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The CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet Under the Spotlight

Reviewed by Dietitian, Lyndel Costain BSc RD

Any diet book that knocks Harry Potter and the Da Vinci Code off the top of the bestseller list has to be worth finding out more about.

Described as ‘the new scientifically proven diet for Australians’, the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet, complete with 12 weeks of menu plans, has gone down a storm in Oz, and is finding its way on to bookshelves here. Being Australian I was delighted when Pat asked me to write this review. In fact I have not long returned from a visit to my homeland and of course, couldn’t resist buying a copy while I was there.

The CSIRO is the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and is Australia’s national science agency. Nutritionists and dietitians from its Health Science and Nutrition department have been involved in researching weight loss diets and publishing their findings for many years, and this diet book has developed from that work. Their aim was to find a dietary approach that not only helped people lose weight, but best helped their health and wellbeing, and optimised their chances of keeping the weight off.

The book claims that ‘exciting research from the CSIRO provides the facts about a new, scientifically proven weight-loss program that challenges old conventions and theories, and offers promise to the weight-loss weary with an eating plan that actually works’. But does it?

What’s the theory?

The Total Wellbeing Diet is described as a higher protein/moderate carbohydrate/low fat eating plan. Compared to a more conventional healthy eating or weight loss plan it recommends more protein and smaller amounts of carbohydrate (preferably low GI types such as whole grains, pulses and fruit).

Their rationale behind having a higher protein content is threefold:

  • Protein-rich foods such as lean meat, chicken, fish, eggs and dairy foods provide you with many important nutrients including protein, iron, zinc, omega-3 fats and B vitamins
  • Protein-rich foods help you stay satisfied for longer and help keep hunger pangs at bay
  • Protein-rich foods (choose lean meat, skinless chicken and low fat dairy foods) help to control your blood fats such as triglycerides and LDL (bad) cholesterol. High levels of either are linked to increased risk of coronary heart disease.

The diet is carefully calorie and portion controlled, and is not suggesting that you lose weight for any other reason than a calorie reduction. However based on the CSIRO’s research, it does suggest that the higher protein content means the diet may be heart healthier and potentially easier to follow for longer (compared to the high carbohydrate, low fat diet they compared it to). It may also help women (but not men) with a high level of triglycerides in their blood, lose more body fat from around their middle (excess weight here puts you more at risk of developing type 2 diabetes or heart health problems). So it may suit some better than others.

What does the Wellbeing diet involve?

There are 4 different calorie levels to the diet, and you are advised on how to assess your best calorie level to help you lose 0.5-1.0kg (1-2lb) per week.

The basic diet is made up of the following foods each day:

  • High fibre cereal: 40g/1.5oz
  • Low fat milk: 250ml
  • Wholegrain bread: 2 slices
  • Fruit: 2 pieces
  • Lean chicken/fish/eggs/other meat for lunch: 100g/4oz
  • Lean beef or lamb for dinner: 200g/8oz
  • Vegetables: 2.5 cups daily
  • Low fat yogurt: 200g daily
  • Rapeseed oil: 3 teaspoons daily
  • Wine: 2 glasses weekly (optional)

To add variety, these basic foods each have a list of equivalent alternative ‘units’ to choose from e.g. 1 slice of wholegrain bread = 1 unit = 2 crispbread or half a cup cooked pasta.

You are encouraged to track your progress with a checklist and tick off your food items or units as you eat them over the day. The main thing you will notice about this meal plan is that it contains a lot of meat, and certainly more than most healthy eating plans would recommend – more about that later!

Recipes and 12 weeks of meal plans are provided to put the diet into practice, along with advice about assessing your weight and health, eating out, low fat cooking, healthy eating advice, regular exercise (at least 30 minutes a day, for example, brisk walking, is advised) and choosing low GI foods.

Once you have reached your goal weight you are advised to increase your calorie intake by around 120 calories at a time (ideas including ice cream, whole grain bread, meat, baked beans or wine are provided) until your weight stabilises.

How much weight can I expect to lose?

You can choose a calorie level that will help you to lose around 0.5kg (1lb) or 1kg (2lb) a week, which is a healthy rate of weight loss. In the 12-week studies used as the basis of developing this diet book, people lost 8-9kg on average.

What do the experts say?

This diet is just coming to light in the UK but there have been rumblings in Australia – where some experts have described it as ‘a bit of science with a lot of hype’ with ‘nothing new and wonderful about it’. This is largely because in the featured study of 100 women, which compared the wellbeing diet with a high carbohydrate diet low fat (calorie level was the same for each diet), both groups lost the same amount of weight over 12-weeks. They also had similar improvements in things like blood glucose, blood insulin and bad ‘LDL’ cholesterol.

The main nutritional concern is over the large amount of red meat advocated in the diet. Some research suggests a link with high red meat intakes and increased risk of bowel cancer. Then there’s the fact that a lot of the research has been funded by Dairy Australia and Meat and Livestock Australia. However, the researchers make it clear that these organisations had no influence on the research itself.

What are the pros?

  • Qualified nutritionists and dietitians rather than a celebrity have developed it!
  • The diet is nutritious and includes food from all the main food groups.
  • While lower in carbohydrate than a standard healthy eating diet (carbs provide 36% versus 50% of calories) it is not extreme and still includes 3 servings of wholegrains, milk and dairy foods and at least 5+ portions a day fruit and veg each day.
  • It is a very clear and structured programme and calorie-controlled so you know will lose weight if you follow it.
  • It may offer greater benefits for women with more weight around their middle and higher levels of blood triglycerides.
  • In the scientific study, a smaller number of women dropped out of the wellbeing diet group suggesting it might be easier to follow, at least over 3 months.

What are the cons?

  • Not good news for vegetarians! It does mean eating a lot of meat – although you could swap it for chicken, fish, beans or tofu more often if you really wanted to. In terms of bowel cancer concerns, in July’s news roundup I reported on the EPIC cancer study which found that bowel cancer was a third higher for people who regularly ate at least 160g/5.7oz of red and processed meats. This diet recommends 200g red meat daily, however it is lean, rather than the fatty processed variety, which may be of more concern. The Department of Health also suggests keeping below an average of 140g red or processed meat daily. Then there are cost and environment considerations - meat is expensive. And if a lot of the population was to eat this much meat could farming sustain it?
  • I would like to see one or two more servings of wholegrains (balanced with a bit less meat) – but you can add in more during the maintenance phase.
  • You will need to go back to basics and prepare most of your meals (but this is also a pro!).
  • The high carb, low fat diet used in the study was more extreme than that usually. recommended for a balanced low fat weight loss diet. For example, it was lower in meat, fish or chicken, and higher in carbohydrates (carbs provided 63% of calories).
  • There is little information about helping people maintain self-belief and motivation and address barriers such as comfort eating, coping with lapses, cravings and body image.
  • It hasn’t been tested in the longer term – to see how healthy it is, or if it really is easier for people to follow.

Lyndel’s verdict

This is a structured, calorie-controlled diet that includes foods from all the main food groups, and comes with plenty of meal plans and recipes ideas. So from that point of view it is hard to criticise. There is some evidence that a higher protein intake may help people feel fuller for longer, and may have more beneficial effects on blood fats such as triglycerides. And it is healthy to include protein-rich foods in your daily meals (see August’s news roundup). But more research is needed into this diet approach. There is no magic here. It helps people lose weight because it is calorie-controlled. It is also a bit different with its high level of meat. And the CSIRO backing helps people believe in it, which in turn can boost motivation to follow it.

If you think it would suit you then by all means give it a try. You could use WLR tools to keep a track on your daily progress. But remember that we still don’t know how effective it might be in the long term. And studies show that as long as the diet is basically low fat and healthy, factors more important for long term success are: people’s ongoing personal motivation to watch their weight; eating breakfast; keeping a weekly check on weight; being able to cope with lapses; being more active; and having an even eating pattern throughout the week.

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