Television shows can play a major role in inspiring Australians to change their daily lives. Many of us now think we are a master chef in the kitchen, can take on any DIY project after watching an episode of The Block, or become a professional singer like the rising stars on The X Factor. However, some reality shows — namely The Biggest Loser and TBL Families — are a long way from reality when it comes to sustainable weight loss.
It is undeniable that The Biggest Loser (TBL) contestants show steadfast courage and determination to transform their bodies, and their habits, through diet and exercise. Are they inspiring? Absolutely. Is it achievable for the average Australian? No.
The program portrays contestants shedding an almost impossible amount of weight (often halving their size) over a period of only a few months. They live in an environment completely removed from real life, surrounded by trainers, doctors and dieticians. They are told what to eat, how often to eat, and how much to eat, but they aren't necessarily educated about the reasons behind these guidelines.
Most concerningly, the contestants are not rewarded for improving their overall health — they are only rewarded if they decrease their weight. To not lose enough weight is to fail. Is it any wonder that former contestants often regain part (or all) of the weight they have lost once they return to the real world?
For most people, diets don't work in the long term
When it comes to weight loss, it shouldn't come as a surprise that dieting has been proven to be ineffective by several independent studies. A 2011 study by the University of Melbourne into diet and weight loss found that dieting can actually cause weight regain and a greater obsession with food in the long term.
The study took 50 overweight men and 50 overweight women and put them on a 550 calorie diet for eight weeks. Over the next year, participants were given counselling to encourage healthy eating habits.
Though participants typically lost weight over the eight week diet, most regained a substantial amount of it over the next year and many reported feeling hungrier and more food obsessed than before.
But before you throw your hands up in the air in exasperation and reach for that bag of chips, don't fret - there is a smarter way to improve your health.
Weight loss needs to be part of a total life change
The problem with so many weight loss programs is that people aren't actually armed with the knowledge they need to change their lifestyle and stick to it in the long term. Empowerment is the key to making a lasting change.
We need to understand that weight loss management has to be part of a total life change that incorporates achieving life balance, psychological health and a positive self image. The real key to losing fat has less to do with calories, cardio or carb counting, and more to do with developing the right mindset for health. It's about taking the time to get your mindset straight by getting more of a balance in your life. The rest will come more easily.
To make this life change you need to uncover the reason why you really want to achieve your weight loss goal. Fitting into those jeans or getting a bikini body in time for summer are not real goals. A goal that will actually motivate you to change is one that is in line with your values.
For example, if you're a parent it's safe to assume that the wellbeing and happiness of your family means a lot to you. If you have a weight problem, it could be posing a serious threat to your health and your ability to be around to provide for your children. So an example of a goal might be to lose weight so that you can be more active in raising your children and ensuring their security.
Identify what is triggering harmful food habits
Once you have assessed your health goals, it's time to look at any harmful food habits and understand what is triggering them. So-called food addiction can often arise due to unresolved emotions, a deficit of pleasure in your life, or a lack of life balance.
Compulsive eating or bingeing is usually triggered when you are suffering from stress or are dealing with unresolved feelings. People often control negative emotions without actually dealing with them, which eventually wears thin. Many people then turn to binge eating as a coping mechanism.
Another driver of negative food behaviours is lacking pleasure in your life or a balance between work and play, which can be satisfied by food quite easily. Human beings are driven by pleasure, and if you life is fuelled by stress and responsibility, a quick chocolate fix at the end of the day can seemingly satisfy this drive.
Addictions and compulsions are a signal that there is something bigger going on beneath the surface. Become more aware of your behaviours and what is driving them, and try to take the mask off and be more open to experiencing your emotions.
Look for pleasure in your life. What is it that makes you happy and makes you come alive? Explore these pleasures, instead of replacing this with food. If you adopt this mindset, you will no longer look to food as your lone source of pleasure.
Nutrition works hand in hand with mindset
The problem with many diets and the approach on TBL Families, is that Australians aren't being taught about how the human body functions, and what it needs to thrive. Sound nutritional knowledge should start with a basic understanding of the nutrients that our bodies' cells need to operate optimally.
Cellular nutrition centres on eating what we call "clean foods". These are foods found in their most natural state and are free from additives and preservatives most often seen in packaged foods. Clean foods are usually lower in acidity (also known as "alkaline" foods), and have a lower pH level. For our bodies to function at an optimum level, our pH levels need to be balanced.
Ideally you should be consuming 80% alkaline foods and 20% acidic foods, although if you are just starting out, a 60/40 split is more realistic. Alkaline foods include green vegetables such as broccoli, avocados and salad greens, and quinoa, almonds and fresh herbs. Some of the highest acidic foods include dairy products, meat, eggs, fish, and carbohydrates such as potatoes and barley. You don't have to eliminate all acidic foods from your diet to establish a healthy pH level, but your diet should involve a higher ratio of alkaline foods.
So the next time you flick the TV on to TBL Families, take the contestants' results with a grain of salt. Remember that long-term health is much more achievable if you firstly develop the right mindset, align your health goals to your values, and follow a balanced diet that focuses on natural, non-processed foods.
Karina Francois is an Australian health educator and author of the book Clean Food, Clear Thinking.