Dramatic before and after pictures, promises to “lose 3x more weight” and motivational quizzes are fairly common sights around this time of year. But seeing them from a government-funded scientific research agency is a little more unusual.

From the outside, the CSIRO’s Total Wellbeing Diet website looks like many other weight loss programs. That, according to the program’s research scientist, Dr Gilly Hendrie, is by design.

“It’s a competitive market,” Hendrie says of the diet industry. But it is a competition the CSIRO is a serious contender in. Fifteen years ago, the CSIRO published its first Total Wellbeing Diet book, based on clinical trials conducted by the organisation. It has since sold more than one million copies. “Part of our mandate is to translate our research,” Hendrie explains. “The book helped … and in the past five years we’ve partnered with a Sydney-based digital health platform to increase the impact of our science.”

At its core, the Total Wellbeing Diet program features a high-protein, high-vegetable, low-glycemic-index nutritional plan – similar to the first book’s 15 years ago. When the diet was initially released, it received some criticism within the scientific community, particularly for being too heavily focused on meat consumption.

Subsequently, the digital program has made the diet more accessible for vegetarians. Though it does not offer a strictly vegetarian or vegan meal plan, participants are able to swap meals from a catalogue of 150 vegetarian recipes, or swap animal proteins for vegetarian equivalents such as tofu and pulses. In 2010, a paper in Public Health Nutrition found the diet book to be “a successful delivery mechanism for lifestyle advice”.

There have been other modifications to the diet, based on further research. “One change was the distribution of protein,” says Hendrie. “More recent research shows that if you distribute protein more evenly throughout the day, you’re more likely to feel fuller for longer and less likely to snack.” There is also a program for gut health, and the recipe catalogue is updated regularly to remain “trendy” – “as long as it’s evidence-based”.

Their latest initiative is a Start Strong Diet Quiz, which was developed by CSIRO behavioural scientists “to boost motivation, and … give people feedback based on their mindset”, says Hendrie. “We take being evidence-based pretty seriously … It’s difficult in a competitive market because we promote slow and steady [weight loss], and try and set people up for the longer term change in habit.”

A person undertaking the ‘Start Strong Diet Quiz’ from the CSIRO
A person undertaking the Start Strong Diet Quiz from the CSIRO. Photograph: CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet

After concluding the quiz, which is free of charge, participants are given tips on boosting their motivation, and some are directed towards the Total Wellbeing Diet program, a 12-week online course of meal and exercise plans, with recipes and tracking tools, that costs $199.

Those who successfully complete the program, including meeting criteria such as entering their weight regularly into the platform’s tracking system, are eligible to get the cost of the course refunded. “To pay up front and then get the money back is important,” says Hendrie. That choice was based on the behavioural research the program incorporates. “People don’t value things as much when we get them for free. What’s interesting is that not everybody applies for it … It’s just another thing which motivates some people.”

Dr Rachel Cohen, a clinical psychologist with the Black Dog institute, who researches social media and body image, says that the diet industry on the whole is rife with misinformation; so the evidence-based approach taken by the CSIRO “is definitely one of the way better ones out there”.

After doing their diet quiz, Cohen noted that the tool used language that is common in the diet industry, which she says has “become the norm in terms of how we talk about our bodies”. She explains that terms like “success” when it comes to an eating or exercise plan inherently imply “failure” – which can be discouraging – but adds, “I don’t want to criticise them. I think they are meeting the consumers where they are.”

Cohen says that public health campaigns that stigmatise weight are often unsuccessful, but says that when people are motivated by more general health concerns like “strength, endurance and improved mood”, the outcomes are much better. She is hopeful the quiz is taking people “on a journey, using other ways to motivate them”.

That was the case for Sasha Job, a 33-year-old Queensland resident, who started the Total Wellbeing Diet program in August 2020 after enviously eyeing a coworker’s “yummy, healthy-looking” lunch. “I work full-time and I’ve got young children. I’m just busy all the time and felt tired all the time, so the main motivator for me was to feel better,” she says.

Sasha Job, a 33 year old Queensland resident who has been doing the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet since August 2020
‘You’re encouraged to look at the other benefits,’ says Sasha Job, who has been doing Total Wellbeing Diet programs since August 2020. Photograph: Sasha Job

“I’d done quite a few fad diets, shakes, 5:2 fasting, programs like Lite and Easy. I just couldn’t stick to them. They were too expensive or I felt very deprived.” For her, the CSIRO’s program “was very different … there was no focus on calories, it was just about being very prepared to have a healthy balanced diet”.

A physiotherapist by trade, the evidence-based approach of the diet was important for Job, as were the educational elements. “I thought I was eating quite a lot of fruit and vegetables, but actually a serve is very much a lot of vegetables,” she says. “If I am travelling or going away to friends’ houses or dine out now, I can look at a menu and have a better understanding of what to choose and my nutritional targets.” She also says that the diet did not require more of a time commitment than her usual habits, but it did reframe her cooking, with more emphasis on meal prepping and planning.

After receiving her rebate for successfully completing the program (“I … bought myself a nice pair of new shoes”) she signed up for a second round. She has lost 12kg over the course of the diet to date, but says “I’ve seen a lot of other positives and … you’re encouraged to look at the other benefits”.

Alex Stewart, who undertook the diet 10 years ago, when it was just a book rather than a digital program, can’t remember whether or not she lost weight, but says “it was a way to learn how to cook a few things and learn how to be healthy”. At the time, she had recently graduated from university, and says “we didn’t know how to cook for ourselves … It definitely taught me. It gives you a really good base-understanding of how much pasta would be a regular serving … portioning is a good one we got from it.” Around the same time, Stewart tried a popular low-carb diet that was “more extreme … a quick fix”, she found the CSIRO’s holistic approach worked better, “if I’m comparing … it was far less evil”.

But, if the diet really is about “total wellbeing” – why the particular focus on weight loss? “The initial dietary plan was designed and tested for weight loss,” says Hendrie. “We allow people to join who are in the healthy weight range, but once you get to the bottom of that you’re no longer allowed to be a member.”

Cohen says that “in the future” she’d love to see “messages out there about sustainable long-term health, without any weight-based incentive or language”. This is something Hendrie says the CSIRO is already exploring. “In our research side of things, we’re absolutely interested and working on general healthy eating, but as you know, the research process takes a while to test and develop things.” Hendrie also points out that, since 67% of Australians are overweight or obese, “they could benefit” from the current program.

For Cohen, an ideal diet discourse would be built around “body neutrality”, where health outcomes are prioritised over appearance or a specific number on a scale. She believes the tide is turning and says “I really think we can get there”, though “maybe not in our lifetime”. But, for the time being, science-based programs that nudge people towards long-term, positive outcomes are far better than the alternative diet options. “If you can’t beat them, join them, but for the good, I’m hoping.”

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