Eating out frequently and consuming large, energy-rich portions can result in excess calorie intake and weight gain. Now a new study suggests people don’t have to stop eating out to lose weight, even if they dine out frequently, as long as they take a mindful approach to eating. A report on the study is scheduled to appear in the January/February 2012 issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

Dr Gayle M. Timmerman, of the University of Texas at Austin led the research. She said in a press statement that:

“Based on what we learned from this study, for those individuals who eat out frequently, developing the skills needed to eat out without gaining weight from the excess calories typically consumed at restaurants may be essential to long-term health.”

Timmerman and colleagues recruited 35 healthy women aged between 40 and 59, and who frequently ate out, to take part in the study.

The researchers wanted to focus on this section of the population because women have a tendency to put on weight around the time of the menopause, especially around the waist, which puts them at higher risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

About half the women joined the intervention group, while the other half were in the comparison group.

The women in the intervention group took part in a 6-week Mindful Restaurant Eating program, designed to prevent weight gain by helping them learn how to reduce their calorie and fat intake while eating out.

The comparison group completed no particular program, but were monitored in the same way.

Although the main point of the study was not weight loss but weight maintenance, and most of the participants (69%) did not set out to lose weight, the intervention group lost significantly more weight (on average, 1.7 kg per participant during the 6 weeks).

The intervention group participants also ate fewer calories and less fat every day, scored higher on “diet-related self-efficacy” (essentially the extent to which they believed they could achieve what they wanted with their diet control), and had fewer barriers to weight management while eating out than the comparison group.

Timmerman said the “number of times that participants ate out, as captured in the 3-day 24-hour recalls did not significantly decrease” from the start to the end of the intervention period. This showed that the “participants were able to successfully manage their weight while continuing their usual, frequent eating-out patterns,” she added.

Overall, the intervention group members reduced their daily energy intake by 297 calories after the end of the program, which would explain their weight loss. But, Timmerman said only some (about 124 calories) of this reduction in daily calorie intake could have come from eating less while eating out, suggesting that they also ate fewer calories at home.

The results imply that with the right skills, people can learn to manage their eating behavior and regulate their food intake, even in a “high risk” environment such as a restaurant.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD