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updated 7/20/2007 8:06:16 AM ET 2007-07-20T12:06:16

How do you feel about gaining 10 to 20 pounds? Researchers say most Americans probably will within the next 10 years if they continue their current exercise and eating habits. In fact, the average American gains one to two pounds a year throughout much of adulthood.

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Yet studies show that healthy eating and exercise habits can prevent or minimize this weight gain.

Although adult weight gain is common, you shouldn’t consider it normal or healthy. Gaining weight during middle age increases the risk for diabetes and heart disease. In one study, for every 2 pounds men gained, their risk of developing diabetes in the next 10 years rose by more than 7 percent.In the same study, a 1-inch increase to the waist over 10 years correlated with 20 percent of new diabetes cases.

Weight gain damages your joints, too. When normal-weight young adults become overweight, their risk of developing a form of arthritis (osteoarthritis) of the knees requiring surgery rises threefold.

The biggest consequence of being overweight may be a greater risk for several cancers, especially colon cancer and breast cancer. A gain of more than 45 pounds during adulthood doubles the risk of post-menopausal breast cancer, while smaller weight gains can raise the risk by 20 percent. For breast cancer survivors, weight gain lifts the risk of cancer recurrence and death from 35 percent for small increases to 64 percent for larger gains (about 17 pounds).

The federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans stresses the importance of preventing weight gain. For years, the American Institute for Cancer Research has recommended that adults gain no more than 11 pounds after reaching adulthood.

Small changes Pros and cons of diet plans
Changing your balance of calories by consuming less or exercising more would probably be enough to prevent gradual yearly weight gain. One report says you may have to decrease calorie consumption by 100 calories day and add 2,000 steps — or a 15- to 20-minute brisk walk — to avoid weight gain.

Two easy ways to cut 100 calories from your day? Replace a cup of pasta with vegetables at dinner or choose fruit instead of chips for lunch or a snack.

Activity level is a key influence on your weight. One study shows that a 30-minute brisk walk three days a week may be enough to reduce weight gain by close to a pound a year. To prevent weight gain altogether, another study suggests 45 to 60 minutes a day of walking, yard work or similar activity.

Of course, your eating habits matter, too. One large study looked at middle-aged folks of a healthy weight who ate large amounts of raw vegetables, fruits and whole grains and less processed meat, high-fat dairy products, and butter or margarine. Participants either maintained their weight or gained much less than people who followed the opposite eating patterns.

Other studies have shown that eating whole grains, as well as vegetables and fruits, can independently reduce weight gain and waistline increases.In a study of middle-aged women, those who ate more vegetables and fruit had 28 percent less risk of major weight gain than those who ate fewer of these nutritious foods.

To switch to a plant-based diet built around vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans, gradually make small changes that you can sustain. Combine these changes with exercise to further reduce your chance of adult weight gain and its health risks.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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