01 Feb, 2012 Last updated: 30 Mar, 2015

By Julie Woods, Dietitian and Manager of VicHealth's Nutrition program

Opinion first published in the Herald Sun, 1 February 2012.

When the Biggest Loser first aired on Australian television in 2006, dietitians were curious about whether it would be sheer entertainment or go further to educate audiences about good nutrition and regular exercise for weight loss.

Six years on, with the addition of Excess Baggage this week, we are yet to see solid evidence that these types of programs are anything more than high-rating reality TV. 

While Australia isn’t the world’s heaviest country (yet), we weigh in at number one on the list of Western countries with the fastest growing rate of obesity. And this trend is happening within the Victorian community as well. 

Victorian Department of Health figures released on Monday show that while the number of overweight Victorians has remained steady over the past few years, there has been an increase in people who are obese. 

We can’t say for sure whether these programs don’t touch some people in a positive way. Personally, I have friends who do their own Biggest Loser when the show is on air. But, there’s still no evidence that most viewers pick up on the messages and make ongoing lifestyle changes. 

I’m not saying that these shows aren’t helpful for getting issues with obesity on the public radar, it’s just that these principles don’t work in the real world. 

Let’s face it, most of us don’t have a personal on-call nutritionist, buff celebrity personal trainers and a clear schedule to focus solely on shifting the kilos. It would be great if we did, but actually, weight loss in a ‘fries-with-that?’ society is harder. 

Unlike the contestants, in real life we still need to fit in work, family and a million other responsibilities. Not to mention constant bombardment with manipulative junk food ads and temptation wherever we look. 

And unfortunately, we know that money can be a factor as well. Research shows that fast food outlets cluster in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Why? Because most people think a fatty burger, fries and a sugary soft drink is cheaper than the fresh and healthy alternative (it’s not, by the way). 

We also have to remember that the contestants lose a massive amount of weight in a very short time, which sets an unrealistic benchmark for people trying to trim down at home. In fact, it could be counterproductive and even disheartening when the kilos don’t shift as quickly. In the real world, it takes time, patience and self-awareness that there might be hiccups along the way. 

There are also studies that show most of us actually underestimate our weight. So when we look at people on TV, we may not consider ourselves ‘one of them’ or acknowledge that we even have a weight problem. 

On the plus side, it’s good to see a psychological component included in Excess Baggage, because it is important to deal with the underlying reasons and behaviours that lead to weight gain. 

Psychology, particularly cognitive behavioural therapy, can be very effective to encourage positive behaviours and thinking patterns so that we set ourselves up to win. So that the healthy choice is the easy one. Like having a fridge stocked with fruit and vegetables or keeping walking shoes by the door as a reminder. Or the realisation that healthy meals are easy to prepare. 

A lot of people who struggle with their weight are familiar with negative self talk – that is, thinking things like “I’m hopeless” or “I’ll never be thin” and this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Taking a holistic approach can help to counter those unhelpful thoughts. 

It’s also important to get support to deal with urges and cravings and learn strategies to overcome those situations where we are tempted by high calorie foods, like when we eat out or go to a party. 

Dietitians are a fantastic, and often underutilised resource in our community. They can help you set realistic targets, develop achievable goals, change habits and overcome obstacles. 

A lot of Victorians need to lose weight for their health and unfortunately, they can’t do it in the same way that it’s portrayed on TV. There’s no quick fix. Instead, they need to take a realistic approach that involves healthy eating (not crash dieting!), finding opportunities to get moving more often and discovering what works for them.

- Julie Woods