If you want to increase your chance of successfully losing weight and keeping it off, a study has found that there are three key behaviors you should adopt as permanent lifestyle habits.

Researchers followed the habits of 123 overweight, postmenopausal women who were already part of the larger Nutrition and Exercise for Women study. At the beginning of the study, the participants' average BMI was 31.3, which is overweight as defined by the National Institutes of Health. The women completed several self-administered questionnaires to assess their dietary intake, weight control strategies, self-monitoring behaviors, and eating patterns. They were also given a journal to record their food and beverage intake.

Women who consistently ate three meals a day lost nearly eight more pounds than those who reported skipping meals.

After one year, the participants lost, on average, 10.7 percent of their initial body weight. When the researchers studied the results of the questionnaires and the journals, three key behaviors stood out as supporting the goal of calorie restriction and weight loss: the use of a food journal; not skipping meals; and avoiding eating in restaurants.

Women who made the greatest use of the food journal lost approximately six more pounds than those who used the journal less frequently. While consistent use of a food journal is a challenging habit to adopt, even those who used one inconsistently saw greater results.

According to Anne McTiernan, MD, PhD, lead researcher, keeping a food journal is the best advice for calorie and weight control because it helps a person pay close attention to what they are eating. A food journal can be anything from an actual printed food journal to a notebook or notepad. For some, using an online program that can be accessed through a smart phone or tablet might be a better choice.

Skipping meals was also found to be detrimental to weight loss. Women who consistently ate three meals a day lost nearly eight more pounds than those who reported skipping meals. Why does skipping meals backfire? Energy metabolism may be negatively impacted by meal-skipping and result in greater calorie intake. Or, meal-skipping may be associated with other behaviors that adversely affect weight loss efforts. For example, not spending enough time or effort planning and preparing meals may lead to eating out more often or skipping meals.

The third behavior noted in the study that thwarted weight loss was eating out, and particularly eating out for lunch. Women who ate out for lunch even once a week lost about five fewer pounds than those who ate out less often. Eating out for any meal was associated with less weight loss, but eating out at lunch had the strongest association with fewer pounds lost. Eating out means giving up control over how food is prepared as well as portion sizes, according to the researchers. It can be a barrier to eating healthfully and mindfully.

If you think a food journal might be right for you, the study authors offered the following tips for keeping a journal:

  • Be honest. Record everything you eat.
  • Be accurate. Measure portions and read food labels.
  • Be complete. Include details about how the food was prepared and if you added any toppings or condiments
  • Be consistent. Always carry your journal with you or use a diet-tracking app on your smart phone.

The study was published online ahead of print by the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.