Want to Lose Weight Permanently? Eat Regularly and Don't Diet

M.A., Health Writer

We know what you're thinking: What does that headline mean?

According to a large study done in Finland and recently published in the journal Eating Behaviors, it means just what it says. No matter where in the world you live, successful weight management really can happen when you shed your preoccupation with "dieting" and adopt normal, regular eating habits.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development announced last year that just over 28 percent of Finns are obese. This study's authors report that nearly a million Finns diet every year, out of a general population of 5.5 million. Here in America more than 40 percent of us are obese and approximately 45 million of us go on a diet every year.

Seems the old "calories in, calories out" approach and "eat less and exercise more" aren't the only things we need to be concerned about — and yes, they do matter very much. The Finnish authors looked at more than 4,900 young men and women who answered questions about their weight at age 24 and then at 34, a period considered early adulthood, and a time when most of us start to gain weight.

"Most subjects gained weight during the decade in between," the authors write, with both dieting and irregular eating pinpointed as causes. However, women were also more prone to gain if they had two or more children, drank sweetened drinks and were generally discontent with life. Men who smoked were more likely to pack on pounds.

Take the bigger picture

"Most studies have explored factors associated with weight maintenance after dieting," said researcher, licensed nutritional therapist Ulla Kärkkäinen at the University of Helsinki in a telephone interview with HealthCentral.

"If we want to prevent weight gain, we need to really understand what people do differently to maintain weight loss without dieting," she says.

She also says success may lie in how you approach your weight, and asks that you don’t make dieting and weight loss your only goals. "Focus on life and what makes you happy. Then you are more likely to eat regularly and enjoy other things that make you feel good, and in doing so, you'll start to care more about your body. Caring about yourself helps you make better choices, and this process goes full circle."

Continually dieting can reduce your energy levels and upset your metabolism as your body tries to survive, plus it makes you miserable mentally because you're depriving yourself, she says. This all creates stress, which is not helpful to weight loss, as an early 2017 study in the journal Obesity suggests.

Love yourself to lose

The Finnish authors' findings encourage not just regular eating, but loving yourself and finding that meaning in life that makes you want to get up each day and "go get 'em."

Alas, around a subject where some "for sures" would be welcome, Kärkkäinen and colleagues admit that factors that work for weight loss can also change during a person's lifetime. They also say that what works for one person doesn't work for all, and that it's important to take individual differences into account, including mental health status.

They're backed up in that finding by additional research, including a 2015 study in the journal Cell that confirms that a diet that helps you shed pounds may not do the same for your best buddy.

Kärkkäinen says in the future, she and her team would like to look at weight gain factors in earlier age groups, perhaps from 16 to 34.

First things first

"Diets don't work because there needs to be a lifestyle change and not just a quick fix," said Dana Hunnes, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., at the Ronald Reagan-UCLA Medical Center in a telephone interview with HealthCentral. She's also an adjunct assistant professor at the Fielding School of Public Health.

"There is an emotional context around eating, whether it's our own satisfaction or dissatisfaction with our own bodies," she says. "The idea of finding balance emotionally means that you are happy with what you're eating and choosing foods that are healthful for you."

She agrees that the idea of achieving overall happiness is a broad one, and that perhaps the study could have suggested more ways to approach that. "People can be unhappy about their income, jobs, relationships, and more. To remedy that, maybe it means using more mindfulness or seeking consultation with a coach or psychologist. Emotional eating isn't so easy to tackle if the underlying psychology hasn't been addressed first."

Get real about eating

"One potential explanation for the association between dieting and weight gain seen in this study is that many diets emphasize unrealistic rules about eating that are difficult to maintain and keeps the focus on the number on the scale and body shape," said Genna Hymowitz, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor in the departments of psychology, psychiatry and surgery, and director of the behavioral medicine program at Stony Brook University in New York. She responded in an email interview to HealthCentral.

With so much focus on the scale and unrealistic dietary rules, it's easy to get discouraged and give up when you don't meet diet goals or break their rules, she says. Dr. Hymowitz asks her clients what they really care about and real reasons for wanting to be healthier — therein lies the motivation.

That might include "being able to keep up with their grandchildren or children, or being able to go dancing again, to travel more easily, go walking or hiking with their partner, or go fishing with their friends," Dr. Hymowitz says. "Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a promising treatment for weight difficulties. One of its core components helps patients identify what they truly want their lives to be about."

She credits this and similar studies with helping "to shift the conversation from simply treating obesity to prevention of obesity and helps identify some potential targets for early intervention and education."

If you want your life to be about a weight you're happy with, maybe you can start with being happier with yourself. Chances are, there's a lot to be happy about!

See more helpful articles:

A 12-Month Plan for Weight Loss

'Souping' Your Way to Weight Loss

Top Food Trends of 2018: How They Sync With Your Health