As people age, trying to eat less becomes more important to fend off middle-age weight gain, a new study hints.

Women generally need to increasingly restrain their eating habits over time or they will tend to gain weight, and this applies to exercisers and non-exercisers, researchers from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, found.

After looking back at the eating and physical activity habits of 192 middle-aged women over 3 years, "on average, the only women not at risk of weight gain were those that increased their restrained eating," Dr. Larry A. Tucker told Reuters Health.

Compared with women who became more restrained in their eating over time, those that did not were 69 percent more apt to gain more than 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds), and 138 percent more likely to gain 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds), Tucker and co-investigator Laura Bates found.

Contrary to previous research implying that restrained eating — the conscious restriction of dietary intake for weight control — may lead to binge eating and possible weight gain, these findings suggest increasing self-control with food may be a logical way to prevent weight gain over time, Tucker and Bates report in the American Journal of Health Promotion.

At both the start of the study and 3 years later, the researchers obtained body weight and body fat measurements, as well as 7-day dietary intake and physical activity logs from 192 women. The women were 40 years old on average at the start of the study.

Women who did not increase their restrained eating practices were, "at substantial risk for weight gain," Tucker said.

This group also had 49 percent increased likelihood of a 1 percent increase in body fat over 3 years. Factors including age, weight, eating habits, calorie intake, and physical activity levels at the start of the study, did not significantly alter the risk for weight gain or body fat increases; nor did physical activity over the study period.

The goal of restrained eating, Tucker said, is to be satisfied, rather than stuffed, and to do so with the right foods such as non-starchy vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and vegetable proteins such as legumes, while avoiding cookies, high-fat foods, burgers, and pizza.

This study highlights how the average women, with no prescribed intervention, will gain body weight and fat over time. Therefore, Tucker and Bates call for improved interventions for helping women develop better eating habits while restricting their calorie intake.

SOURCE: American Journal of Health Promotion, January 2009