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Published: Sunday, 11/23/2003

It needn't be the season to put on the pounds

Thanksgiving Day is not just the start of the 2003 holiday season. Thursday also raises the curtain on the annual period when millions of people unknowingly decorate their bodies - with fat.

Unlike the Christmas trees, menorahs, and mistletoe, the weight probably won t disappear in January. It s one holiday ornament that stays up until next November, waiting for new decorations from the 2004 festivities.

Mention “holiday weight gain,” and people think of individuals who go hog wild, gorge themselves so they can barely stumble away from the Thanksgiving dinner table, and know they re being very bad for weeks on end.

That stereotype encourages many other people to ignore the annual warnings from public health experts against over-eating during the holidays. They re the millions who don t stuff themselves, and maybe limit the splurging to an extra serving here and there, just one more drink, or a few extra hors dorves or cookies at parties.

No harm in that, is there, just once a year during the holidays?

Studies shown that ordinary overindulging between Thanksgiving and New Year s Day really doesn t cause much weight gain. For years, popular lore had it that the average person gained 5 pounds or more during the holiday season.

Dr. Jack A. Yanovski and a group of associates at the National Institutes of Health challenged that idea in a study of 165 people published in 2000 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

They monitored the group s weight through two holiday seasons, and found that the average person put on barely 1 pound between Thanksgiving and New Year s Day. Most people wouldn t notice that gain from a glance in the mirror or a step onto the bathroom scale.

Dr. Yanovski, however, found something disturbing about the weight. Although people didn t gain much during the holidays, what they gained stayed on. The average person never lost the extra pound during the rest of the year.

Go ahead, do the math.

One pound a year starting at, maybe, age 20, means very noticeable and dangerous flab by age 40.

Everybody knows that adults tend to gain weight as they get older. Studies of individuals in their 20s and 30s, for instance, show weight gains from 8 ounces to 1.8 pounds each year. The gain may be higher in older people.

Dr. Yanovski raised the sobering possibility that holiday self-decoration accounts for much of that lifelong weight gain. Nobody knows how much the holidays contribute to the national epidemic of obesity. That s because scientists have never done the studies needed to find out how adults gain weight.

The pounds may go on in fractions of an ounce throughout the year. Or they may hit in bursts during periods like the holidays, when people eat a little extra and are too busy to exercise.

If the Grinch ever did steal the extra calories that are part of the Christmas, Chanukah, and New Year s holidays, would people stay slimmer?

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