You’re Eating Healthy Over the Holidays? Yeah, Right

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Research suggests most people aren’t fully truthful when discussing their holiday health habits.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Dagny Mol/Flickr)

Do you find yourself gaining weight over the holiday season? Are you shamed by friends and relatives who insist that they are successfully sticking to their healthy diet and exercise regimens?

Take comfort: There’s an excellent chance they are lying through their teeth.

A study published earlier this year concludes people are very often dishonest when asked about their holiday-season health habits. In this domain, as in so many others, we tend to give socially acceptable answers rather than strictly accurate ones.

A research team led by Nicole Olynk Widmar of Purdue University conducted an online survey of 620 American adults from November 17–19, 2014 — just as the holiday season was getting underway. Participants “were targeted to be representative of the United States population in terms of gender, income, education, and geographical region,” they note.

They were presented with eight statements regarding their health-related holiday tablets, and asked to respond to each on a scale of one (“It describes you very well”) to five (“This statement does not describe you at all”).

The statements included “I anticipate gaining weight during the holiday season”; “I watch what I eat during the holiday season”; “I will maintain my workout schedule during the holiday season”; and “I will consume more alcohol during the holiday season.”

To determine their honesty, the researchers used a time-honored trick: They then asked the same questions about “the average American.” For example, participants read the statement “The average Americans gains weight over the holiday season,” and then indicated that it “describes the average American very well,” “does not describe the average American at all,” or falls somewhere in between.

“Large discrepancies in reporting between the individual and the average American were found for every one of the holiday health outcome statements,” the researchers report.

Indeed, the differences between the two sets of scores were striking. Only 25 percent of participants indicated they would drink more than usual over the holiday season, but 64 percent said the average American would do so. Twenty-nine percent said they would gain more weight than at other times of the year, but 69 percent thought that was true of their typical fellow citizen.

On the other said of the equation, 41 percent insisted they would maintain their workout schedule, but only 20 percent thought the average American would do so.

The biggest discrepancies were found for participants who were 45 years old or older, those without children, and those who reported they had no friends or family members who were vegetarians. People in the latter two categories “do not have their beliefs or statements regularly challenged,” the researchers speculate, “and are thus more likely to give biased answers.”

So if a friend or relative insists that they are avoiding temptation this time of year, congratulate them — but don’t be surprised to find them sneaking a sweet snack when they don’t realize they’re being watched. We all want to impress those around us, but sometimes it’s easier to do that with a fib.