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Cummulative Holiday Weight Gain and Heart Health: The Pound-And-A-Half Challenge

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November and December were certainly the season of family, togetherness, wonderment and joy. All of this happiness and joy were accompanied by a seemingly endless parade of food set out on tables which breathed a sigh of relief as we transferred the delicious concoctions to our loaded plates.

The only problem with all of this grazing is that eventually, all of this delectable and delicious joy transfers right to our tummies and thighs, leaving behind a little evidence of the holiday joy and cheer for the rest of the world to see.

In reality, most of us don’t gain that much weight during the holidays. According to a study conducted by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, most people only gain between 0.4 to 1.8 pounds of weight per year. The majority of the weight gain, approximately 0.8 pounds, occurs during the six weeks between the US Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Participants who were already overweight were found to gain up to 5 pounds during this same time period compared to their normal weight counterparts. At the end of the study, the average weight gain for the year was 1.4 pounds per participant.

In many ways, the results of the study were good news. A pound and a half of weight per year is certainly not very much weight. Taken by itself, that’s true –- it’s not such a big deal so why should I worry? Why not just go out and enjoy the holidays if all I have to worry about is a pound and a half a year?

Why should you worry? Because the point was that the participants didn’t lose that extra 1.4 pounds of weight -- they carried it forward to the next year. While there are some things that are good to carry over and keep, extra weight isn’t one of them. Extra weight is a major risk factor for heart disease. No matter how miniscule the weight gain, each added pound puts an additional strain on your heart and increases your risk factor for developing heart disease.

Imagine for a moment that you are a healthy 20 year old, 5 foot 2 inches tall, with a weight of 120 pounds. Based on that height and weight, your Body Mass Index (BMI) is calculated as 21.9 which is right in the middle of “normal” BMI (Normal BMI is 18.5 – 24.9. Overweight is considered 25-29.9 and obese is any BMI more than 30). So far so good – you have nothing to worry about. Now, let’s assume that you only gain the 1.4 average pounds per year and that you don’t lose them. Observe what happens to your BMI as we add another 7 pounds (1.4 pounds of unlost weight per 5 each five years) over the course of 15 years:

• 20 years old, weight 120 pounds: BMI 21.9 (Normal);
• 25 years old, weight 127 pounds: BMI 23.2 (Normal) Five years later, your BMI is still normal but note how much closer you suddenly came to the high side of normal and being considered overweight;
• 30 years old, weight 134 pounds: BMI 24.5 (High-Normal) Ten years later, you have an extra 14 pounds of holiday cheer around your middle to remind you of all the fun you had celebrating the holidays in years past. Soon, you’ll be able to add obesity to your list of risk factors for heart disease. But, look on the bright side -– with 14 extra pounds of weight, you get to shop for a new wardrobe of “fat” clothes; and
• 35 years old, weight 144 pounds (During this 5 year period, you gained an extra 2 pounds per year because you are already getting overweight and are more likely to gain more weight each year.): BMI 26.3 (Overweight). Congratulations! You are now 35 years old and officially overweight. You get to shop again because you can’t wear the “fat” clothes you bought just 5 years ago at age 30. You also can now officially add your weight as a list of risk factors for developing heart disease.

The purpose of this exercise wasn’t to beat anyone up over carrying forward a few holiday pounds. We already are well aware of that fact each time we button (or can’t button) our jeans. The purpose of this was exercise was to show you how even a small amount of weight gain per year, if carried forward and not lost, can multiply and not only reshape your body but your very health and future as well.

When I played around with the BMI numbers above for this article, I was struck by how similar the results are to the progression of weight gain in my own life. Add in the unlost weight from pregnancy and I now understand how I came to have the rather round figure that I have today. More importantly, I understand how weight gain, which seemed so insignificant each year, has had a cumulative effect on my health and put me at risk for heart disease.

As I go forward into 2010, I’ve reconsidered my New Year’s Resolution. This year, I’ve decided to “gain” back 12 years of my health by challenging myself to lose 1.4 pounds a month. A pound and a half may not sound like much weight loss but at the end of the year, I will have lost 16.8 pounds. I’ll be thinner and more importantly, healthier and at less risk for developing heart disease. I challenge each of you to do the same and gain back a heart healthier you.

Until next time, here’s wishing you a healthy heart.

Holiday Weight Gain Slight but May Last a Lifetime, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 11 Aug 2006, http://www.nichd.nih.gov/news/releases/holidayweightgain.cfm

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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