A participant at a weight loss clinic at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

Can you relate to this? It's the holiday season, and the parties, the rich meals, the sweet treats can seem bottomless.

"Well, it is a little bit of challenge, because I do like food," says Margo Waite, an administrative assistant at the University of Colorado. Like a lot of people, she’s struggled with her weight. "In the past I have, because I wasn't active," says Waite.

Waite started running and watching what she ate more closely. And now she's getting some additional help from the new pilot program developed by her employer, CU's Anschutz Health and Wellness Center. Its goal is to help "Maintain Not Gain" weight during the holidays.

Margo Waite is participating in the Maintain Not Gain program offered by her employer, the University of Colorado's Anschutz Health and Wellness Center.  She says getting reminder emails three times a week "puts a little pressure on you."

 

 

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The six-week, virtual campaign is aimed at helping folks make it through the holidays. It delivers helpful reminders like workout tips and recipes via email blast and the web.

Waite finds the email tips valuable. "In a way, it puts pressure on you," she said. "It's like 'you know, why don't you just do it.' It's not like it's going to be that difficult."

"We branded it under movement, meals and mindset because those are three key points that you want to focus on in terms of maintaining, not gaining, over the holidays," said Rachel Toburen, the center's marketing coordinator.

The program provides workout plans, video demonstrations and fitness guides, said Mark Siebert, the center's fitness manager. He says many people start to back off on their regular exercise once the days grow shorter. "This time of year our members kind of go into hibernation," said Siebert.

"I think the biggest thing is that people go into the holidays in general with the wrong mindset," said Lauren Marek, a registered dietitian with the Health and Wellness Center, who helps prepare nutrition tips for the Maintain Not Gain program. "Their mindset is it's all about food."

She says the average person consumes an extra 100 calories a day between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. And that results in one extra pound of belly fat heading into the new year. Marek also urges her clients to avoid the mentality of "being able to earn" that big holiday dinner by doing an intense workout or Jingle Bell Run that day. 

Mark Siebert is fitness manager at the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, which has developed the six-week, virtual Maintain Not Gain campaign.

John Daley/CPR

"Really, you can't think of it like that," Marek said. "You don't burn as many calories as you think with exercise, it's got to be controlled through food."

She says if people instead focus on family and friends and what makes the holiday special then they might avoid overeating.

"What are the foods that are special and specific to this holiday?" said Marek. "Those are the foods I might splurge on. I'm not going to splurge on something like a dinner roll because I can get that any time of the year."

But is that overly optimistic? Do most people have that kind of self-control? A slew of national campaigns over the years have urged us to embrace better habits. But if you look at the numbers, they don’t appear to be working. Just last month the Centers for Disease Control released its latest data on obesity in the U.S. It shows nearly 38 percent of adults are obese, not just overweight. That number is up from 32 percent a decade ago.

"I think there's very few signs of positive change," said Dr. Jennifer Marks, a professor of medicine at the University of Miami. 

She applauds campaigns to get people to stay fit and eat less. But she says it isn’t just that two thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, it’s that we continue to pack on the pounds. Marks says there are plenty of healthy options available now. But for many it’s too easy to reach for the high-calorie, low-nutrition option. Think French fries over fresh salad.

"We still don't have the answers and I raised a lot of questions in this editorial that I wrote," said Marks. She’s talking about an editorial published in the journal Clinical Diabetes, on the growing problem of obesity in America. She wrote it more than a decade ago. But she says in spite of public health campaigns and plenty of media attention, the prevalence of obesity has continued unabated. 

"I don't think there's been any major breakthroughs since I wrote this article 11 years ago that I'm aware of that tell us either how to do a better job or any advice that is necessarily any better," said Marks.

Marks says advice she gave then about portion control, avoiding fad diets and being active still hold true. But she says many people have a tough time making those changes in everyday life.

Lauren Marek is a registered dietician with the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, which developed the Maintain Not Gain program. +

John Daley/CPR

“It has to become a personal priority in your life to make room for the physical activity and make room for the time to make healthy meals, etc." said Marks. "And it’s just not something culturally we do.”

It’s that kind of thinking that led the folks behind the Maintain Not Gain program to include a third element, along with focusing on movement and meals. It’s mindfulness. Dietician Lauren Marek says being mindful spotlights thinking, consciously, deliberately, about what we’re eating, and why.

"I think just being conscious and aware is the biggest thing because people really aren't," said Marek. "I think that that's what leads to a lot of overeating. They're grazing all day long, they're not putting their food on plates and really watching what they're eating and when you graze you're not aware of it."

And that, over the holidays, may lead to that unwanted extra one pound of belly fat.