Don't let the holidays weigh you down

— Holiday season usually is defined as the six weeks from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day. In terms of eating (and overeating), that might be extended from the day after Halloween, with the leftover candy treats, to Super Bowl Sunday. How much weight are you likely to gain during this period?

When asked in surveys, Americans usually report gaining five or more pounds during the holiday season. A controlled study of 200 subjects published in the New England Journal of Medicine, on the other hand, found that the average weight gain actually was only one pound.

Even that figure is no cause for celebration, however, since even one pound is difficult to lose. The study, moreover, found that the weight gained during the holiday season was approximately two-thirds of the typical yearly weight gain, and tended to become permanent. As most of us realize, it's the insidious gain of a pound or two a year that becomes a major factor in overweight and obesity.

Whether the damage is one pound or five, factors contributing to holiday weight gain are fairly less easy to identify:

• High-calorie candy, cookies and other treats are readily available for snacking.

• A series of festive dinners and parties provide ample opportunity for overeating.

• The holiday rush makes it difficult to maintain a regular exercise program.

Exercise may be key

While attention usually is placed on the overeating, the most important factor may be the missing exercise. People who exercise regularly not only burn up the extra calories they eat, but increase their metabolism so they are able to eat more without gaining weight.

In one study, subjects forced to eat an extra thousand calories a day but taking part in an aerobic exercise program gained less weight than expected. Even overeating in the context of regular aerobic exercise, apparently boosted their metabolism and allowed them to use up extra calories.

Subjects who didn't exercise, on the other hand, developed a slower metabolism and gained weight at a faster rate than they did on their regular diets.

While it may be difficult to find the time, it's well worth the extra effort to maintain, or even increase, your exercise routine during the holidays. In addition to its benefit in weight control, it also will help you deal with holiday stress, which may be another factor in overeating.

A good workout just before a party or dinner should actually curb your appetite - the more vigorous the exercise, the greater the appetite suppression, according to studies. This is believed to be due to an increase in body temperature, which tends to shut down hunger signals in the brain.

Studies have shown that people who exercise regularly tend to choose foods that are higher in carbohydrate and lower in fat. Those are the foods that fuel physical activity.

After a heavy meal, of course, a vigorous workout is the last thing on your mind and may not be good for your body. A moderate walk, on the other hand, will help you work off the sluggish feeling, as well as the guilt.

As for the neverending procession of snacks and meals, it's reasonable to expect to eat more than usual. Don't deny yourself special once-a-year treats or you're likely to resent it and lash out with binge overeating. If you're already on a diet, you might want to put it on hold for a few weeks to aim to maintain your present weight.

One way to accomplish this is to set yourself a weekly, as opposed to daily, calorie budget. If you reduce your intake by 200 calories a day the week before Thanksgiving, for example, you'll have a surplus in the bank and can still maintain your weekly average after a big meal.

Actually, you can eat fairly sensibly on traditional Thanksgiving fare as long as you go easy on the gravy and stuffing. Fill up on turkey, cranberries, pumpkin, corn, squash and sweet potatoes, and you'll be getting plenty of nutritional bang for every calorie.

If you're on a dietary budget, you have to make good choices, deciding which foods give you the most pleasure for the fewest calories. And watch the size of your servings.

White meat of turkey has fewer calories and less fat than dark meat. The skin is to be avoided. Stove top stuffing has less fat than stuffing cooked in the bird. Half a cup of mashed potatoes has only 103 calories, but gravy can double or triple that - depending on how much you use.

Pumpkin pie clearly is a better choice than pecan. If pecan pie is a special treat for you, just take a smaller portion. Compared to ice cream, whipped cream is a relative bargain - only about 19 calories and two grams of fat for a medium dab. Hard sauce, on the other hand, carries almost as many calories and more fat than the mincemeat pie underneath.

Savor each treat

You can protect yourself at parties by eating a light snack before you go, standing away from the table and socializing more. Survey the table before filling your plate so you can pick the foods that best fit your tastes and food budget.

Whether it's at a party or snacking at home, always savor the treat you're eating and wait at least seven minutes before reaching for a second. That's about how long it takes for the first helping to get into your system and affect your appetite.

To add a pound of fat, you have to take in 3,500 carlories beyond what you need for energy. That's 500 calories a day, which may be all too easy to do in a week if you let eating unlimited treats become a habit. Most Americans, however, can exercise moderate control without sacrificing pleasure.

Particularly if your body is used to exercising, your weight is likely to balloon up three to five pounds after a big meal, especially one that's high in carbohydrates. But, don't panic: it's virtually impossible to gain that much weight in one day. When carbohydrates are stored in muscles to replace those used in exercise, three ounces of water are deposited with each ounce of glycogen. That means nearly all of the extra pounds that show up right away are water weight and will be used up at your next workout or flushed out of your system in the next seven to 10 days.

The best advice is to keep on exercising before, during and after the holidays. You'll have better overall health with less stress and your weight will not be much higher than it was before you ate a moderate amount of holiday treats.

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