The Diet From Down Under

The pros and cons of a new Australian diet - and how it compares to popular U.S. diets.

By Heather Hatfield
WebMD Feature Reviewed By Louise Chang

South Beach and Atkins, move over. A new diet has emerged from Australia that will give these low-carb, high-protein plans a run for their money: The Total WellBeing Diet.

The diet was developed by the Australian government in response to an obesity epidemic that rivals that of the U.S. It claims to balance a well-rounded diet with a high level of protein, and even a dash of exercise. But is it really different from the popular U.S. diets?

One of the authors of the Total WellBeing Diet gives WebMD an inside look at what it is and why it was created, while experts in the U.S. look at its nutritional value and stack it up against Atkins and South Beach.

"The diet originated as a result of many public inquiries, as well as inquiries from the medical and health professional community wanting to know about the validity of some of the popular diets," says Manny Noakes, PhD. Noakes is leader of the research team that developed the Total WellBeing Diet at the Commonwealth Scientific Research Organization (CSIRO) in Australia.

"As there was little research in the area at the time," says Noakes, "we embarked on a body of research to establish the most effective and healthy ways to lose weight."

A Growing Continent

It's no surprise that the Australian government took action. The rate of overweight and obese adults in Australia has almost doubled over the last 20 years, making the country one of the heaviest developed nations, according to the Australian Department of Health and Aging.

Funded by organizations including Meat and Livestock Australia, CSIRO conducted studies to determine whether weight loss diets higher in protein were at least as good, if not better, than high-carbohydrate diets when it came to fat loss and muscle preservation, according to the CSIRO web site.

Researchers found that women lost more weight and twice the amount of body fat on a higher-protein, low-fat plan than women on a high-carbohydrate, low-fat plan, and as a result reduced the risk factors relating to heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Thus the Total WellBeing Diet was born.

The Meal Plan

"It is essentially a nutritionally balanced diet with a higher level of lean protein to prevent hunger," says Noakes. "Most of the protein is derived from lean meat, fish, and low-fat dairy foods. The diet also contains adequate fiber from whole grains, fruit and vegetables."

Noakes tells WebMD that the Total WellBeing Diet is a lifelong lifestyle change. A best-selling book called The Total WellBeing Diet provides a sample menu for 12 weeks, with meals such as these:

Breakfast

  • 3/4 cup of high-fiber breakfast cereal with 250 milliliters low-fat milk
  • 1 serving of fresh fruit
Lunch
  • Egg-and-salad sandwich on two slices of whole-grain bread with two boiled eggs, lettuce and spring onions
  • 1 banana
Dinner
  • Coat a 200-gram chicken breast fillet in Moroccan spices, fry in 2 teaspoons of canola oil
  • Serve with 11/2 cups of steamed sweet corn, broccoli, and pumpkin While the menu looks appetizing, how does the plan compare to Atkins and South Beach?

Other than the telltale sign of carbohydrates, one of the biggest differences is exercise.

Total WellBeing vs. Atkins and South Beach

"Exercise is essential to any weight loss program," says Noakes. "The book provides extensive information on the role of exercise as part of the Total WellBeing Diet."

While Atkins and South Beach don't emphasize physical activity as part of the plans -- an attractive feature to some dieters who aren't motivated to move -- the Total WellBeing Diet promotes exercise as one of its cornerstones.

"The authors of the Total WellBeing Diet put a fairly good emphasis on physical activity, which we didn't hear as much about with Atkins or South Beach," says Susan Moores, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "The recommendations were doable for people and its clear they tried to make it a little more friendly to everyone, like recommending 10,000 steps a day."

Another key difference is that the Aussie diet throws a token amount of carbs into the plan.

The authors of the Total WellBeing Diet state on the CSIRO web site, "Unlike fad high-protein diets, the CSIRO plan is nutritionally balanced and contains a moderate amount of slow-release carbohydrates essential for energy and for keeping blood sugars even. You can follow the plan safely and adapt it as a way of eating for life."

So while the Atkins and South Beach diets often fall apart as people work carbohydrates back into their lives, the Total WellBeing diet might have a better chance of long-term success.

"This could have staying power," says Moores. "Whereas people get tired of these high-protein diets and not being able to have some of their favorite foods -- like bread, pasta, and potatoes -- this is moderate enough that someone would be more willing to hang with it longer. Unlike Atkins, it looks like there are some fruits, grains and vegetables; it's not as restrictive."

But while the Total WellBeing Diet looks like it might have a leg up on its U.S. rivals, Americans should know by now there is never an easy answer when it comes to weight loss.

The Drawbacks

"This is not a healthful diet," says Dean Ornish, MD, founder and president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in San Francisco. "As the authors write, 'Participants in the study ate 200g (raw weight) of lean red meat at evening meals and 100g (cooked weight) of chicken/fish at lunch. It is essential that you eat these items daily - these are compulsory foods.'"

This type of diet, Ornish tells WebMD, has just too much protein; it puts a strain on the kidneys and promotes health problems like osteoporosis and coronary heart disease, as well as cancers such as breast, prostate, and colon.

"It's important to lose weight in ways that promote health, not ones that may compromise it," says Ornish, who is a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California in San Francisco. "An optimal diet is low in fat, high in complex carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and soy products, along with some fish, and low in simple or refined carbohydrates, such as sugar, white flour, and white rice."

While Ornish does say that the Total WellBeing Diet is slightly better than Atkins and somewhat comparable to South Beach, which he reminds us was the diet President Clinton was on when he was diagnosed with severe coronary heart disease, he does add, "The research upon which it is based is meager and lasted only 12 weeks."

From Australia to the U.S.

Before Americans jump on the Total WellBeing Diet bandwagon, Ornish's call for more research and the words and wisdom of the American Dietetic Association shouldn't go unheeded: A balanced and well-rounded healthy diet combined with regular physical activity is always the best route for long-term success.

"Exercise is side by side with a healthy diet in terms of sustainable weight loss success," says Moores, reminding both Australians and Americans that there is no magic bullet when it comes to weight loss, whether it's from Total WellBeing, Atkins, or South Beach. "There's no getting around either one; that's the bottom line."

Published Oct. 17, 2005.


SOURCES: Susan Moores, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association, St. Paul, Minn. Manny Noakes, PhD, senior dietitian/research scientist, CSIRO Human Nutrition, Adelaide BC, Australia. Dean Ornish, MD, founder and president, Preventive Medicine Research Institute; clinical professor of medicine, University of California, San Francisco. CSIRO web site.

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