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Special to msnbc.com
updated 12/9/2007 9:02:40 AM ET 2007-12-09T14:02:40

Do the holidays tend to impact your wallet and your waistline? Well, you’re not alone. The good news: despite feeling several pant-sizes larger post-holiday season, such exaggerated weight gains are not typical.

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According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, most of us pack on far fewer pounds than we think. Now the rub: Although our annual holiday gains may be small, many people fail to lose the additional weight from year to year.

The New England Journal of Medicine study of 195 adults, conducted at the National Institutes of Health, showed an average participant weight gain of about one pound from mid-November to early or mid-January. Participants who were already overweight, however, saw greater gains than leaner subjects. Among the adults studied, only about five percent of non-overweight subjects gained five or more pounds over the holiday season. More than 10 percent of overweight subjects — and nearly 20 percent of obese subjects — gained excessively.

More than half of the study participants’ annual weight gain was put on during the six-week holiday season. With fewer people shedding excess pounds once the holidays pass, the study’s authors concluded that this trend could contribute to the gradual increase in body weight that frequently occurs during adulthood.

Holiday weight gain is not inevitable. But busy schedules that typify the holiday season can easily derail efforts to prevent weight gain. Hours spent waiting in long checkout lines or searching for parking spots at busy shopping centers can impact the time spent grocery shopping and preparing healthful meals. The result — a greater reliance on fast food, take-out meals and frozen dinners.

The solution? Plan ahead. Set aside a few minutes each week to map out meals for the days ahead. In the end, a few minutes of forethought can actually save time later in the week as you will need fewer trips to the grocery store with supplies already on hand. If meal preparation time is short, choose easy to assemble dishes like frozen spinach and cheese ravioli or a rotisserie chicken.

A quick stir-fry is also easy to prepare using frozen veggies or pre-chopped produce from the salad-bar. No time even for that? Vegetable soup, bolstered by extra frozen veggies, beans, leftover cooked chicken or seafood is another easy way to whip up a quick meal without venturing into fast food territory.

If holiday gatherings are your downfall and you simply can’t resist a few extra holiday treats, indulge only when you can truly relax and savor them. In addition, cut back on other high-calorie items like soft drinks, specialty coffee drinks and doughnuts that are around all year long.

For many people, a drop in physical activity is also a likely culprit of holiday weight gain. It’s especially important during the holiday season not to confuse being busy with being active. In the New England Journal of Medicine study, those who were less active than usual gained more over the holiday period, while those who reported increased activity were more likely to stay the same or even lose weight.

Even if you have to shorten your activity time due to other commitments, don’t abandon fitness routines completely. Instead, look for opportunities throughout your day to add small bouts of activity: park on the far side of a parking lot to squeeze in a few extra steps or take a 10 minute walk while you wait for your child’s school bus or your carpool.

This time of year is defined by its celebrations, social gatherings and, yes, indulgences. But with an eye for moderation and a little preparation, you can help prevent even small weight gains and have a major impact on your health for years to come.

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