Most people attempt a diet at some point in their life. Many of us are on one right now. However, new research says that dieting may be counterproductive and that, actually, the key is eating regularly.
I've been on and off of diets for approximately my entire adult life. Although I don't consider myself overweight, I have a great deal more belly fat than I would like.
The diet industry is a multi-billion dollar affair, proving that I am not alone.
In fact, the vast array of dieting gadgets, books, and videos proves that there is no definitive solution.
Many factors that are involved in weight gain are understood — for example, we know that a sedentary lifestyle, consuming a lot of takeout food and sweet drinks, and smoking will cause us to pile on the pounds. However, there is still much to learn.
Is dieting the answer?
According to new research from the University of Helsinki in Finland, many of us are barking up the wrong nutritional tree; dieting is not the answer at all and, in the long run, it might even harm our chances of maintaining a healthy girth.
One of the researchers involved in the latest effort to understand the factors behind weight gain is Ulla Kärkkäinen, a licensed nutritional therapist.
She explains, "Often, people try to prevent and manage excess weight and obesity by dieting and skipping meals. In the long-term, such approaches seem to actually accelerate getting fatter, rather than prevent it."
To reach this conclusion, Kärkkäinen and her team used data from the FinnTwin 16 study, which involves more than 4,000 young men and women.
Because early adulthood is a critical time for weight gain (as I know only too well), this group made an ideal study sample. The findings were recently published in the journal Eating Behaviors.
What factors influence weight gain?
The participants all completed surveys regarding dietary and activity habits and other life factors at the age of 24, and then a decade later when they were aged 34.
Across the 10-year period, the majority of participants gained weight — that's life, I guess. Roughly one quarter of men and women managed to hold down a stable weight, and just 7.5 percent of women and 3.8 percent of men lost any weight.
Over time, women gained an average of 0.9 kilograms per year and men gained 1.0 kilogram each year.
Here's the interesting part: men and women who never dieted but had regular eating patterns were more likely to maintain a stable weight.
One of the main things that the scientists wanted to understand was whether or not there are any sex differences — and it turns out that there are.
Men who smoked tobacco were more likely to gain weight. However, women had a higher chance of gaining weight if they had given birth to two or three children, drank more sweetened drinks, or were less contented with their lives.
On the other side of the weighing scales, women were protected from weight gain by exercise, and men were less likely to put on weight if they were more highly educated and were heavier at the start of the study.
Although the basic underlying message around maintaining a healthy weight is to take on the right amount of calories and exercise more, the story is never really that simple. There are so many factors at play in each individual that there cannot be a one-size-fits-all strategy.
As Kärkkäinen says, "To effectively prevent weight gain, understanding the factors underlying weight management that precedes the gain, or primary weight management, is of utmost importance."
This study does show that exercise is effective at keeping off the pounds, particularly in women, but it also shows that there is more at work.
Giving up dieting and focusing on eating in a more regular fashion seems to be the key. In some ways, this is good news for people who struggle to lose weight and keep it off.
"Generally speaking, weight management guidance often boils down to eating less and exercising more. In practice, people are encouraged to lose weight, whereas the results of our extensive population study indicate that losing weight is not an effective weight management method in the long run."
She continues, "Prior research has shown that approximately every other adult is constantly dieting. According to the National Institute for Health and Welfare, nearly a million Finns diet every year."
"Even though dieting may seem a logical solution to weight management problems," Kärkkäinen concludes, "it can actually increase weight gain and eating problems in the long run."
So, rather than selecting the latest fad diet, perhaps we should focus on keeping things consistant and regimented. It has to be worth a shot, and it means that I can burn all of those diet books I've never read, too.