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Overeat During the Holidays? You Probably Haven't Stopped

01/02/2015 07:31 EST | Updated 03/04/2015 05:59 EST
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Hands cupping chocolate bars and sugar cubes

The holiday season is behind us, and while the cheering was a lot of fun, it is now time to go back to a healthier eating regimen, especially if the scale indicates that you've been overdoing it a little. Unfortunately, the pound or two you may have acquired over the past few weeks tend to stick around and will not easily be gotten rid of even with dieting and exercise.

The reason is that most people get used to eating more over the holidays, and while they plan to cut back after New Year, they often still hold on to larger servings, which by now have become the new normal, says Dr. Brian Wansink, author of "Mindless Eating - Why We Eat More Than We Think" (Bantam Books, 2006) and lead researcher of a new study on the subject of holiday weight gain.

Following hundreds of families over an extended period of time that included the holiday season, the researchers found that participants indeed bought more healthy foods like fruit and vegetables in the days after New Year but also kept eating junk like sugary snacks and fast food, which led to hundreds of additional calories, in some cases twice as many as they consumed during the holidays themselves. So much for good intentions.

The problem is that once people start eating larger portions on special occasions, they tend to continue doing so, although they may believe they are not. Insidiously, it becomes a regular habit that leads to ever-increasing food consumption year after year, with all the well-known consequences of unhealthy weight gain, says Dr. Wansink.

And those consequences are no laughing matter. For both men and women it only gets harder to lose body fat as they grow older. Especially at menopause, most women begin to store more fat around the waist, even if they don't get much heavier.

And as waistlines increase, so do a number of serious health risks, according to research conducted at Harvard University.

Abdominal, or visceral, fat is of particular concern because it is a key factor in a variety of health problems, the study report warns. Visceral fat, which is situated in the spaces between the abdominal organs, has been linked to cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain forms of cancer.

The simplest way to determine abdominal fat amounts is to measure your waist size. A waist circumference of 40+ inches for men, and 35+ inches for women is considered an elevated health risk, although this can slightly vary by ethnicity. Also, abdominal fat can be problematic even in people whose Body-Mass-Index (BMI) is within a healthy range.

So, if you wonder where all the goodies from your recent celebrating have ended up, and your belly size gives you a clue, be advised that you have work to do.

Yes, real, not just perceived, reduction of food servings may be in order. But equally important is to improve the nutritional quality of your diet. In addition, greater efforts in the gym, the pool, or on the bike path may be required. Strength training (a.k.a. weight lifting) is highly recommended. But foremost, make changes in your eating and lifestyle habits for the long run, so you don't have to start over next time the holidays come around.

Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.

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