Jan. 2, 2009 -- Women who don't try to eat less more than double their risk of substantial weight gain in middle age, a three-year study shows.
If you're a 40-something woman, it doesn't matter whether you're thin or overweight -- odds are, you'll gain weight over time if you don't make an effort to cut back on what you eat.
The finding comes from a study of 192 women with an average age of 40 by Brigham Young University researchers Larry A. Tucker, PhD, and Laura Bates. The women were not obese, had not yet reached menopause, and did not smoke.
At the start of the study the women underwent detailed physical exams, including measures of weight and body fat. They also underwent a seven-day analysis of the food they ate, in which they weighed and recorded every bit of food they put into their mouths.
Three years later, the women underwent another round of physical exams and food-intake analysis. The bottom line was no surprise: Women tend to gain weight and body fat as they age and become less physically active.
But not all women gained weight. Even if they didn't exercise more, women who made an effort to eat less were 69% less likely to gain more than 2.2 pounds and were 2.4 times less likely to gain 6.6 pounds or more.
It's never too soon, or too late, to watch what you eat, Tucker and Bates suggest.
"It matters little at what point women are regarding restricted eating. What matters most is that they increase their dietary restraint over time or they will likely gain weight," they conclude.
Women who increased their "emotional eating" -- that is, eating as a way of coping with feeling depressed, lonely, bored, anxious, worried, or other emotional states -- were also more likely to gain weight than women who did not increase this kind of eating behavior.
"To avoid weight gain, these women have to learn to control their food consumption during emotionally challenging situations," Tucker and Bates note.
Some earlier studies suggested that women who try to eat less actually end up gaining weight because their feelings of deprivation lead them to cycles of bingeing. But Tucker and Bates saw no evidence of this, even though they acknowledge that binge eating usually does occur in people trying to eat less.
"Tight regulation of food intake may lead to bingeing from time to time, but over the long term, fewer calories are consumed and the risk of weight gain is much less in women who practice restricted eating," they suggest. "In fact, women have to increase restraint over time to keep from gaining weight and body fat."
The study appears in the January/February issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.