Cutting back on calories is the cornerstone of any successful weight-loss plan, but as dieters can attest, that's easier said than done.
So it's encouraging to learn that three simple strategies can provide a boost: Eat regular meals, write down everything you eat, and avoid restaurants and takeout at lunchtime.
These three habits were each linked to greater weight loss in a new study of 123 overweight and obese middle-aged women, all of whom managed to shed at least a few pounds over a one-year period.
Women who reliably ate breakfast, lunch and dinner lost an average of 11% of their body weight, compared to just 7% among women who skipped meals. (That's equivalent to a 5-foot, 6-inch woman who weighs 180 pounds losing 20 pounds instead of 13.)
Methodically keeping a food journal was associated with losing roughly 4% more body weight. And women who never ate restaurant lunches lost 3% more body weight than those who did so at least once a week - probably due to super-size restaurant portions and less-than-healthy dishes, the researchers say.
"Knowing what you eat and controlling the portion sizes is key to any weight-loss diet," says Anne McTiernan, M.D., the senior author of the study and a diet and exercise specialist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in Seattle.
Strategies such as food journals are "about accountability," McTiernan adds.
Other behaviors in the study that appeared to boost weight loss included consuming fewer calories from fat and carbohydrates and weighing and measuring food portions.
None of these findings was especially surprising. Doctors and dietitians have long touted the benefits of regular meals, food journals, and home cooking, but the new study is among the first to look at a wide range of weight-loss strategies and quantify which ones are most effective, McTiernan says.
Why does skipping meals backfire? It's not entirely clear, but research suggests missed meals can lead to snacking and overeating, and may even change the body's metabolism so that calories aren't used as efficiently. Skipping meals also may go hand in hand with other behaviors that can promote weightgain, such as eating on the go.
Although the three healthful habits highlighted in the study might seem straightforward, they may prove harder to follow in the real world than in the somewhat artificial setting of a clinical trial.
The women in this study were all part of a larger trial looking at the effect of diet and exercise on hormones, and they received weight-loss guidance not always available to women struggling with weight issues on their own. This included meeting with a registered dietician and exercise physiologist and also learning how to read labels and count calories.
As it was, less than 5% of the study participants completed a food journal entry every day for the first six months of the study, as the researchers had asked.
The study findings were published today in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.