Originally created 12/15/04

Holiday season turns into binge session



EDITOR'S NOTE - This is the second of a five-part series on holiday eating habits.

It's just a pound or two, right? Cut a few carbs, hit the gym and they'll be gone by February.

Keep dreaming. Though most Americans who gain weight at the holidays add little more than a pound, the only thing that's slim in the new year is the chance that the weight will ever go away.

Researchers have found that few people who gain a Christmas bulge manage to lose it in the new year. Call it the slow creep of holiday heft, and it can add up to serious weight problems over the years.

"Fifty-nine million people every year resolve to lose weight," says Amy O'Connor, deputy editor of Prevention magazine. "I don't have any statistics on how many lose weight because I suspect it's statistically insignificant."

Though few studies have quantified how serious a problem seasonal gains are, a report in the New England Journal of Medicine four years ago indicated most Americans gain slightly more than a pound over the winter holidays. Year after year, that adds up.

So where do we go wrong?

First, some basics. Health experts say women and older adults should eat about 1,600 calories a day. Children and men should add 400 calories to that, while teenage boys and very active men get to eat a total of 2,800.

Come the holidays some people treat those numbers like appetizers.

On Thanksgiving and Christmas the typical American eats about 25 percent more calories than on a normal day, says Harry Balzer, vice president of consumer research firm NPD Group.

Christmas Eve sees a 10 percent increase, while New Year's Eve and Day see single-digit jumps.

"On Christmas it's not only the gifts under the tree you're going to get. You're also going to get a lot more calories," Balzer said. "Thanksgiving too, but you'll be giving thanks for them that day."

Now factor in that on normal days the average American already overeats by about 200 calories and a typical man could be looking at close to 3,000 calories for a holiday. That's enough food for a day-and-a-half.

But those meals alone don't do the damage; it's also everything you eat between the big days that leaves you larger.

That's because Americans have become exceedingly good at celebrating with copious amounts of food while simultaneously lowering the bar when looking for excuses to celebrate.

Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, as well as any day we consider celebratory, the typical American eats about 300 extra calories, says Barry Popkin, head of nutrition epidemiology at the University of North Carolina.

This is where the math gets scary. Apply those numbers to November and December, when Thanksgiving and Christmas bookend an endless string of parties, potlucks and other celebrations. And more than a month of weekends.

It gets worse. Most of those extra calories come from fat and alcohol, foods that are among the least likely to satiate and the most likely to be overeaten.

And it isn't just how much we eat; it also is how little we do. Popkin says that for many people, weekends and holidays are spent eating, sitting and watching television. Sounds a lot like Thanksgiving.

Need more proof that we're overdoing it? Even Santa is getting fatter.

In 1996, the largest St. Nick outfit sold at Santasuits.com was double-X, and sales of oversized suits accounted for just 12 percent of business. Today, the company offers a quadruple-X, and plus-sized outfits are a third of business.

Another change for the company - most Santas no longer need extra padding to fill out the suit.

"It's amazing how much larger the Santa suits keep getting," said company spokeswoman Nanci Spano. "Nobody really needs stuffers anymore. They're providing their own stuffing lately."