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Weight loss: what really works?

Good Health
Sunday, May 9, 2010
Image: Getty
Brought to you by Good Health magazine Fed up with conflicting messages about what does (and doesn't) work for weight loss? We hear you, and it's why Karen Fittall went in search of answers.

When you're trying to lose weight, should you count fat or kilojoules? Is what you eat more important than how much you exercise? Will weighing yourself regularly help or hinder your efforts? And what's your motivation got to do with anything?

There's no question that what works best for weight loss is a hotly contested topic, which can make it mighty confusing. But it also means a lot of research has been done to sort fact from fiction, not to mention weeding out the plain 'mad ideas' (cabbage soup diet anyone?). We investigate a few of the conflicting methods to uncover what actually works.

Which is better — exercise or diet?

Research from the University of Minnesota has shown that men can lose weight through exercise alone. Unfortunately, this did not appear to be the case with the women in the study.

In fact, even when the women substantially increased the amount of exercise they did, if their food intake wasn't reduced or modified at the same time, the scales didn't shift. But don't put your gym gear into retirement just yet…

The answer is: to use exercise and diet to lose weight, rather than relying solely on one or the other. Apart from the potential weight-loss benefits of exercise, countless studies have shown that it has other health spin-offs you don't want to ditch. What the researchers still don't know is whether exercise aids weight loss in women because it influences metabolism or because it reduces stress, making women more motivated to stick to a healthy diet.

Which is better — counting fat or counting kilojoules?

Low-fat anything is like a magnet when you're trying to lose weight, but it pays to beware. "We've been conditioned to think of fat as bad and as being the main contributor to whether or not a person is overweight," says accredited practising dietitian from Food & Nutrition Australia Sharon Natoli. "So as soon as we see 'fat-free' we think that food is healthy for us and it's not always the case. Many processed, low-fat foods have a high sugar content to make up for the taste loss that the reduction in fat can create, so are still high in kilojoules. And, at the end of the day, it's kilojoules that count the most when it comes to weight loss."

That fact was confirmed last year when the results of a long-term study were released, showing an overall reduction in kilojoules leads to weight loss, regardless of carbohydrate, protein or fat content.

The answer is: adopting a two-pronged approach — keep an eye on kilojoules, and rather than choosing any 'low-fat' food, look for foods that are low in saturated fat instead. "People tend to think that all fat is bad, but daily we should be eating about 30g of polyunsaturated and mono-unsaturated fats — the 'good' fats," says Natoli. "Apart from anything else, fat helps with satiety, which can help people manage their total food intake."

For the complete story, see the June 2010 issue of Good Health.

Related link: Interview with Good Health editor Catherine Marshall

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