Is Fat in Your Future?

Last Editorial Review: 1/6/2003

Skipping Meals, Yo-Yo Dieting Can Backfire Later On

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

If you're a light eater or a yo-yo dieter, look out. A decade from now, you're likely to find yourself overweight. A recent study provides a sort of crystal ball for women, a clue to who will be overweight in middle age.

"Light eaters are often sabotaging their own efforts to stay trim," says study author Paula A. Quatromoni, DSc, RD, an assistant professor of Nutrition Studies at Boston University School of Public Health.

"They are not taking the most sensible approach," she tells WebMD. "They are eating fewer foods, but not necessarily the low-fat foods. They skip meals, but are not replacing them with nutrients they need. That kind of restrictive eating is difficult to maintain for long."

In her study, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Quatromoni and colleagues analyzed 12 years' worth of eating patterns for 787 women. All were about age 45 when the study began, and none was overweight at that time.

The researchers calculated each woman's risk of gaining weight over the 12-year study period, based on her age, level of physical activity, her usual weight pattern, and the amount of calories she ate - as well as whether she smoked, was menopausal, or dieted. They identified five basic eating patterns, which they called Empty Calorie, High Fat, Wine and Moderate Eating, Light Eating, and Heart Healthy.

No surprise: Women who ate an "Empty Calorie" diet -- heavy on animal fat and sweets -- had a much greater chance of becoming overweight than other groups. Some 41% of this group became overweight during the 12-year period, compared with 29% for the group as a whole, and 24% for those who ate the "Heart-Healthy" diet with more fruits, vegetables, low-fat milk, and other low-fat and high-fiber foods. The "Empty Calorie" eaters tended to be younger, were more likely to diet, and were also more likely to smoke.

Most women -- more than 50% of those studied -- fell into the bad-news "Light Eater" category. While Light Eaters reported eating fewer calories than other groups, their weight fluctuated quite a bit -- likely because they ate less sometimes, then binged later. They also consumed more of their calories in fat than they should have. "I would like to see more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, leaner sources of protein," Quatromoni tells WebMD. Some 30% of this group ended up overweight.

The eating habits of the women in the "Wine and Moderate Eating" fell somewhere in between those of the junk-food lovers and the healthy-heart crowd. This group also drank moderate amounts of wine on a regular basis. While this regimen might sound as if it would be protective against fat, very few of the women studied fell into this dietary category -- too few to know for sure if it worked, Quatromoni says.

The "Heart Healthy" eaters had the greatest variety in their diets. They were eating from all the different food groups, making a conscious effort to lower fat intake, replacing fat with legumes, eating low-fat meats -- all the things nutritionists ask people to do, she adds. This group was older and slightly more physically active than the other women. Their diet was overall lower in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol; they also contained more carbohydrates and fiber in the form of fruits, vegetables, and whole-wheat grain breads -- nutrient-dense foods.

While it's a good idea for everyone to follow the example of the "Heart Healthy" group, there's no need to single out fat as the primary nutritional no-no, Quatromoni says.

Too many people focus on eating a low-fat diet, which is not necessarily optimal, she points out. To be healthy, the human body needs some fat as well as other nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

Originally published Jan. 6, 2003.

SOURCES: Journal of the American Dietetic Association, September 2002 * Paula A. Quatromoni, assistant professor of Nutrition Sciences, Boston University School of Public Health.

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