January 03, 1995|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston -- It was 1995 at last and the woman's scale bore a strong resemblance to her credit cards. She had maxed out.

She was carrying the excess of last year into the lean, mean new year. Her gift from the Magi weighed in at precisely five pounds. These had appeared ounce by ounce over the holidays. Like distant cousins, their arrival had been accompanied by good cheer. Now they had outworn their welcome.

The matter weighed on the woman's mind, not to mention her hips. The average American added six to eight pounds to the body and body image during the holidays. It was, to put it mildly, a burgeoning national problem.

But how did it happen again? After all, there had been unprecedented attention to the human lard condition this year. A groaning board of scientists had issued reports on what they all called an epidemic of obesity, an outbreak of horizontal inches.

Arguments had broken out between experts who believed in nature or nurture, willpower or weakness, feast or famine. There were more theories about weight gain and loss in the air than there were pecans in the Christmas pie.

Some implored Americans to diet, while the others insisted that dieting didn't work. C. Everett Koop had come out of retirement to exhort his devotees to ''Shape Up America.'' A study group in Houston said that only exercise made any long-term difference. Nutritionists in Boston calculated that any woman who wanted to work off the 2,488 excess calories from Christmas dinner alone had to walk 21.9 miles. Or have 59.2 hours of moderately intense sex.

Meanwhile, still other scientists had caught a culprit in our genes. They'd gone looking for a fat marker in mice and found that the biggest, butteriest, bundles of laboratory fur had a genetic flaw. To great fanfare, they announced the discovery of a fat gene -- the ob gene (ob for obesity) that prevented the rodents' brains from getting the message when their stomachs were full. Fat, they suggested, could be fate.

By the end of November, we had all heard that Americans spend millions of dollars gaining weight, millions more trying to lose it and millions more studying why they couldn't lose it. Fat had become a growth industry.

Yet despite all these warnings, the annual reunion of the five pounds had taken place in the woman's house and in so many others. So today, staring at the familiar star of her resolutions' list, she was developing a strong feeling the scientists were staring into the wrong gene pool.

Having begun this season with a guacamole dip at one home and having ended it with a chocolate truffle at another, she thought that it was time to share her own scientific theory about holiday weight gain.

It wasn't the ob gene that determined the numbers on the bathroom scale. It was the T-gene. T for Temptation.

The more she thought about it, the more sense it made. Surely this soon-to-be discovered T-gene stands at the interface of nature and nurture, at the corner of the buffet table where the eggnog meets the cheesecake, at the time of the year when the average hostess measures her success by the caloric intake of her guests.

Others before her had, of course, observed a T-factor in weight gain, but always assumed temptation was a virus passed from one person to another on a platter of hors d'oeuvres at the office Christmas party. But the T-experience was far too primal not to be genetically destined.

Who among us after all hadn't been derailed from the straight and narrow -- the straight skirt and the narrow waist -- by a passing macadamia nut or ten?

Which Darwinian, gone home for holiday dinner overload, hadn't encountered parents programmed to assure the survival of the fattest?

Surely, the T-gene existed in chefs and caterers. It was inbred in French farmers who raise geese for foie gras. Any genetic test would find it in advertisers who sell taco chips and peanut butter cheese crackers. Without this gene, the hand would move to the mouth 50 percent less often.

Of course, if biology is destiny, it's not all bad. The woman carrying five-pound weights wherever she goes these days is convinced that the T-gene is seasonal. Programmed for stuffing assorted turkeys and relatives in holiday season, it slinks back into the gene pool just as the R-gene, the Resolutions gene, kicks into action.

As she sees it, this is the beauty of genetic studies. How many times did our parents say, ''I can resist anything but temptation''? Now we understand. It's all in the genes. And, of course, the jeans.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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