After last week's Thanksgiving celebration, the season of
festive food has officially begun. Thanks to foods like Thanksgiving's holy
trinity of turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes; Hanukkah's sour-cream- and-applesauce-drenched latkes; buttery Christmas cookies and the sundry salty snacks of New Year's Eve parties, the last six weeks of the year are a great time to be alive and eating.

Unfortunately, because these foods are so very delicious, we
often find ourselves eating more than enough of them. Since most holiday foods
are very energy-dense — that is, they have a high number of calories for their
size — this can very quickly lead to weight gain.

The phenomenon driving this is something nutritionists call "energy
balance." Everybody has a certain energy expenditure — the number of calories
burned per day, determined by genetics, body composition and physical activity
level. So, if a person eats fewer than this number of calories, he or she will
lose weight.

During the holiday season, however, most of us find
ourselves eating significantly more than our energy expenditure. Our waistlines
expand, our belts loosen and those holiday sweaters suddenly seem much more
stylish than tighter clothing in our wardrobes. Some people estimate they pack
on five or 10 pounds during the holiday season.

Encouragingly, modern research has shown these figures grossly
overestimate the average American's holiday weight gain. Articles in last
week's New York Times and Los Angeles Times cited recent studies showing most
people gain much less weight than they think during the period from
Thanksgiving to New Year's. One of the most oft-cited studies in these articles
is one published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2000, which claimed
that fewer than 10 percent of the participants in this study gained more than
five pounds. On average, people gained less than a pound.

These statistics are encouraging, but it is important not to
develop a complacent attitude toward holiday weight gain because of them. The
National Institute of Health is quick to point out the gains that take place
around the holidays contribute to steady weight gain during the year. The
average American adult gains about 1 1/2 pounds every year, and some scientists
think this kind of unchecked steady weight gain may be one of the root causes
of the nation's obesity epidemic. With more than half of that annual weight gained
during the holiday season, keeping holiday waist augmentation in check could contribute
to reducing the nation's annual fattening.

Furthermore, certain individuals seem to be more at risk of holiday
weight gain than others. A study done at the University of Oklahoma last year
suggests that individuals already overweight gain much more than their normal
weight counterpart during the holidays.

However, setting the goal of weight maintenance around the
holidays is important for everybody, not just those who are overweight. By not
overeating around the holidays, people can set themselves up for much healthier
lives by staving off the chronic weight gain that many experience at this time
of year.

Even if the holiday season does leave you with some unwanted
pounds, shedding that excess blubber is not impossible. One doesn't need to
resort to fad diets to drop post-holiday weight. Small steps like cutting back
on soda, sweets and the traditional beginning-of-the-semester partying that
takes place in January can go a long way to converting the muffin tops of the
New Year into something resembling a healthy human form.

In the meantime, though, the holidays are a time to eat,
drink and be merry. As long as you keep the holiday food and drink in
moderation, you can enjoy the fruits of the season and avoid the immense gains
of holiday lore.

Jason Engelhart is a
senior majoring in economics and history. He weighs 150 pounds, but it says 140
on his driver's license. You can e-mail him at
[email protected].