"Restraint" in how much you eat seems like a no-brainer for middle-aged women who don't want to gain weight. But some experts have said it's likely to backfire and cause binging. Now a study from Brigham Young University, published in the next issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion, says women who do not "become more restrained in their eating" double their risk of substantial weight gain.

It's not just good practice, it's a must, says BYU professor Larry Tucker, a health promotion expert and the study's lead author.

Tucker says the American eating culture has changed.

"We have numerous food companies out there that are pressured to show increases in sales on a quarterly basis or someone's on the hot seat."

As a result, they've come out with "more new products, making them better and better tasting. They know the tastes and textures consumers like." Within minutes, a consumer can have something that tastes delicious, and there's a "tendency to continue to eat even when you're not hungry. Eating good-tasting food is enjoyable. We eat for recreation, often for social interaction."

He describes restrained eating as choosing not to eat certain things or not to eat as much as you'd like.

"We're not saying you need to go around hungry. That won't work. You need to restrain from unhealthy foods, from high-calorie foods. If you don't, you will gain weight."

Between two-thirds and three-fourths of American adults gain weight each year, he says.

The researchers followed 192 middle-aged women for three years, tracking lifestyle, health and eating habits over three visits to the lab.

Each time, they measured body fat and had them wear accelerometers, similar to but more complex than pedometers. For a week at a time, they'd measure all movement and its magnitude. They also were provided digital scales and weighed and recorded everything they ate for a week at a time.

Even with exercise, they found that those who did not become more restrained in their eating over time gained weight.

"Whether they began lean or overweight, if they were not becoming more restrained over time, they ran close to 2.5 times the risk of gaining weight substantially — at least 6.6 pounds over the three-year period," he says.

Restrained eating takes practice, he says. No one needs to go hungry, but the researchers recommend substituting lower-calorie foods and

be careful about butter, gravy, etc. You should eat primarily non-starchy vegetables, fruits and whole grains. You can eat a pound of vegetables and only get about 200 calories.

"When I sit down and eat, I start with a huge plate of vegetables and eat to the point I'm satisfied, then start eating other things a little."

Tucker also counsels people to write down everything they eat so they are aware of how much and what they're consuming. And he doesn't have around his "problem foods," which removes the temptation to eat them. He also reminds people they don't have to be full or stuffed.

E-mail: lois@desnews.com