updated 11/22/2006 9:45:26 PM ET 2006-11-23T02:45:26

If there are college kids at your Thanksgiving table, don’t encourage them to gobble so much. New research suggests that the typical student leaves the holiday weekend as stuffed as the turkey, gaining more than a pound during the short break.

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Students who started out overweight or obese tended to waddle back to campus with even more weight — more than 2 additional pounds on average, the study found.

A pound may not seem like much, but “when put in the context of such a short time frame ... is rather disturbing with potential long-term consequences,” says a report on the research, which was presented at the recent annual meeting of the Obesity Society in Boston.

It’s common lore that people gain weight over the holidays, when it is tempting to gorge on treats that aren’t available year-round. But no one has specifically studied what happens to college students, who have the added baggage of pent-up demand for home cooking and pressure to please the doting relatives who dish it out.

Nutrition scientist Holly Hull and her colleagues at the University of Oklahoma in Norman set out to do such a study, weighing 94 students the week before Thanksgiving and within a week of their return to classes — a span of roughly 12 days.

Extra 320 daily calories
Students gained an average of 1.1 pounds. That translates to an extra 320 daily calories, “which would be about a slice of pumpkin pie per day,” she said.

No one is suggesting you skip the pie — “It only comes around once a year, and the last thing a person wants to do is start a diet on the holidays,” said Brian Wansink, director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab and author of the new book “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.”

However, “you want to go with a normal appetite” to Thanksgiving dinner, without having filled up on snack mix or appetizers beforehand, he suggested. That way you will have room for reasonable portions of each relative’s contribution to the meal without hurting someone’s feelings.


“If it gets to dessert and you don’t have a piece of pie, you’re going to be the family stinker,” warned Wansink, who is also an MSNBC.com nutrition columnist .

He also suggests “banking” calories by being especially virtuous the week or so before a holiday. It’s too late to do this for Thanksgiving, but not for the winter holidays — another vulnerable time, as Hull’s research showed.

Heavy get heavier
Of the 94 students in her study, 84 came back for a third weigh-in after the winter break in mid-January. Most of the extra “Thanksgiving pound” had disappeared for normal-weight students, but not for those who started out overweight.

The study also found a disturbing reason for some of the weight loss: Students had had replaced some muscle mass with lighter-weight fat, a finding documented by body composition X-rays.

“If you’re losing muscle mass, you’re losing weight — it’s just not a good way to lose weight,” and means that students are not exercising over the holidays, Hull said. “They’re not even getting any activity such as walking between classes. They’re probably just sitting at home.”

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