.

In contrast, the comparison group received only a brief information leaflet about leading a healthy lifestyle, which did not include dietary advice.  

The study, published in The BMJ, was carried out in 2016 and 2017, with participants weighed and measured in November and December each year and then follow-up measurements taken in January and February 2017 and 2018.

The results showed that on average, participants in the comparison group gained some weight over Christmas but participants in the intervention group did not. Those in the intervention group ended the study weighing on average 0.49kg less than those in the comparison group. 

Following the intervention, compared with the comparison group participants in the intervention group were assessed to be more able to restrain their eating and drinking to help control their body weight.

First author Frances Mason, of the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Applied Health Research, said: “The festive season coincides with public holidays in many countries, providing an opportunity for prolonged over-consumption and sedentary behaviour.

“On Christmas Day alone an individual might consume 6,000 calories - three times the recommended daily allowance.

“Christmas is likely to tax even the most experienced weight controller.  Low intensity interventions such as the one used in our Winter Weight Watch Study should be considered by health policy makers to prevent weight gain in the population during high-risk periods such as holidays.”

Senior author Professor Amanda Daley, with the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University, said: “On average people gain a small amount of weight of up to 1kg each year and holidays such as Christmas are responsible for most of this annual weight gain.

“Weight gained during holiday periods often is not subsequently lost and, although these gains are small, over 10 years they would lead to a significant increase in body weight.

”Our research has shown that a brief intervention over the Christmas period can help to prevent these small weight gains that accumulate and drive the obesity epidemic.”

Few trials have tested interventions to prevent weight gain during high risk periods, and this is the first known trial to test a strategy for preventing weight gain at Christmas.

Corresponding author Dr Amanda Farley, lecturer in public health and epidemiology at the University of Birmingham, said: “The results of this study are encouraging. The information given to participants was tailored to the local cultural context but could also easily be adapted for use in other settings and countries. 

Miranda Pallan, senior clinical lecturer in public health at the University of Birmingham, also authored the research. The statistical work of the study was carried out by Alice Sitch and Christina Easter, also of the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Applied Health Research.

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: PR 18/167

  • Mason et al (2018). Effectiveness of a brief behavioural intervention to prevent weight gain over the Christmas holiday period: randomised controlled trial. The BMJ. DOI: 10.1136/bmj.k4867
  • Link to research: http://www.bmj.com/content/363/bmj.k4867
  • Participants in the study were mostly female (78%) and of white ethnicity (78%). Average age was 44 years and 24% were from areas of higher deprivation. Average length of time in the study was 45 days. 
  • Loughborough University has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2018 QS World University Rankings, top in the country for its student experience in the 2018 THE Student Experience Survey and named University of the Year by The Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2019 and the Whatuni Student Choice Awards 2018.  Loughborough is in the top 10 of every national league table, being ranked 4th in the Guardian University League Table 2019, 5th in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2019 and 7th in The UK Complete University Guide 2019.
  • The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 5,000 international students from over 150 countries.
  • This work was independent research as part of a PhD studentship funded by the College of Medical and Dental Sciences at the University of Birmingham. This paper presents independent research supported by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Birmingham Biomedical Research Centre at University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust and National Institute for Health Research  NIHR Leicester Biomedical Research Centre.
  • The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is the nation's largest funder of health and care research. The NIHR: 
    • Funds, supports and delivers high quality research that benefits the NHS, public health and social care
    • Engages and involves patients, carers and the public in order to improve the reach, quality and impact of research
    • Attracts, trains and supports the best researchers to tackle the complex health and care challenges of the future
    • Invests in world-class infrastructure and a skilled delivery workforce to translate discoveries into improved treatments and services
    • Partners with other public funders, charities and industry to maximise the value of research to patients and the economy
  • The NIHR was established in 2006 to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research, and is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. In addition to its national role, the NIHR commissions applied health research to benefit the poorest people in low- and middle-income countries, using Official Development Assistance funding.  This work uses data provided by patients and collected by the NHS as part of their care and support and would not have been possible without access to this data. The NIHR recognises and values the role of patient data, securely accessed and stored, both in underpinning and leading to improvements in research and care. www.nihr.ac.uk/patientdata


*The ‘intervention’ group was given 10 top weight management tips (adapted from Lally et al (2008) International Journal of Obesity 32; 700-707):


** The ‘intervention’ group was given physical activity calorie equivalents (PACE) of popular festive food and drinks (see https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/support/healthy-living/staying-active/exercise-calorie-calculator). Example below: