How Much? Or, Adding up Holiday Weight Gain

by Kirke on December 4, 2012


One lesson of the self-taught school I attended called “working your way up in the restaurant business,” was the axiom of the “how much question.” Culinary schools would be wise to add How Much 101 to their current curriculum  I came to this realization the hundredth time a cook came up to me asking “how much should I make?” Much of what a chef does is decide how much. First the chef decides how much to order. That would be based on how much business is expected. Then the chef determines how much to cook/prep each day, how much staff to schedule, how much to cook the dish, how much would accompany each entrée, and how much to charge for each dish. That would depend on how much things cost. And then there was the all important factor, how much to serve: the portion size.

What got me thinking again about the how much question were news stories I had read about Thanksgiving. There were stories about how to brine a turkey, how to use leftovers, how to avoid food poisoning, and many more about weight gain over the holidays. One story about the latter that caught my eye promised to debunk the myth of how much weight the average person gains, the premise being most people believe that amount to be between 5 and 10 pounds. The story cited a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) entitled “A Prospective Study of Holiday Weight Gain.” The good news is that the average person only puts on one pound over the holidays. The bad news is that if a person was already overweight, they might put on as much as five pounds. The discouraging news is that both groups studied had retained the weight gain when tested the following fall, regardless of how much they over-ate.

We have regulatory centers in our brains that use hormones (AKA: the how much hormones, two are leptin and ghrelin) to maintain the status quo of our energy balance. These regulators may rely on set points to keep parameters within specific limits. It has been proven that after gaining or losing weight our body dutifully tries to restore us back to our original weight. Energy expenditure goes up post weight gain, and down after weight loss. After expending a great deal of effort losing weight, your body rewards you by slipping into “thrifty metabolism” mode by efficiently utilizing fewer calories. (Great if you find yourself starving in a desert!) This explains the maddeningly difficult time an overweight person has trying to maintain weight loss, or the struggles an underweight person suffers to gain a pound or two. Think of a thermostat. If the heat isn’t kicking on when it gets cold, you need to re-set the temperature on your thermostat.  So the goal is to re-set your set point. But how much over- or under- eating is necessary to re-set our thermostats? In the NEJM study, all of the weight gain occurred between October and January. The over-eating that happened in that time period re-set the subjects thermostats to a higher set point. The how much answer appears to be: Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas Eve dinner, Christmas day feast, New Year’s Eve repast, and New Year’s Day brunch, along with all the requisite alcohol to wash it down…equaling, too much! There is no one answer that covers everyone, and I would never claim to I have the absolutely correct answer for anyone.

There are zillions of theories, cures and diets attempting to explain, solve, or placate on this subject, and you know I do not exaggerate. I would like to present my admittedly anecdotal thoughts on the subject for consideration, albeit with some references cited. From a chef’s perspective, the how much question has to be accurately answered or I would have ended up broke and out of work. After the holidays, a chef cuts back on ordering, gives staff vacations, answering the how much question with a firm “less.” When years of cooking finally took its toll on my back, ending my much loved (seriously) 6-7 day work weeks, 10-12 hour days, it also ended my high octane metabolism. I had come to the point where I could no longer eat whatever I pleased—the how much leading to that decision was the 40 lbs. of extra weight I was carrying. I had to adjust how much I ate everyday and re-set my set point. I picked one meal and made a fundamental and permanent change. I chose lunch. As a chef I had always worked late, slept late, skipped breakfast except for coffee, arriving at work before noon. I then ate something thrown together from some unsuspecting line-cook’s mis en place, usually a sandwich accompanied by French fries, which were always conveniently waiting for me next to the fryer.

How much I changed started by beginning to eat a breakfast, which added whole oranges, a banana, and a bowl of whole grain cereal with non-fat milk to my two cups of coffee. For lunch I ate a 1/4 cup of nuts and 2 Tbs. of dried fruit and/or whole fruit. Dinner is whatever I want, although I do tend to eat on the healthy side, easily meeting the recommended daily amount of vegetables, and then some. I never felt deprived; lunch might seem Spartan, but nuts are full of fat, which promotes satiety. Another trick that works for me is to eat with little breaks between a few bites. I have often found that if I pay attention to my stomach sensors (and there actually are such things), I already felt full and didn’t really want another bite. It seems that the stomach sensors most dieters feel are the ones telling them they are starving to death. Why are dieters so afraid of being hungry? It makes the next meal really taste good. (Wait, is that dysfunctional?) And what is a little hunger to dieters who often are thoroughly torturing themselves with pain inducing exercise? I should mention that before I reduced my food intake, I had previously reduced my alcohol consumption to a trickle, relatively speaking. I don’t care a great deal for sweet drinks, so the liquid I primarily consumed was water. I did keep an orange soda with a screw top in the door of the refrigerator, which lasts a few days, a swig now and then satisfying that need for me. If liquid foods are an issue for you, first consider the virtues of water. If you take a minute to think about it, water is truly a miraculous substance. Nothing quenches thirst better, (except beer, but only the first two to three swigs), there is nothing else like it, it’s crystal clear (wow, man!), there are zero calories, but it is essential for life. Why do we drink anything else?

I bet the how much question you are thinking right now is how much longer is this guy going to rant on about this? I’m almost finished. The point I am trying to communicate is that there is another way to change your eating patterns and get to a place where you are more comfortable with yourself. And that is to just change one or two foods you habitually eat to other foods that have fewer calories…permanently. That last word is key. Once you have a new answer for the how much question, the next time you are at the Thanksgiving buffet, you might over consume a little bit, but during the next few days you will eat a little less and go back to the new set point you’ve created. Perhaps you’ll be happy with less. Hey, you might not even go back for seconds and how much will equal less.

How Much more:

Many people in the US and a growing number of people in other countries are having a hard time with the how much question. I’ve watched portion sizes grow and grow in my thirty years working as a chef. There is a twisted notion that the size of your meal equals the value of your meal. I think it comes with manifest destiny or something, conquer everything west of the Mississippi…then conquer everything you can fit on your plate. I believe that if we could only start to appreciate how much value there is in fruits at the peak of ripeness, vegetables that are extremely fresh, luscious in flavor and appearance, meats sourced from well raised livestock, and fish just jumping from the water, smelling of the ocean. These values are greater than how much food we are served. Quality is where the true value lies. Maybe we should concentrate more on how and less on much?

I have made a conscious effort to not talk too much about statistics, numbers, and calorie counting. However, for some people, a more structured, mathematical method of weight loss works better, and after all, energy balance is all about the number of calories you consume and expend. To get an accurate, no hidden agenda explanation of just why it is all about the calories, pick up a copy of Marion Nestle’s book Why Calories Count. Especially helpful is the section in Chapter 17 with the heading “Preventing Further Weight Gain: Small Changes. Ms. Nestle shows how a 100 calorie a day increase in consumption can lead to five pounds of weight gain over a year. This leads to the assumption that reducing intake by 100 calories, about one soft drink a day, could lead to an equivalent loss of weight. Pat results like that depend on many factors conveniently aligning, and for someone who has reached a BMI in the obese range, a reduction in calories three times that amount will be necessary to achieve a significant weight loss. Ms. Nestle’s books are all clear, concise, and unbiased sources for nutrition information, and I highly recommend them all.

A link to Ms. Nestle’s Blog


Yanovski, J. A., Yanovski, S. Z., Sovik, K. N., Nguyen, T. T., O’Neil, P. M., & Sebring, N. G. (2000). A prospective study of holiday weight gain. The New England Journal of Medicine, (342), 861-867. doi:10.1056/NEJM200003233421206

Bruce J. Grattan Jr. and Josephine Connolly-Schoonen, “Addressing Weight Loss Recidivism: A Clinical Focus on Metabolic Rate and the Psychological Aspects of Obesity,” ISRN Obesity, vol. 2012, Article ID 567530, 5 pages, 2012. doi:10.5402/2012/567530

Nestle, M., & Nesheim, M. (2012). Why calories count, from science to politics. Berkeley, CA:University of California Press.

Whitney, E., & Rolfes, S. R. (2005). Understanding nutrition (10th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth. 279-285.


Leave a Comment

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathy Harding January 3, 2013 at 4:35 pm

How great to combine your chef background and nutrition knowledge! The How Much article was very interesting and “food for thought”…pardon the pun…especially with the onset of the New Year. Extremely well done.


Kirke January 3, 2013 at 5:05 pm

Hi Kathy, I am sorry, but I don’t think I can forgive your pun LOL, although sometimes I do feel like my brain is “starving.” Thanks for your comment.


Elena December 15, 2012 at 10:01 am

It’s true that as Americans we value more the size of the meal than the quality of it. We need to step away from processed and fast food and learn how to train our palate to value the real, whole food. I feel that we’re disconnected from the natural process of eating and we’re not paying much attention on what our bodies tell us to eat (especially how much!). Great article!


Kirke December 15, 2012 at 12:27 pm

Thank you Elena. Yes, whole food means whole nutrition, whole satiation, whole health, and taste satisfaction.


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