The most effective way of losing weight is not to try, researchers have found.
Instead of dieting, driven by a dissatisfaction with one's body shape and a desire to change it, women who accept their bodies the way they are end up with the lowest body mass index (BMI), a study has shown.
The strategy is called "intuitive eating", based on feelings of hunger and fullness. It is contrasted with eating for emotional reasons - "comfort eating" - or as a response to stressful situations, that are seen as the chief drivers of obesity.
Researchers from the University of Ohio who studied the dietary habits of almost 200 college women found those who accepted their bodies were more likely to eat healthily.
Those who followed intuitive eating principles had a lower body mass index than those who did not.
The findings, presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in New Orleans yesterday, suggest that the typical reasons for dieting may backfire. Tracy Tylka, the assistant professor of psychology who led the research, said: "The message that women often hear is that some degree of body dissatisfaction is healthy because it could help them to strive to take care of their bodies. But it may be just the opposite: an appreciation of your body is needed to really adopt better eating habits."
Intuitive eating is defined as unconditional permission to eat when hungry, with no restriction on choice of food and a reliance on internal cues of hunger or fullness to determine when and how much to eat.
Dr Tylka said many people found it hard to accept they should be able to eat what they wanted, when they wanted, without restriction.
"There is this belief that if you give people unconditional permission to eat they are going to binge and add on a lot of pounds. But that's not what we have found."
"It seems amazing, but it is true. If you listen to your body signals in determining what, when and how much to eat, you are not going to binge and you are going to eat an appropriate amount."
A separate study of almost 600 women found those who described themselves as intuitive eaters were more likely to be satisfied with their body.
They spent less time thinking about how their body appeared to others and more time considering how it felt and functioned. They were more likely to agree with statements such as : "Despite its flaws, I accept my body for what it is."
A key factor appeared to be the attitude of their parents and others when they were growing up, the researchers found.
"When women feel that people in their lives accept their body, they don't feel the need to lose weight or tone up to be worthwhile. That seems to be directly related to eating intuitively," Dr Tylka said.
These women also show-ed higher levels of self-esteem, coping ability, optimism and ability to deal with stressful situations.
But she warned that following the strategy will not guarantee women a svelte-like figure.
"There are going to be a variety of body types. For most women their ideal body weight will hover around the range that doctors say is healthy. But some will be healthy at a higher weight and some will be healthy at a lower weight."
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