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Fruitcake, Genes, and Exercise: A Spooky Holiday Story

Starting around Thanksgiving and generally ending on January 2, we’re surrounded by too much food. Many of us who spent the year really (really!) trying to lose weight and eat healthfully dread the havoc these dark days can wreak on our bodies.

It’s agonizingly easy to add some pounds.

Then, come January, we despair at that Michelin man or woman staring back from our bedroom mirrors. Oh, the rapture of weight loss. Oh, the pain of backsliding. Oh, the challenge of still more weight loss ahead. It’s no surprise publishers schedule diet books for January release.

Several years ago, this New York Times article reported on a study published in the Journal of Physiology. You’ll probably not be thrilled with the seriously spooky conclusions, but you’ll have more of a clue about what happens in our bodies when we have that slice of fruitcake and second glass of eggnog.

But before you sink to the bottom of your slough of despond, dragged down by your newly added avoirdupois, in the end the researchers do throw us a life preserver. 

About the research
The investigators worked with 26 healthy young men, all regular exercisers (many of you), and none obese (ditto). After gathering baseline clinical data, including tests for pre-diabetes–similar to the Health Diagnostic Lab profile we offer at WholeHealth Chicago–and actual biopsies of fat tissue, everyone enrolled was deemed healthy and normal.

Then the 26 were divided into two groups. Thirteen were to be the exercisers, instructed to spend 45 minutes daily running on a treadmill at moderate intensity. The other 13 were the non-exercisers, assigned to be couch potatoes, doing no exercise at all. Trying to keep everything accurate and limit this study to the effects of the treadmill exercise alone, both groups were given pedometers and instructed to reduce the number of steps they walked every day, from an average of 10,000 to 4,000. (Obviously, the 4,000 steps would not include the treadmill work.)

Then–and not unlike what Morgan Spurlock did to himself in the movie Super Size Me–both groups were asked to gorge themselves like Christmas geese. Curiously, volunteers are usually paid quite well for this. The non-exercisers added a full 50% to the calories they normally ate. The exercisers, taking into account calories burned on the treadmill, went even further and increased their usual caloric load by 75%.

This is some serious overeating, but actually not all that remarkable if you track the calorie intake of the Americanae populum as it turf-grazes its way through the holiday season.

When you’re eating more calories than you’re burning as fuel, your body has a surplus of energy that it stores in your fat cells and liver. To deal with the rising sugar (glucose) load, your pancreas pumps out more insulin, the molecule that drives glucose into cells, where it can be used for energy. Then, almost as if the whole system were begging for a reprieve, your cells become resistant to insulin, the sugar in your blood slowly rises, and your pancreas poops out and stops making enough insulin.

With fat storage, insulin resistance, and pancreatic fatigue you reach the well-known metabolic syndrome, currently affecting one American in five and definitely on the rise. One key indicator of metabolic syndrome is waist size (measured at your navel), with 35 inches or more for women (40 inches or more for men) being a frontline indicator of this devastating condition, whose health consequences include diabetes and early heart disease.

How fast can you arrive at the foothills of the metabolic syndrome?
That’s a question that has challenged researchers, and this study provides some tantalizing clues as to the answer. At the end of just seven days of gorging, both groups underwent additional testing, with special attention to insulin levels and fat tissue biopsies.

The results were striking.

The non-exercisers  After just one week, the non-exercisers showed such a decline in normal blood sugar metabolisms that they could be classified as having early metabolic syndrome. In addition, their biopsied fat cells showed evidence of actual changes in the genetic material indicating that the genes were shifting cellular metabolism to store more fat without burning it. 

The exercisers  The exercising group showed none of these changes. Their blood sugars and insulin levels remained normal, there was no evidence of changes in fat storage, and no evidence at all that the genetic expression in their fat cells had been adversely affected.

It’s important to note that the article did not discuss food quality. This is especially significant because many people have the idea that if they’re eating healthful foods the added calories somehow “don’t count.” I’m not going to recount the ways this country’s high sugar/refined carb/fat diet is grievously unhealthy (there’s a reason they call it SAD—the standard American diet). That’s a given. I will say, however, that Whole Foods shoppers need to exercise just as faithfully as people lining up at fast food restaurants.

So here’s the point
If you’re not paying attention during the coming holiday season, overeating and inactivity can quickly set you on the health-destroying path of metabolic syndrome and change the way your genes control your weight. This is seriously spooky, but it’s a state of affairs that can be prevented with daily exercise.

The scientists admit they don’t understand exactly how exercise offsets the onslaught of food, but the effect is dramatic enough to let you know about it so you can plan your strategy for the months ahead. 45 minutes of brisk walking daily sounds like a plan.

Because ultimately, you’re in charge.

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD

Leave a Comment


  1. Vince Kolber says:

    Dr. Edelberg your wrong. 45 minutes a day of brisk walking is a joy.

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