No matter what or where you’re celebrating, the holidays are a magical time of year. The food is extra delicious and usually a touch sentimental (Grandma’s pudding recipe, #FTW), runs are usually hot and less regular, but everyone’s in the spirit of giving.
Then, once January rolls around, many people make New Year’s resolutions to ramp up their health and wellness. For some, that may mean losing weight. But even when you start focusing on eating healthier and adding more intentional workouts to your routine, the number on the scale may not reflect how you feel.
Not to worry—there are loads of reasons that number on the scale could be on the rise. So as a friendly yearly reminder, here are some expert-backed reasons why you can’t obsess over what the scale says this season.
1. Muscle is more dense than fat.
Working out on a regular basis builds muscle. So, does muscle weigh more than fat? Not exactly—a gram is a gram. But muscle tissue is more dense than fat tissue, which means it takes up less space at the same weight. Make an effort to think about the bigger picture. How do you feel? Sluggish? Speedy? That should be the first indicator when deciding how to modify your diet or activity.
It’s also worth noting that runners need increased glycogen stores to fuel for longer runs. These “stores,” which are essentially carbohydrates stored as energy in our muscles, can mean extra kilos, both because of the extra water required to break down and store those carbs—and the carbs themselves. The upside is that you can simply view the fuel (or carbs) you consume during the holidays as prepping for that next weekend long run, when your body really needs them. Take advantage of time off from work/school/life and squeeze in a few extra kilometres or a set of squats, lunges, and push-ups. No matter what the scale says, you’ll feel better.
2. Salt makes you retain water.
I challenge you to think of a savoury or sweet holiday treat that doesn’t involve a hearty dose of salt. That’s right, even most of your favorite cookie recipes call for the white stuff. When you eat salt, it’s absorbed into the cells and brings along excess water with it. “The holidays are also a big time for eating out,” says Dennis Cardone, chief of primary care sports medicine at NYU Langone Health. This means you may suddenly have a much higher salt intake than when you cook at home, he says. That excess water can show up on the scale as grams, but it’s much easier to shed excess water than it is fat.
If you’ve overdone it on the salt, reach for a banana (also: spinach, beets, and navy beans). Research shows that potassium-rich foods like these help to counteract sodium’s effects by relaxing blood vessel walls and releasing retained fluid. Then get back on track with home-cooked meals, lots of drinking water, and regular workouts.
3. A lack of sleep can affect the scale.
Virtual office parties, family gatherings, late nights singing Christmas songs with your friends (on Zoom!)— whatever the reason may be why you’re up late and burning the midnight oil, less sleep can have a direct impact on your weight (and your recovery). Research shows that sleep deprivation can alter ghrelin and leptin levels, which stimulate your appetite. Make sure to prioritize shut-eye just as much as you do holiday fun, which could involve making a few sacrifices along the way. Know Thursday is going to be a late night? Don’t schedule an early workout for Friday. Control the controllable, and you can still have your fun, too.
4. Remember: It’s just a few weeks.
You’ve worked all year to get here, so it’s going to be hard to undo it all in a few days. The holidays are just a once-yearly time for tidings and joy, so there’s room for all foods, including all 12 fishes and homemade desserts, in a balanced diet. “A lot of people set themselves up for disappointment when they label certain items as bad,” Cardone says. “The big rule around the holiday time is everything in moderation. If someone goes off their general diet or routine and has one or two big meals, it’s not going to make kilos stick around for good—especially if they’re sticking to some sort of exercise routine.”
Cardone suggests that instead of getting caught up in the all-or-nothing mentality, remember how great you feel when you exercise. “Instead of saying ‘I’m not even going to bother to exercise,’ be gracious with yourself. Remember, every little bit counts.”