“It’s not so easy to just say no when you keep getting invited, and it’s all out there in front of you,” said the 55-year-old stockbroker, a long-term patient of mine.

more on holiday eating

He was offering a timeworn excuse for the 5 pounds he gained during a culinary caper that began with Thanksgiving dinner and ended with an all-day open house on New Year’s.

But how bad can holiday overeating really be for your health?

Most people get away with seasonal overindulgences without significant harm to their health. But for those with risk factors such as heart disease or high cholesterol, overeating can set off more serious medical problems. As for that weight gain, it might not be so easy to take off.

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Overeating and Heart Risks

If you have coronary heart disease or are at risk for it, overeating (a big Christmas dinner can top 5,000 calories) can have dangerous consequences.

In fact, a study of almost 2,000 heart-attack patients suggested that a single act of overeating could quadruple one’s chance of having a heart attack on the same day.

Here’s how: Triglycerides­—a type of fat found in the blood after a large meal—can cause coronary artery inflammation. This is commonly a prelude to a heart attack.

Large amounts of food and alcohol can also induce the release of adrenaline-like substances that can cause a fatal abnormal heart rhythm.

Other Health Effects of Overeating

Here’s what else can happen when you stuff yourself and how to handle the problems that crop up:

You may experience heartburn, which occurs when acidic gastric juices reflux into the delicate tissues of the esophagus. This can last for hours, though an over-the-counter antacid such as Tums may provide relief.

If you have gas and diarrhea after a sizable feast, try some bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol and generic)—or just wait for it to work its way out, as it were.

The fat in your feast can also precipitate gall-bladder attacks. And if you’re susceptible to gout, the painful buildup of uric-acid crystals in your joints, go easy on alcohol and red meat. An overload of salty appetizers can result in swollen ankles for a few days.

Finally, even if the most dire consequence of overeating is an extra pound or two, you’re unlikely to be able to drop the weight easily, according to a study in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The study looked at holiday weight gain in 195 adults who worked at the National Institutes of Health. Contrary to expectation, they gained only a little more than a pound, on average. But they didn’t take it off the following spring or summer, putting them at risk for long-term weight gain.

Have a Healthier Holiday

Most of us can’t make it through a whole season of holiday parties without splurging a little. Here are a few ways to control your holiday food intake:

  • Avoid going to a festive meal feeling famished. Eat a high-protein snack, such as a slice of cheese, beforehand, to take the edge off your hunger.
  • Be choosy about your hors d’oeuvres. Skip anything fried.
  • Eat slowly. Swallow each mouthful before taking the next and chat with a table mate between bites. Slow eaters tend to eat less food.
  • At a party buffet? Position yourself as far away from that table as you can.
  • Increase your regular exercise schedule to burn off some of those excess calories.
  • If you end up overdoing it one night, don’t use it as an excuse to blow the rest of the season, as my stockbroker patient did. Simply get back to your usual (and better) habits the next morning.