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Tackling holiday weight woes

Small gains can be big problem all year

By Jean Weinberg

holiday food
An abundance of rich foods, stress and emotions can add up to small, but significant holiday weight gains.
Mayo Clinic
Diet and Fitness
National Institutes of Health (NIH)
Holidays or Vacations

NEW YORK (CNN) -- The holiday season may bring gifts and good tidings, but it will also deliver calorie-laden feasts, leftovers and snacks that add up to small but significant weight gains that resound well into the new year.

Some people may put on five to seven pounds through the fall and winter, thanks to a steady diet of large meals, sweets and the like. Yet the figures are much smaller for most Americans -- just more than a pound, on average, according to government surveys.

But that small amount of weight gained each year during the holidays does not come off over time, according to a study conducted the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).

"The good news is it's not as bad as we thought," said Dr. Jack Yanovski, the study's principal investigator and head of NICHD's Unit on Growth and Obesity. "The bad news is that it's hard to take off that weight the rest of the year."

The study of 195 adults showed that -- from late September to early March -- the majority of respondents put on 1.06 pounds. One year after the study began, 165 of the participants were weighed again. On average, they were up 1.36 pounds from their initial weights.

Fewer than 10 percent of subjects gained more than 5 pounds during the holiday season; those obese or overweight to start with were most likely to fall into this category.

"The holidays [can] turn ... into a year of overeating," said Leslie Fink, a nutritionist for "There are some who gain 20 or 30 pounds over the year. Their mindset is why not keep going."

For most experiencing smaller gains, the health effect is cumulative -- as the weight not only stays on, but adds up.

"Not everyone gains weight, but if you put on a few over the holiday, those pounds rarely ever come off," added Dr. Lawrence Stifler, president of Health Management Resources (HMR), which specializes in professional programs for weight and health management.

"The average person today is probably gaining about 12 pounds per decade. If you gain a pound or so over the holidays, there it is."

Everything amplified over holidays

Excess weight, of course, is not just a holiday phenomenon. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight and nearly one-third of U.S. adults are obese, according to the National Institutes of Health.

"Food is everywhere, and serving sizes have gone berserk," said Stifler, noting two of several factors contributing to high U.S. obesity rates.

This excess of food -- as well as emotions, stress and more -- are particularly pronounced during the fall and winter.

"Some are eating foods because they're happy, some are eating foods to feel better," Fink said.

Such observations come not only from experts, but people around the country who have found that food and pounds pile up easily in fall and winter.

A slew of social gatherings, profusion of chocolates and desserts and a sense that indulgences are more forgivable during the holidays all factor in, said Jun Hagiwara, a 20-something New York woman.

"During the holidays, I go out more and tend to enjoy the good food that's out there," said Hagiwara. "I see it as a time to indulge and not be so conscious of what I'm eating."

Holidays mean office parties, spending money, finding gifts and visiting relatives -- all of it contributing to stress. While some, like finance professional Carolyn Cushman of Texas, eat more when they are joyful than when stressed, others have an opposite reaction.

Busy holiday seasons sometimes mean more time for parties and shopping, less time for exercise.

"Things take longer to do, lines are longer and people lose patience," said Ross Bick, a new father from Connecticut. "It definitely causes me to overeat because eating makes me feel better, I can't control myself."

'It's just food'

Although it's not easy to shed holiday weight gain, experts say there are ways to keep the pounds from piling on in the first place.

Figuring out a game plan is the first and most important step, said Judith Stern, co-founder and vice president of the American Obesity Association (AOA).

Small changes can make a big difference, Stifler said. Switching from regular to diet soda can result in losing 6 to 8 pounds in a year's time, he said. Using mustard instead of mayonnaise or walking even 20 minutes a day also can help.

Using smaller plates (thus, having smaller portions) and getting rid of leftovers after grand holiday meals also help the cause, added Stern. Another key is resisting pressure from friends and relatives to eat unhealthy foods.

"You have to decide what you want to do, you can't be sabotaged," said Stern. "It's an extreme way of saying, 'I am in charge, please everybody help me.'"

"Take a step back, socialize, and think about the spirit of the holiday: It is not just about the food," added Fink. Rather than devouring everything in sight, she recommends selecting a few special treats.

Fink also cautions against people who are too restrictive or who swear off certain foods (for instance, no cookies or no pies). This can lead to a vicious cycle of restricting a certain food, then eating it, then feeling bad or angry about what you did and in turn eating to make yourself feel better.

At the end of the day, Fink tries to remind people, "It's just food." Finks says she often gets a laugh out of people when she says it, but people really "blow it out of proportion."

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