Have another cookie, it’s the holidays! Why our eating habits vary on weekends and special occasions

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Part of the reason people tend to gain weight around the holidays may have to do with the way that we think about food, and eating, outside of our workweek routines. According to research published in the Fall 2009 issue of the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, our tendency to separate eating habits into different “brackets”—distinguishing the weekend from the week, and holidays from day-to-day—may help explain why we have different rules for ourselves on special occasions.

Previous research has shown that people tend to gain about a pound each holiday season, which they seldom manage to shed in the new year. And according to this latest study, conducted by Adwait Khare, marketing professor at Quinnipiac University, and J. Jeffrey Inman, Associate Dean for Research and Marketing at the University of Pittsburgh, the fact that as many as 84% of people tend to “bracket” their eating behaviors, and apply different standards within holiday and weekend brackets, may be driving this weight gain. TIME spoke with Inman to get a better understanding of “temporal brackets” and how they impact our holiday eating habits.

To begin with, Inman says, largely due to the way that nutrition information is given—both in public health guidelines and on food packaging—people tend to think about their food consumption within the confines of a single day. In other words, the most basic eating bracket is a 24-hour period. “The food pyramid and the dietary guidelines tend to be on a daily basis, not a rolling basis,” Inman says. “That kind of sets us up mentally to be thinking of today’s caloric intake.” And, while his own previous research found that, on an individual basis, eating habits can be influenced by a broader time frame—people who tend to mix up richer meals with lighter meals as a force of habit—this latest research suggests that, generally speaking, people tend to view each day as a new start, and therefore a clean slate for calories. “Bio-rythmically, it’s the dawn of a new day,” he says. So, in other words, if I had a huge steak dinner last night, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll consider those calories as part of the equation as I make my food choices today.

What’s more, Inman says that the rules we apply to weekday brackets don’t necessarily carry over into weekends. On average, he found that people tend to consume more calories on the weekends, and that there is a 9% increase at breakfast in particular. “We think it’s because, on weekdays, people are hustling around the house, but on weekends, you have more time,” Inman says. During the week you may grab a bowl of cereal or some toast before you rush off to work, but on the weekends, you can take longer preparing breakfast—cooking up eggs and bacon instead of scarfing a Nutri-Grain on the way out the door.

Of course, while most people tend eat more on weekends, not everyone views the weekend as a bracket for binging. Some people treat the weekend as a time to enjoy carefully crafted, healthy meals, as opposed to weekday eating that can be a matter of consuming hurried meals of convenience that may be more calorie dense—ordering a pizza on a weeknight as opposed to cooking salmon and broccoli on the weekend, for example.

When it comes to the holidays, Inman, found that people tend to conceptually cordon off the time for indulgence. Of course, not all holidays have equal calorie counts. To better understand the different brackets people apply to special occasions, Inman and Khare broke down holidays into three categories: civic, such as Martin Luther King Day or Veteran’s Day; eating holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas; and mixed, such as Labor Day or the Fourth of July. What he found was that, while eating habits during civic holidays differ little from weekdays—”Many companies don’t even give their employees those days off,” Inman explains, they grow significantly for both mixed and eating holidays. On average, people tend to consume 7% more on mixed holidays, and 14% more on eating holidays.

While many people are aware that they tend to indulge a bit more around the holidays, because of our tendency to break our consumption down into small, separate boxes, we may not appreciate the full picture of just how much we’re consuming on special occasions. In his study, which included data from 601 people who kept food diaries for two week-long periods a year apart, (of whom 262 kept food diaries for a week that included a holiday), some people were consuming more than 900 calories more on the special occasions than during the regular workweek.

Additionally, Inman points out, some people may be more likely to overdo it than others. While there were no differences along gender lines, in his analysis of weekend eating habits compared with weekday, he found that adults between 25 and 35 were most likely to show a sizable increase in calorie consumption on weekends compared with other age groups. Additionally, he found that increased calorie intake generally corresponded to higher body mass index—or that people who are overweight or obese were more likely to eat additional calories on weekends compared to weekdays.

So, what can we do with this information? In the long term, Inman suggests there may be some benefit to changing the way that we think about dietary guidelines—instead of breaking everything down by day, we should consider a bigger picture of calorie consumption by week, and also by meal, giving people more points of reference. “We need to provide consumers a little longer time frame to think about in terms of their caloric intake,” Inman says.

And in the short term, with holiday parties and heaps of goodies beckoning, he says being aware of how you approach food differently on special occasions is an important start. “Forewarned is forearmed,” he says. He emphasizes the importance of being mindful about what you’re eating, and why. “Once you realize you’re subject to certain behavior, that’s the first step toward changing it.”

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