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CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet Review

By Matt O'Neill, MSc(Nut&Diet), APD

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The CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet has been hotly debated in the media for its high red meat content since it was published in May 2005. More than six months later in January 2006 it was still topping the Dymocks Best Seller list. It seems the controversy is fuelling sales, but what are the facts about this diet for weight loss and health?

This CSIRO Total Wellbing Diet is described as a “protein-plus, low fat diet” that is carbohydrate limited rather than low-carbohydrate. The basic plan is relatively low in energy at about 5500 kJ per day. This diet contains 114g carbohydrate which higher than the low 20-60g in Atkins, but still less than half the 250-300g found in the average Australian diet. The diet has 40g fat, 102g protein and achieves the recommended daily fibre recommendation with 31g per day.

Below is a comparison of the CSIRO diet with existing healthy eating recommendations.

Macronutrient breakdown

%Fat, %Protein, %Carb, %Alcohol
General healthy eating - <30, 15, 50-55, <5
CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet - 26, 33, 36, 3

Daily serves of food groups

Breads/Cereals, Vegetables, Fruit, Dairy, Meat/Alternatives
General healthy eating* - 5, 4-5, 2-3, 2, 1
CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet - 3, 4-5, 2, 2, 3

* Minimum serves to achieve reasonable vitamin and mineral intake.

Looking at the figures above, you can see the CSIRO diet swaps some carbohydrate from breads and cereals for meat to achieve the higher protein content. The 5500 kJ basic diet recommends at least 200g of lean red meat at dinner and 100g of other lean animal protein (fish, chicken or eggs) at lunch. You are also allowed three teaspoons of fat/oil per day.

For larger or more active individuals, an 8000 kJ diet adds another 100g meat at dinner, an extra serve each of fruit and dairy, plus some additional oils and a daily `indulgence' food.

Is it better than other weight loss diets?

To evaluate their diet, the CSIRO put 50 obese women on their Total Wellbeing Diet and another group of 50 obese women on a higher carbohydrate intake to compare diets for 12 weeks. Both diets provided 5600 kJ.

The CSIRO diet performed better than the conventional diet for some women and not others. At the end of 12 weeks, women with higher triglycerides lost more weight and more body fat around the abdomen than women with normal blood fat levels. Women with normal triglyceride levels lost the same amount of weight on both diets.

This indicates that while the CSIRO's plan may not deliver better results than a regular weight loss diet for healthy people, it may offer at least short term advantages for women who have heart disease risk factors.

People who have found little success on diets high in carbohydrates or those who consume little protein could be expected to experience better results by eating more protein. Conversly, some people may not be aware that they are already eating a relatively high protein diet, so they would be expected to benefit less.

Will it keep the weight off?

In another CSIRO study, researchers compared 22 obese subjects on their diet with another 21 subjects on a higher carbohydrate diet for 68 weeks to evaluate longer term success. Both diets contained the same total energy.

All participants had fortnightly appointments with a dietitian to monitor their diets during the first 16 weeks. No further dietary advice was given for the next year except the instruction to continue following the diet. Follow-up measurements for weight, body composition and dietary adherence were taken very 3 months.

At 16 weeks, weight and fat loss was the same (around 8.5kg), irrespective of the diet composition. Without supervision for the next twelve months, subjects in both groups regained most of the lost weight.

Once again, the CSIRO diet was no better than an existing diet with both groups weighing around 3.5% less than when they started.

Of perhaps greater interest in this study was how diet composition changed without supervision. During the diet restriction phase the higher protein group reported eating 29% energy from protein. At three months without supervision their protein intake slipped back to 21%. At three months the high-carbohydrate group's protein intake crept up from 16 to 18%, finishing at 20.5% at 12 months. The higher protein group was essentially the same at 12 months -- 21.5%.

This means that although subjects in the two groups in this study may report that they were on different diets, they were eating essentially the same diet in terms of macronutrient composition (ie. percentage fats, carbs and protein).

This lack of dietary adherence makes it impossible to say whether the CSIRO is more effective in the long term. It also makes you wonder how many people who say they are on the Total Wellbeing Diet, actually are, or have modified it to suit themselves over time.

Is it healthy?

The CSIRO diet includes recommended quantities of vegetables, fruit and dairy foods demonstrating that it can meet minimum daily targets for fibre, vitamins and minerals.

The big question mark hovers over the relatively large red meat content - up to 300g a day on the higher energy levels - for which there is at least some evidence of increased risk of bowel cancer.

The challenge is to weigh any risks against potential benefits on an individual basis. For an obese person who finds they can follow the CSIRO diet better than other diets, it may be on balance healthier for that person. For example, a post on an internet forum by someone on the diet: “If there is a small increased risk of bowel cancer from the red meat (and I say, if) it is a risk I accept as I know it has decreased my blood pressure, improved my energy level and my cholesterol level.”

But is the diet healthier for a young, fit individual in the normal weight range? It's here that sticking to the established healthy guidelines are likely to deliver a healthier diet.

Even so, if you are looking for a reduction in body fat, the CSIRO diet in combination with good nutrition education and support can provide a structured starting point from which dietary improvements can be made. The greatest benefit from the CSIRO diet may be in getting people started, seeing results and then allowing them to moderate their red meat consumption to a level less than precsribed by the diet, but still able to provide benefits for appetite supression. The whole aim is to feel fuller on fewer calories.

Other considerations

  • Eating large quantities of animal protein is less ecologically sustainable than a diet high in plant foods.
  • Following a diet high in lean red meat may increase in your food dollar budget, depending on the savings you can make from eating less of other foods, especially high-energy snacks.
  • Although the CSIRO's research was funded in part by Meat and Livestock Australia, the results are valid. In these situations a lot of positive PR is generated for the sponsoring organisation's foods which can simply bias public perception in their favour.


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