Millions of Americans will sit down this week to the traditional Thanksgiving feast - turkey, dressing, potatoes and gravy, homemade bread, pumpkin pie.

It is the beginning of six weeks of celebrating with loved ones, a time for good food and good fellowship. This season of feasting starts on Thursday and continues through Christmas and New Year's Day.

Unfortunately for many of us it is also that time of year when we start packing on extra pounds.

A study published last spring in the New England Journal of Medicine noted that on average Americans gain about a pound during the winter holiday season from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day. While that figure is considerably less than the popular belief -- that most people gain from 5 to 10 pounds during the holidays -- it is still cause for concern. Why? Research shows that for most people the weight gained during the holidays isn't lost over the rest of the year. So in the course of several years all these extra pounds can add up to a serious weight problem. There is another factor to consider: the heavier you are the more weight you are likely to gain. In other words, a gain of 5 or 10 pounds from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day is a distinct possibility for people who are already overweight.

There is no denying that we have a serious weight problem in this country. In fact, we have an epidemic. More than half of the people, 54.6 percent, are overweight, according to government standards, and nearly 25 percent are obese. This is a national tragedy because excess weight can lead to all kinds of health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes, not to mention low self esteem.

The good news is there are signs that Americans are getting the message. Two weeks ago in a special report on what Americans are eating these days, Parade magazine pointed out that 36 percent of Americans are eating more nutritious foods than a year ago, 28 percent are eating more organic foods, and 24 percent are eating more soy products.

Obviously Thanksgiving is not a time when people generally start watching what they eat and exercising restraint at the table. Some experts even suggest that starting a weight loss diet now is a mistake because if you cheat, you may feel guilty and end up eating even more.

Nevertheless it does not hurt to recognize that we are now entering a time of year when Americans are most likely to pack on a few extra pounds. Hopefully armed with that knowledge at least some of us will be able to stay active and resist the urge to overindulge during the holidays.

The benefits of a healthy lifestyle are definitely something to be thankful for now and in the future. R.S.

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