It's often said that people who eat out regularly tend to gain weight, but a new study argues that doesn't have to be the case.
By using mindful eating strategies, people can frequent restaurants several times a week, the study finds, and drop pounds.
"The advice for weight loss is often just, 'Well, eat out less,' which is just not very realistic these days," said Gayle M. Timmerman, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin's School of Nursing and one of the study's authors. "For many people, it's an important part of their lifestyle and it's an important part of their social life -- even with the economic downturn."
Bearing this in mind, Timmerman and her colleagues devised a strategy to prevent weight gain in a group of 35 healthy Texans -- all middle-age women -- who eat out at least three times weekly. They coached the women for several hours over six weeks.
Though the intervention was aimed solely at weight maintenance and not weight loss, members of the group lost an average of nearly four pounds over six weeks without cutting back on the number of visits to restaurants, according to results published Tuesday in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
Overall, the women cut their daily intake by about 300 calories -- only one-third which came from restaurants. That suggests the dining out strategies seeped into meals eaten at home.
So what exactly did the study participants do?
Much of the intervention was basic knowledge-building, Timmerman told The Huffington Post.
The women learned about healthy alternatives and portion sizes. They asked themselves questions about what they were willing to substitute or change, and discussed healthy options specific to certain cuisines (for example, Italian, Chinese and Mexican) and meals (breakfast, dessert and beverages).
Another key component was mindfulness training.
Over the study's six weeks, the women were led through mindful eating meditations. They were given raisins and strawberries, which they were told to savor and to describe the smell, texture and taste. They tried hunger awareness exercises, taking time to question how full or satiated they were before eating more. Overall, the focus was both on limiting portions and on enjoying food.
"If you eat mindfully, you're paying attention -- you're more satisfied," Timmerman said. "How many times are people throwing french fries into their mouths when they're soggy and cold? If you're able to pay attention, if you really savor it when it's hot -- could you be satisfied with less?"
Judy Caplan, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, praised the study, saying the concepts have long been understood as "seminal" to success by weight loss professionals. However, Caplan said many non-professionals overlook the importance of mindfulness or awareness when eating out, given our "on-the-go" society.
Dr. Jan Chozen Bays, a pediatrician and author of "Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship to Food," said the popularity of mindful eating strategies is growing. While formal training can help, people can easily adopt mindfulness on their own, he said.
Bays suggested that diners make an effort to focus on what they're eating -- pausing conversation to concentrate solely on their food, or not reading a newspaper or book if they are out and dining alone. This, she said, allows you to both enjoy what you're eating and to focus on how satisfied you are. Bays also suggested waiting to order an entree until you have eaten your appetizer, in order to pause and consider how hungry you are. Such strategies, she said, free people to eat foods they really want without necessarily gaining weight.
"There's a saying: 'When eating, just eat,'" Bays said. "So thoroughly enjoy and get pleasure out of your food. But be aware of how your body is feeling and when you are full."