It's ironic that commercial diets do so well in Utah because Utah researchers have been on the forefront of new research suggesting that dieting may not be the most effective way to lose weight and keep it off.

A. Garth Fisher, director of the Human Performance Research Center at Brigham Young University, has published research in several medical articles suggesting dieting may actually make it harder for the chronic dieter to lose weight. Those who do seldom keep it off.His research has received considerable national attention from mainstream popular mediums as well as the scientific community.

Recently, Fisher and the center tracked 36 obese women for 16 weeks. Half of the women were put on low-fat diets that allowed them to eat as much fruit, grains and vegetables as they wanted. They were restricted to a 20 percent fat intake and required to exercise.

The other half followed a similar regimen but were restricted to 800 calories a day.

Both groups lost weight. The dieters lost 28 pounds. The unrestricted women lost 14 pounds, but they were not hungry, had more energy and complained less than the dieters did.

Fisher believes dieting success is usually short-term. "Only 3 to 5 percent of the people who lose weight keep it off. The rest of the people gain it back," he said.

Unless you are very obese and must take the weight off quickly for your health, Fisher does not recommend dieting.

The alternative? Change your eating habits and take up an exercise program.

First, cut back the amount of fat in your diet. The average American diet is 40 percent fat, Fisher said. A recent Stanford study shows a strong relationship between how fat someone is and the amount of fat in their diet.

"Other studies show that fat is more fattening than regular carbohydrates. All in all, the type of food is probably more important - or at least as important - as the number of calories."

You are best off focusing your diet on complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Make certain your protein is lean protein, such as fish and chicken, and stay away from sugar.

Don't worry so much about cutting back as changing your eating habits. And you must exercise. Any exercise that works the large muscle groups rhythmically and gets your heart rate up for a long period will do the job. Walking, jogging, swimming, biking, jumping rope, aerobic dancing, hiking and jumping on the minitramp are all excellent for weight loss.

"It's a matter of sweating and working hard," Fisher said. His research has shown that exercise triggers metabolic and enzyme changes that prompt the body to burn fat more readily.

Making healthy lifestyle changes is safer and easier than dieting, and the weight is more likely to stay off. So why don't more people do it?

"People don't want to make major changes themselves," Fisher said. "Somehow we want someone else to do it for us. It needs to be in a neat little package of some kind. If there is a major growth in the diet industry it is because of that. People want to be thin, but they want somebody to do it for them."