Overweight and obesity rates in Australia have increased from 18.7 per cent to 27.5 per cent, between 1995 and 2012, according to the Australian Health Survey, with many people turning to fad diets as a solution.

In fact research by IBISWorld estimates that Australians’ spend on weight loss counselling will reach almost $386 million in 2018-2019, with spending on weight loss products at almost $328 million. Despite this, our waistlines continue to increase? So where are we going wrong?

Concerned about weight

It is not from lack of trying. A 2016 health survey of more than 3000 Australian women, conducted by Jean Hailes for women’s health, found that almost one in four women reported weight management as their top health concern, ahead of cancer, mental health, menopause and chronic pain.

Almost half surveyed wanted more information on nutrition, healthy eating and weight management.

The latest Australian National Health Survey found that 2.3 million Aussies over the age of 15 were on a diet, with more than two thirds of them on a diet to lose weight.  Women were also more likely to be dieting than men.

Diets are not the answer

The main problem is that while ‘diets’ don’t work, lifestyle changes do. Most diets are too restrictive which makes them unsustainable in the long term.

In many cases research does not back up the need for such restriction. In fact a large study  published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, comparing four different diets from Atkins (very low carb) to Ornish (vegetarian, low fat high carb), found that weight loss was similar on all four diets. What predicted success was reducing energy (kilojoule) intake and being able to stick to the diet. So unless the diet is something you can see yourself doing long-term, it is unlikely to give you long-term success.

If not dieting, then what?

The key is to find an eating plan you can adopt for the long term. One which is good for your health.  And while different types of eating plans will work for different people, there are some key habits that will help anyone who wants to lose weight and keep it off for good.

Losing weight – the habits that count
  • Eat mostly nutrient-dense, minimally processed wholefoods.  This means building your meals and snacks around vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds and lean protein foods.
  • Limit discretionary foods. These are foods (and drinks) we choose to eat for pleasure that do not provide much nutritional value and tend to be high in energy, such as chips, confectionary and soft drinks. You do not need to cut them out if they are things you enjoy, but you do need to keep these to a minimum when trying to lose weight and still meet your nutritional needs. Of course everyone will be different in terms of how many ‘extras’ they can fit in and still lose weight and this largely depends on how active you are.
  • Let your appetite guide you. Recognise when you are hungry and when you are satisfied and aim only to eat when you are hungry (but not starving or you will overeat) and to stop when you are satisfied (and not over-full). Many of us have lost touch with our appetites.  We tend to eat for all sorts of reasons other than hunger, including boredom, stress or just because the food is there or someone around us is eating.  Eating when you are not physically hungry will always be a barrier to weight loss success.
  • Work on your eating habits. Sitting at the table to eat (and not on the run, in the car, or in front of the TV or computer) and eating slowly can make a real difference to how much you eat and how satisfying your meal is.
  • Move more.  If you are not currently exercising then start small (even if it is only five to 10 minutes per day) and gradually increase the duration and intensity over time.  Aim to reach for an hour of moderate-intensity exercise most days, unless you are particularly active in your day. This is the amount of exercise that research suggests most of us need to lose weight and keep it off. Also try to avoid sitting for long periods.
  • Improve sleep. Poor sleep may also contribute to weight gain. Lack of sleep worsens insulin sensitivity, leads to hormonal changes which influence weight and can also affect levels of satiety hormones which in turn influence hunger and appetite. Being tired also makes it harder to get enthusiastic about exercising and eating well!
  • Reduce stress. Like poor sleep, stress can worsen insulin resistance and lead to weight gain. It can also contribute to emotional eating. Taking steps to reduce your stress levels and finding ways to manage stress, including scheduling time for rest and relaxation should be an important part of your health plan.
Putting it all together

Unfortunately there are no quick fixes, so forget the latest fad.  Instead, make healthy food choices, watch portion sizes, listen to your appetite, move more and get enough sleep. It won’t make front page news or a bestseller, but it works!

Look for eating plans that:

  • Align with generally accepted healthy eating guidelines
  • Can be adapted to your own lifestyle
  • You could follow in the long-term, not just for a few weeks
  • Are aimed at achieving optimal health and not just weight loss
  • Come from a professional with recognised nutrition qualifications
  • Are backed by reputable scientific evidence
  • Recommend combining dietary changes with regular physical activity

Avoid diets that:

  • Promise rapid weight loss
  • Restrict entire food groups
  • Focus on short-term changes to your eating habits
  • Encourage miracle pills, potions or supplements
  • Make claims based on testimonials rather than published scientific evidence
  • Say exercise is unnecessary or advise against exercise (usually due to a very low energy intake)
Resources and further information

Need more help?  Consider seeking advice from an Accredited Practising Dietitian who can help you develop an eating plan suited to your needs while taking into account any other health problems you may have. To find your local APD call the Dietitians Association of Australia on 1800 812 942 or search at https://daa.asn.au/find-an-apd/