Australia's scientists serve up diet book that tops bestseller list

· 'Scientifically proven' plan to be published in UK
· Weight-loss programme challenges Atkins claims

A respected Australian science institute is to publish a book in the UK which it believes could top the bestseller lists and lend scientific credibility to the business of losing weight.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has devised what it claims could be the perfect diet. Its Total Wellbeing Diet has already knocked the latest Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code off the top of bestseller lists in Australia, selling 100,000 copies a month in a country where obesity is as serious a problem as it is here.

The book claims to offer a "scientifically proven" weight-loss programme "that challenges old conventions and theories". It evolved out of research by the organisation into the claims and counter-claims of popular diet gurus - particularly those generated by the high-protein, low carbohydrate Atkins diet.

CSIRO's clinical research institute in Adelaide is known for its work on the nutritional and genetic factors underlying obesity, heart disease, bowel cancer and diabetes. When high-protein diets started to become popular, and amid concern that those who ate substantial amounts of meat and cheese and avoided roughage might suffer ill effects in the long term, a number of dieticians asked CSIRO for its opinion.

After discussion between Peter Clifton, CSIRO's director, and senior research dietician Manny Noakes, the organisation decided to devise proper clinical trials to test the effect on health and weight of diets consisting of different ratios of carbohydrate, protein and fat.

It recruited 120 obese or overweight women and split them between two diets - high protein and low fat or high carbohydrate and low fat - for 12 weeks. It found the high-protein diet was much more successful. The women on it lost 25% more weight than those on the high-carbohydrate diet and found it easier to stick to because they felt full more quickly.

A lot of the weight loss was in the abdominal area, which the researchers considered crucial. Women with large amounts of fat around the middle often have high blood pressure, high glucose levels and high blood fats (triglycerides). The high-protein diet brought down triglyceride levels and, therefore, the risk of heart attack or stroke.

CSIRO says the diet was "so popular" it decided to publish it as a book and got the publisher Penguin involved. It was a radical move for a highly respected scientific institution, said one observer, "a bit like the Royal Society producing a bestseller".

The diet plan is high protein, moderate carbohydrate and low fat. Dinner is 200g of lean red meat (beef, veal or lamb) at least four times a week, fish twice a week and chicken with the fat trimmed off or other meat on the remaining days. Lunch every day is 100g of ham, fish or other high-protein source. But there are moderate amounts of carbohydrate as well - two slices of wholegrain bread and one serving of high-fibre cereal a day - and two servings of low-fat dairy foods. Vegetables and fruit are plentiful and two glasses of wine a week are permitted.

It may be high protein, but it is definitely not Atkins, said Dr Clifton. "The Total Wellbeing Diet is a high-protein, low-fat, moderate-carbohydrate diet. It is very different to the Atkins diet, which is very low in carbohydrate and very high in fat and may elevate cholesterol, especially if little weight is lost. The Total Wellbeing Diet contains abundant fruit and vegetables and plasma folate levels are well maintained," he said.

Toni Steer, a nutritionist at the Medical Research Council's human nutrition unit in Cambridge, said CSIRO's approach interested scientists. "Protein is very satiating - it makes you feel full very quickly. People are investigating increasing protein moderately rather than excessively."

Dr Steer said she wanted to see more research on whether people stuck to the eating plan in the long term. "We would be looking for studies involving hundreds or thousands of people over two, three or four years, showing over that long period of time not only [they are] losing weight but maintaining the weight loss and that they reduce their risk of disease," she said.

Heavyweight theories

CSIRO diet

Breakfast: one cup high fibre cereal with 250ml low fat milk. one slice raisin toast plus tsp low fat margarine. one piece fresh fruit

Lunch: Thai beef salad. one slice wholegrain bread. one piece fresh fruit

Dinner: 200g piece of fish fried in 2tsp olive oil with garlic and ginger plus two cups peas, carrots and cauliflower. Low fat custard with stewed rhubarb

The F-Plan diet

Breakfast: 6tbsp branflakes with three dried apricots, one banana and skimmed milk

Mid morning: one apple

Lunch: two slices wholemeal bread filled with 2tsp reduced-calorie mayonnaise, skinless chicken breast and one tomato. Plus one small pot fat-free fruit yoghurt and one orange

Mid afternoon: Bowl of strawberries

Dinner: one medium-sized jacket potato with one small can baked beans, 2tbsp grated reduced-fat Cheddar cheese and salad

Atkins diet

Breakfast: two poached eggs served with fried tomatoes, two strips of bacon

Lunch: grilled turkey burger with cheese and salsa, coleslaw

Dinner: Cajun style pork chops with sauteed kale with red pepper dressing and Atkins brand "cornbread" (a product containing no cornmeal)

Snack: pumpkin seeds


Sarah Boseley, health editor

The GuardianTramp

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