Dieting's MEAN Season Overeating: The best advice for the tempting feasts to come is to go ahead and enjoy yourself, even gain a few pounds.

November 21, 1995|By KIM CLARK | KIM CLARK,SUN STAFF

Turkey isn't the only thing that will be stuffed this holiday season.

The average American will start an annual overeating binge on Thursday and will wake up New Year's morning with seven more pounds hanging over his or her belt.

That's why, for the more than 50 million Americans who are overweight or dieting, the traditional celebrations of thanksgiving and joy have also become rituals of suffering.

Cinched into girdles or too-tight clothes, they deny themselves goodies or feel guilty about succumbing to temptation.

Or, like Sharon Phillips did for many years, they add the holiday pounds and risk health problems.

"I can put on 10 pounds between Thanksgiving and Christmas," sighs Mrs. Phillips, a Parkville woman who is about 60 pounds overweight. She usually hosts a big Thanksgiving dinner and bakes 12 dozen Christmas cookies for friends and relatives each December.

"I snack while I cook I get up in the middle of the night to take my asthma medicine and have a glass of milk and grab a piece of turkey. And the Christmas cookies When you're rolling your fingers in that powdered sugar," you can't help but lick it off, she says.

A growing number of doctors and diet specialists think Mrs. Phillips is right. They say it's unrealistic for most people to diet during the holiday season.

Although they are still concerned about Americans' worsening weight problems, many health professionals are advising the weight-conscious that it is wiser to quit fighting and join the indulgent spirit of the season.

Enjoy the parties. Even gain a few pounds, they say.

But try to exercise and eat sensibly to keep the gain to two or three pounds, rather than seven. And plan to return to a healthier diet and lifestyle in January.

"My advice is go ahead and gain three pounds and enjoy yourself," says Coke Farmer, director of the Wellness Research Laboratory at the University of Maryland at College Park. "The majority of people can get rid of three pounds in January."

The reason for the more forgiving attitude?

Realism.

A growing number of studies are showing that the quantity and quality of foods Americans eat during the holiday season can't help but add girth -- especially during a time of year when weather, darkness and shopping duties prevent much exercise.

Besides, so many people feel emotional stress around the holidays that adding pressure to count calories can be counterproductive.

2,000-calorie meal

The weight train will set off on Thursday, when Americans will gobble up a supper that, on average, contains more than 2,000 calories, Dr. Farmer says.

That's more calories in one sitting than most Americans eat in a typical three-meal, 24-hour day.

Thanksgiving dinner wouldn't be so bad in isolation. But the trouble is that it is usually followed by abundant leftovers, office parties and religious feasts.

"One meal does not five pounds make," Dr. Farmer says. "It is the combination of big meals, holiday parties" and the kinds of food traditionally served at this time of year, including cream cheese dips, gravy, cookies and pies.

"They tend to be very high in sugar and fat," she says.

Far higher in fats, in fact, than most people realize.

On average, the typical American eats 1 1/3 sticks of butter a month, according to the National Dairy Council.

In November and December, however, butter consumption rises more than 60 percent, the council says. That means the average American will eat two quarter-pound sticks and a small chunk of a third this month, and the same again next month.

Worse, all of these calories come at exactly the wrong time of year. Short daylight hours and bad weather keep people inside and sedentary. For too many people, the closest thing to exercise in December is a meander through the mall.

The combination of sumptuous, fatty meals and little exercise adds up, almost inevitably, to bigger bellies.

Consider, for example, this Thursday's supper. Since a 150-pound person burns about 100 calories per mile walked, a typical diner would have to hike more than 20 miles to turn a traditional turkey dinner with all the fixings into muscle instead of fat.

Stir into this rich stew a soupcon of emotional or family distress, and it becomes clear why, amid all the public joy, millions of Americans have secret traditions of self-denial, guilt and even shame.

Anthony Cirinconi, one of the owners of Grue Tailoring in Baltimore, says every fall, men and women come in, proud of losing weight over the summer and insisting he take in their clothes.

"We try to talk them out of it," because, after decades in the business, he knows what will happen.

And sure enough, in December or January, they return, thicker and ashamed. "They get embarrassed. But we tell them, 'These pants shrunk a little bit.' We have to let them out normally a half inch to an inch. An inch is about 10 pounds."

The worst time

But for many, the season is more than just a minor ego-bruising confrontation with once-loose clothes.

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