How to Strategically Overeat This Holiday, According to Public Health Experts

A handy conversion chart makes indulging easier.

Health experts will always tell you never to eat as much as you want to, but that’s a fat ask around the holidays. Amanda Farley, Ph.D., first author of a new paper and a public health and epidemiology lecturer at the University of Birmingham, calls this time of year a “high-risk” period. And so, in her contribution to the annual BMJ Christmas issue, she highlights one guideline to make it easier to say no to certain holiday delicacies — and, if that fails, to devise a workout plan that lets you go to town on the treats.

We actually shouldn’t be thinking about holiday treats in terms of calories, she tells Inverse. Instead, to increase willpower, we should be using a different metric to make our food choices.

“We’re all sort of generally aware of the amount of calories we need to be generally eating in one day. But if you link the amount of calories you’re eating with the amount of physical exercise you’re using to burn that off, it gives a sort of extra dimension,” Farley says.

There's a whole holiday-themed season of the Great British Bake Off, so things are only going to get harder.

In short, the best way to avoid unhealthy holiday overeating is to know exactly how much each butter cookie costs you — not in terms of calories but in terms of the actual minutes of exercise it requires to burn up, which is called physical activity calorie equivalents (PACE).

From Treats to Treadmill

In the paper, Farley does many of those calculations for us, though her choice of holiday treats have a strongly British flavor, since her study was conducted in England.

  • Five pigs in blankets: six minutes of running
  • Slice of Christmas cake: 18 minutes of running
  • Box of dates (?????): 57 minutes of running (!!!!!)
  • Pint of lager: 16 minutes of running
  • Small glass of mulled wine: 17 minutes of running
Christmas pudding
To burn off a classic British Christmas pudding, the average person would have to run for an hour and fifty minutes. 

The Rules Pay Off

As part of her experiment, Farley provided 132 individuals with information about the exact amount of exercise needed to burn off their favorite holiday treats during the 2016 and 2017 holiday season and asked them to weigh themselves daily. On average, participants who knew the conversions dropped about 0.28 pounds over 45 days of holiday gluttony, whereas the control group, who didn’t have that information gained 0.82 pounds.

While statistically significant, the results aren’t exactly groundbreaking in terms of weight control. What is interesting is that having this information appeared to help the intervention group keep weight off.

Before the trial began, Farley took note of her participants “cognitive restraint score” — in other words, how well they would be able to refuse food. Just as previous studies have shown that PACE labeling helps people choose less caloric items, Farley noticed a similar trend in her participants. Over the course of the experiment, their cognitive restraint scores increased about one point on average, indicating that it’s easier to talk yourself out of overeating when you associate food items with a certain number of minutes of grueling exercise.

“For example, to burn off one mince pie, you’d have to be running for 21 minutes,” Farley says. “For most of us, that would cause us maybe to think about eating that mince pie. That’s how we think it’s working.”

A glass of beer on a dark background.
This would take about 16 minutes of running to burn off.

The Holiday Workout

Of course, it’s possible to look at these results the other way around. Does this information help people design workouts intended to maximize the amount of lager and Christmas cake consumed? Farley suggests that her participants likely did a bit of both: They were showing more cognitive restraint and also, probably, making time to go for a run to justify whatever their favorite food item was.

Admittedly, the idea of turning down holiday treats feels fairly Grinch-like. But if you’d like to be more health conscious this holiday, Farley’s study helps clarify which treats are more worth indulging in. If you ask us, that means avoid the dates and embrace the Christmas cake, unless you’ve got a half-marathon on the horizon.