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Go on, it's Christmas: the season's impact on your waistline

Philip McTernan, Associate Professor, Warwick Medical School

Published January 2014

Christmas is considered a misty-eyed time to enjoy the festive season through family, friends and food (although not necessarily in that order). Food is an essential part of the time of year and our bodies often seem to crave even more than sometimes we feel we can handle, particularly after the Christmas dinner as we all search to locate that extra space in our ‘pudding stomach’. This ability to over-eat may not be a modern phenomenon but an adaptation we inherited from our distant relatives-although this wasn’t strictly to cope with "just one more" profiterole!

As a species we have struggled to get to this present-day point. Less than 12,000 years ago, our ancestors, or distant relatives, moved from a largely hunter-gatherer type diet to what became, for most human beings now on the planet, permanent land-dwelling farming-based diets.

Christmas cupcakeDuring this early hunter-gatherer period, our distant relatives no doubt suffered periods of starvation and would have ‘run the gauntlet’ of dangers to find whatever food they could to survive winters and the lack of available food in colder climates. Prior to this point, early in our species' development, putting on weight would have been a key survival trait for such periods of starvation. Whilst modern times may have changed the dynamic, we may still be running the gauntlet; avoiding the often excess food available during the Christmas period.

Nowhere does this seem more apparent these days than in the local petrol station (now often allied to a well-known food hall). In trying to negotiate these places you often have to steer away from the tempting ready-meal isle, avoid the bakery (and enticing smell if possible), before you stand in line surrounded on either side by chocolates, snacks and crisps. Once eventually at the counter (remembering that you came in to pay for petrol), yet more offers are thrown at you through a selection of muffins or chocolate bars on sale at discounted prices; bargain hey?!

Such multiple temptations are hard to resist, especially as your body responds biochemically to the anticipation of the food, making you feel hungry, even though you haven’t even decided to buy anything. Unfortunately this biochemical response is also a throwback from our distant relatives who wouldn’t have passed up a meal in order to survive.

Today we struggle to maintain our ideal weight in this environment, with long-term weight loss considered a marathon event rather than a sprint. Therefore, as you run the food gauntlet next Christmas, try to ensure you eat what know you need rather than dictated by a petrol-station-food-hall-induced-food-assault.

And, when no doubt you do find that ‘extra room’ and 'pudding stomach', consider that this was a survival trait you have inherited from our distant ancestors; it’s just one more thing to blame the relatives for!


Dr Philip McTernanObesity is on the increase worldwide and in the majority of cases this increase will lead to type 2 diabetes. At present, 50 per cent of the UK population is overweight and this percentage is set to increase.

Dr Philip McTernan is part of a team, at Warwick Medical School, which works on several of these factors to examine how they impact on the progression of the disease and its complications, such as hypertension and the risk of heart disease. The team performs both clinical and laboratory patient-based studies, assessing the effects of risk factors on fat as well as the role of drug treatment on reducing pathogenic factors produced by fat.

The studies aim to provide a deeper understanding of how present drug and or diet intervention impact on our health with particular emphasis of how human fat cells may contribute to this risk. The team looks into ways to decrease risk imposed by obesity and type 2 diabetes. The multidisciplinary team works across several cross-clinical specialisms and academic departments (Biology, Chemistry, Maths and Systems Biology). Key research includes studies into the role of inflammation in the progression of obesity and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus; how our gut flora may impact on our health and the influence of both medication and inflammatory factors impact on human fat cell metabolism.

Image: Xmas Tree faux cupcake by Jara S (via Flickr)