John Clark, Deseret Morning News

Here come the holidays, and we all know what that means.

Chunks of cheesecake. Mounds of mashed potatoes. Turkey and dressing and cocktails, oh my.

Followed, of course, by a diet.

What will it be this time? Atkins? South Beach? How about the Chocolate Chip Cookie Diet or the Coconut Diet?

A better option? None of the above, according to people in the know. Rather, start listening to the signals that your body is constantly sending about when to eat and how much, and you'll be healthier. Throw in a little exercise, and you'll likely be lighter as well.

Most diets, by their very nature, are prescriptions for failure, says Linda Bacon, a nutritionist who has studied the phenomenon.

"Research certainly is showing us that dieting is useless," she says.

Americans spend more than $50 billion a year on diet programs and products, according to the MarketData research firm. One-fourth of men and nearly half of women in the United States are dieting on any given day, the group reports, and a good portion of the rest of us likely are thinking about it.

A recent study by the Calorie Control Council, an industry group that represents manufacturers of low-calorie foods, found that 62 percent of Americans are concerned about dieting year-round.

Yet even as we indulge our obsession with weight-loss books, pills, plans and programs, Americans keep getting fatter.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one-third of American adults are obese and 17 percent of our kids are dangerously overweight, numbers that have increased dramatically in the past two decades.

Nutrition specialists believe that diets are partly responsible.

While they may allow people to lose weight at first, diets that cut out entire food groups or focus on specific ingredients eventually backfire, says Bacon, who teaches at San Francisco City College and is on staff at the University of California, Davis. "Every major study shows that a majority of dieters gain the weight back, and sometimes more."

The reason, Bacon explains, is that when the human body suddenly takes in fewer calories and less fat, it goes into panic mode, telling the brain that it needs more food. As fat storage drops, so does the level of a hormone in the blood called leptin. When leptin dips below a certain level, it triggers an increase in appetite.

"It's not just a matter of willpower," says Robin Steagall, a registered dietitian with the Atlanta-based Calorie Control Council. "Physiologically, it's about survival. If you're on a restrictive diet, your body feels threatened and will work against you."

Of the literally hundreds of diet books and diet plans available to consumers, only a handful have been subjected to intense scientific scrutiny, says Bacon. The best, according to various clinical studies analyzed by the online service Consumer Search, is Weight Watchers.

Consumer Reports recently gave Weight Watchers the highest rating among five popular diet plans, based on nutritional value and effectiveness of weight loss. But the magazine only considered weight loss after one year. So it remains unclear how well Weight Watchers — or any other diet, for that matter — works in the long term, Bacon says.

"The whole notion of dieting just doesn't make sense, but it's a very strong part of our cultural mind-set," Bacon says. "We have bought into the illusion that we can find happiness through these diets, that if we lose weight, we'll get everything we want in life."

Thin may be in, she points out, but it's not necessarily healthy. As research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association this week attests, being a little overweight can actually reduce death risk.

"Our focus needs to be on eating well, exercising regularly, managing stress and listening to our bodies," says Bacon. "Weight is a red herring in this whole issue. What might be rightly considered overweight in one person might be totally appropriate for someone else."

In a recent study she conducted with fellow UC Davis nutrition researcher Judith Stern, Bacon found that behavior change works far better than dieting to improve overall health.

The study included 78 women ages 30 to 45. Half the women were assigned to a "dieting group" and were told to restrict their food consumption, keep food diaries and monitor their weight. Half signed on to an approach called Health at Every Size, which encourages obese people to back off from monitoring how much food they eat and instead train themselves to pay more attention to "internal body cues" that signal hunger and fullness.

After two years, 42 percent of the dieters had dropped out of the study, compared to just 8 percent of those in the second group. The "nondieters" maintained their weight throughout the study, decreased their "bad" cholesterol levels and blood pressure, increased their physical activity and felt better about themselves emotionally. Most of the dieters lost weight in the beginning but gained it back by the end of the study and achieved little or no overall health benefit.

The findings suggest that "people are better advised to focus on behavior change than weight to achieve their health goals," says Stern.

Bacon, whose book "Health at Every Size: Finding Your Happy Weight," is scheduled to be out in 2008, advises people who want to maintain a reasonable weight and get healthier to follow a few simple rules.

"Trust yourself. Accept the body you are living in, and don't buy into cultural ideas of what you should weigh. Eat when you're hungry, not just because it's noon. Eat slowly, and enjoy your food. Stop when you're full. Ask yourself how you feel when you're finished."

If you want to drop pounds, you'll also have to get moving, says Steagall. Every day. For 60 to 90 minutes a day.

That may sound daunting, but the workout can be broken up into small chunks, she says, and still be effective. Walk briskly to work, she advises. Take the stairs instead of the escalator. Or just set aside a part of your morning for exercise.

"Before you head out the door, start your day with a good, solid chunk of physical activity," she says. "Make it a top priority. Then you've got it behind you and can enjoy the rest of the day."

Even during the busy holiday season, she says, find time to squeeze in a daily workout.

The latest research from the National Institutes of Health finds that Americans gain about a pound during the winter holiday season. Other studies have put the average weight gain at 5 to 10 pounds.

But rather than considering parties, celebrations and holiday foods the enemy, Bacon advises, embrace the season.

"I think we make too much of the dangers of holiday eating," she says.

When confronted with a plate of chocolate truffles or similar temptations during the next few weeks, she advises, indulge yourself. Take a small bite of the truffle and let it melt slowly in your mouth. Savor the flavor and texture. Wait a couple of minutes and take another bite. By the third bite, chances are the truffle will be a bit less satisfying.

"That's your body trying to support you in eating less," Bacon says.

If you pause for a moment after finishing your treat, she says, you probably won't reach for a second helping.