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More than half of Americans are overweight, and excess weight sets the stage for heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

Contrary to the widely held view that a five-pound weight gain is common over the holidays, fewer than 10% of study participants gained that amount or more during that period. But people who were overweight or obese to begin with were more likely to gain five pounds or more than those who were not overweight when the study started, Yanovski and colleagues report. Study participants ranged from 19 to 82 years old and weighed 95 to 306 pounds at the outset.

"Holidays are a special risk for overweight and obese people, and special efforts should be taken to help them because they are at greater risk for the complications of obesity," Yanovski says.

When the researchers looked at factors that may influence holiday weight gain, they found that only level of hunger and amount of physical activity seemed to have an impact. This suggests that carrying a Yule log to the fireplace, rather than watching one burn on TV, may be an effective way to prevent weight gain during this high-risk time, he says.

"Every adult is at risk for some weight gain during the holidays, but lifestyle modifications like taking the stairs instead of the escalator and parking at the other end of the mall when doing gift shopping may help drop weight," Yanovski tells WebMD.

"The bottom line is that people are gaining weight, and if they don't lose the weight that they gain, they will become fatter and fatter," says Denise Bruner, MD, president of the American Society of Bariatric Physicians and an obesity expert in private practice in Arlington, Va.

"At most parties, people sit around and talk, drink, or eat," she tells WebMD. "Why not try dancing instead, to increase physical activity?"

Another way to keep the pounds off during the holiday season, says Elizabeth Ward, RD, a Boston-based spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, is "never going to a holiday party hungry, because if you do, you will certainly overeat. Never stand by the food or nut bowl, and use small plates to serve yourself."

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