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How do the Christmas holidays, and the often well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions we make, go on to influence our household buying of healthy and unhealthy foods during the holidays and beyond into the New Year? Lizzy Pope and her colleagues then at Cornell University in New York tried to answer this question in their study submitted to the Journal PloSOne back in 2014.
Lizzy explains that gaining weight over the holidays due to over-indulgence has been something that researchers have known about for some time now. However, what we haven’t fully understood is how the festive season can lead to us spending more on foods with lots of calories earlier on in the holiday period, which may persist for later than expected. The authors summarise previous evidence showing increases in weight gain during the festive period that may not necessarily be reversed come the New Year, where small yearly increases are even thought to be responsible for gradually rising obesity rates of people in the US since the 1970s year after year.
So why do we overeat around Christmas time? Lizzy and her colleagues, alongside other researchers, assume that there are several important things we do, so-called behavioural factors, that explain why we step up our game in junk-food purchases and overindulgence during and possibly after the holiday period ends. For instance, eating for longer periods of time and more frequently with others (including attending more parties), having larger portion sizes and easier access to foods (including leftovers) in the home, are all related to greater intake of food. The idea is that there are fewer distractions in the holiday period than there would normally be at other times of the year, plus there’s a sharp rise in stress, which we know can have a significant impact on unhealthy eating choices, where resisting temptation becomes a challenge for many.
Most of us will admit that losing weight will have featured as one of our New Year’s resolutions at some point, and most of us will know that this ‘New Year, new me’ commitment is too often quickly abandoned. The question is, do we return to the same food purchasing patterns before Christmas or does the holiday frenzy set a new status quo for food purchasing patterns going beyond Yule Tide that serves to undermine our New Year resolution to eat healthier? Up to now several studies have looked at our food purchasing patterns but not the possible shift over the festive period. Arguably, changes in the amount of food purchases do not necessarily mean that households are consuming this amount, where for instance we might be disposing of more food in our domestic waste than usual. However, we know from previous research that food purchases do marry-up with peoples’ reports of intake in terms of total fat, total calories, and percent calories from fat consumed.
Lizzy and her colleagues examined the food purchasing behaviour of 207 households before, during and after the seasonal period. They compared possible changes in a group of individual’s purchasing behaviour by tracking item-level transactions at two regional-grocery chain locations in upstate New York for 7 months from July 2010 to March 2011 using a special scannable ID card for each transaction. They also recorded dollars spent on healthy and unhealthy foods by using the grocer’s own nutrient-rating system to label ‘‘healthy/more nutritious’’ and ‘‘less healthy’’ items (for more information, check out the original article below). The team also calculated the number of calories purchased by taking the rating system, which formed part of the transaction data, merging it with ‘per serving’ calorie, fat, and sugar data from online nutritional databases. This allowed the researchers to compare weekly total spend and calories purchased by each household for the ‘holiday period’ (Thanksgiving to New Year’s) and the ‘post-holiday period’ (New Year’s to March), which were compared to data in the ‘pre-festive period’ (July to Thanksgiving).
So, what did they find? Over the holiday period, food-spending went up significantly by 15% compared to the pre-festive period, from $105.74 to $121.83. Of this increased spending, they showed that 75% of purchases were for less healthy food and drink items. In line with good intentions of New Year’s resolutions, they also found that overall people bought more higher calorie healthy foods in the post-holiday period compared to the pre-festive period: so, a 29% increase (or $13.24 per week), and 19% ($9.26 per week) when compared to the holiday period. Interestingly, households tended to seek out the more expensive versions of the healthier items instead of seeking best value options. Sales of less healthy foods in the post-holiday period remained largely unchanged after the holiday period, at around $72 per week. With increased expenditure in the New Year compared to the holiday period also came increased calories by around 9% (making up 450 calories per serving per week). Strikingly, and contrary to our New Year’s resolutions, there was a 20% rise in calories purchased (so 890 calories per serving per week) compared to the pre-festive period, doubling the amount bought during the holiday period. This is quite surprising given that children of some households will have also returned to school and adults to work, eating more outside of the home.
Lizzy and her colleagues suggest that although we may certainly have good intentions to eat more healthily in the New Year with our weight-focused resolutions, it seems we are simply adjusting more to a new status quo of buying and devouring less healthy foods. This pattern begins early in the festive period and continues right up into March in the New Year alongside a consistently higher spend on healthy but high calorie foods purchases (… probably to help us feel less guilty about our unhealthy choices!) They argue that if we could be encouraged to switch-out the less healthy items for more healthy ones, we may stand a chance of fulfilling our New Year’s resolutions and reversing holiday weight gain.
Alongside the possibility that our food purchases do not necessarily reflect what we eat and changes in weight were not measured (which is an important next step for this research area), perhaps another obvious limitation of this study is that spending patterns seen here in 2010 may not reflect the same as those in more recent years given the different economic circumstances, we find ourselves in currently. However, this would have been at the same time as the impact of the sub-prime mortgage crash in 2008 and recession that followed.
What can we do about it? Alongside setting realistic weight loss goals, using previously written shopping lists might stop us from impulsive, unhealthy purchases. Having a reminder of what our previous shopping lists or patterns look like in early autumn during or after holiday season might help us return to the pre-holiday status quo. They also argue that using visible separators to divide shopping trolleys and baskets into half to encourage consumers to fill them half with healthy and unhealthy foods might be helpful to rebalance things.
In any case, it’s fair to say that behaviour change is not easy! But armed with this knowledge, we at The Collaborative Library wish you all the best in turning your health-related New Year’s res-illusions into wiser resolutions and committing to these in years to come! Happy New Year everyone!
“Santa” by Bart Fields is licensed under CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/?ref=openverse.
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Andrew S. Hanks
David R. Just
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