Stay slim strategies

A huge US survey by our sister organisation reveals six diet and exercise secrets of the slim.
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01 .Introduction

Stay slim

Although the majority of Australians and Americans are overweight or obese by middle age, an enviable minority stay slim. Are they just genetically gifted? Or do they have to work at keeping their weight down? To find out, Consumer Reports, the magazine of our US sister organisation, Consumers Union, asked its subscribers about their lifetime weight history and eating, dieting, and exercising habits. Their responses and feedback are every bit as relevant to Australian as to US consumers. In summary, it found:

  • There are six vital stay-slim strategies that correlate most strongly with having a healthy body mass index (BMI).
  • ”Naturally” slim people don’t rest on their laurels; their eating and exercise habits are very similar to those of people who’ve successfully lost and kept off weight.

About the survey

A total of 21,632 Consumer Reports' readers completed a 2007 survey. They were separated into three main categories:

  • Always-slim are people who’ve never been overweight (16% of the sample).
  • Successful losers are people who, at the time of the survey, weighed at least 10% less than they did at their heaviest, and have kept the weight off for at least three years (15% of the sample).
  • Failed dieters are people who said they’d like to slim down, yet still weighed at or near their lifetime high (42% of the sample).

The remaining 27% of respondents (such as people who had lost weight more recently) didn’t fit into any of these categories.

Stay slim all by yourself

People who’ve never been overweight aren’t sitting in a recliner with a bowl of chips on their laps. In the group of “always-slim” respondents, just 3% said they never exercised and ate whatever they pleased. The habits of the vast majority of always-slim people are very much like those of people who’ve successfully lost weight and kept it off. Both groups:

  • eat healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains;
  • they also eschew excessive dietary fat,
  • practice portion control
  • exercise vigorously and regularly.

The only advantage the always-slim have over the successful dieters is that these habits seem to come a little more naturally. “When we compare people maintaining a weight loss with those who’ve always been a healthy weight, we find that both groups are working hard at it; the maintainers are just working a little harder,” says Suzanne Phelan, PhD, co-investigator of the US National Weight Control Registry, which tracks people who’ve successfully maintained their weight loss. For Consumer Reports’ successful losers, that meant exercising a little more and eating with a bit more restraint than an always-slim person, as well as using monitoring strategies such as weighing themselves or keeping a food diary.

Have realistic expectations

Sixty-six per cent of the survey respondents, all subscribers to Consumer Reports, were overweight as assessed by their BMI – similar to the US population as a whole. One-third of this group, or 22% of the overall sample, qualified as obese. Australia has similar levels of combined overweight and obesity at about 60%, with 20.8% of all adults qualifying as obese.

Although this may seem discouraging, the survey revealed that respondents did much better at losing weight than published clinical studies would predict. Though such studies deem success if participants are 5% lighter after a year, Consumer Reports’ successful losers had managed to shed an average of 16% – about 15kg – of their peak weight. They had an impressive average BMI of 25.7, meaning they were just barely overweight (see Are You Overweight?, below).

A key to success is keeping your expectations in check in order to avoid becoming discouraged and giving up. While 70% of respondents said they wanted to lose weight, Consumer Reports found that their goals were modest when asked how many kilos they hoped to take off. Most wanted to lose 15% or less of their overall body weight; 65% sought to lose between 1% and 10%.

Are you overweight?

  • Underweight: BMI <18.5
  • Healthy weight: BMI 18.5 to 24.9
  • Overweight: BMI 25 to 29
  • Obese: BMI 30+

To calculate your BMI, divide your weight (in kilograms) by your height (in metres) squared.


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Healthy food

Through statistical analyses, Consumer Reports identified 6 key behaviours that correlate most strongly with having a healthy body mass index (BMI). By following these strategies, you too can live quite literally like a slim person.

  1. Watch portions Of all the eating behaviours, carefully controlling portion size at each meal correlated most strongly with having a lower BMI. Successful losers – even those who were still overweight – were especially likely (62%) to report practicing portion control at least five days per week. So did 57% of the always-slim, but only 42% of failed dieters.
  2. Limit fat Specifically, this means restricting fat to less than one-third of your daily kilojoule intake. Fifty-three per cent of successful losers and 47% of the always-slim said they did this five or more days a week, compared with just 35% of failed dieters.
  3. Eat fruits and vegetables The more days that respondents ate five or more servings of fruits or vegetables, the lower their average BMI. Forty-nine per cent of successful losers and the always-slim said they ate that way at least five days a week, while just 38% of failed dieters did so.
  4. Choose whole grains over refined People with lower body weights opted for wholegrain breads, cereals and other grains over refined (white) grains more frequently than failed dieters.
  5. Eat at home As the number of days per week respondents ate restaurant or takeaway meals for dinner increased, so did their weight. Eating at home saves money, too – see Healthy Eating on a Budget.
  6. Regular vigorous exercise The type of exercise that increases heart rate for 30 minutes or longer was strongly linked to a lower BMI. Although only about one-quarter of respondents said they did strength training at least once a week, the practice was significantly more prevalent among successful losers (32%) and always-slim respondents (31%) than it was among failed dieters (23%).

All these strategies (except number 5) are highlighted in the Dietary Guidelines for Australian Adults, developed by the government’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). This shows that putting healthy eating advice into practice really pays off. 

More helpful tips

Embracing some or all of these six strategies may increase your weight-loss success. In addition, consider these tips:

  • Don’t get discouraged Studies show that prospective dieters often have unrealistic ideas about how much weight they can lose. A 10% loss might not sound like much, but it can significantly improve overall health and reduce risk of disease.
  • Ask for support from friends and family to help you stay on track – by not pestering you to eat foods you’re trying to avoid, for example, or not eating those foods in front of you. A minority of respondents overall reported that a spouse or family member interfered with their healthy eating efforts, but 31% of failed dieters reported some form of spousal sabotage in the month prior to the survey.
  • Get up and move While regular, vigorous exercise correlated most strongly with healthy body weight, the findings suggest any physical activity is helpful, including activities you might not even consider exercise. Housework, gardening and playing with the kids were modestly tied to lower weight. Hours spent sitting each day – at an office desk or at home watching TV – correlated with higher weight. The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2007-2008 National Health Survey found that 48% of people reportedly walked for exercise, 36% exercised at a moderate level and only 15% did vigorous exercise, so upping the ante in this area is likely to help.

Strategies that make little difference

  • Lowering your carbohydrate intake. Consumer Reports asked about this in its survey, and found that limiting carbohydrates was actually linked to higher BMIs. While this doesn’t necessarily mean low-carb plans such as the Atkins or South Beach diets don’t work, the findings suggest that cutting carbs alone, without exercise or portion control, may not yield great results.
  • Eating many small meals.
  • Not eating between meals.
  • Including lean protein with most meals.
Slow cooker

Healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables can be more expensive (serving for serving) than potato chips and chocolate bars. But that doesn’t mean you should resign yourself to getting fat if you’re on a budget. Here are 15 tips from CHOICE and Consumer Reports on putting together healthy meals for less.

  • Buy in season This improves your chances of getting the freshest produce, and you avoid paying for shipping. See our list of fruit in season.
  • Try supermarket generics Quality doesn’t always come at a price premium. Some supermarket brands – particularly home-brand staples such as sugar, salt and flour – are often just as good as pricier name brands.
  • Buy frozen produce Frozen fruits and vegetables – often frozen soon after picking – can be more nutritious than “fresh” items from your local supermarket, which may have sat on store shelves for a while. And by using the frozen variety, you don’t have to worry about it spoiling before it’s eaten - fruit and veggies make up the bulk of the $5.2 billion worth of food wasted by Australians every year.
  • Eat pulses such as beans, chickpeas and lentils. They’re inexpensive, versatile and a great source of protein and fibre. Add them to salads, soups, stews and pasta dishes to increase bulk. Canned pulses are the most convenient, but for maximum economy, buy dried.
  • Mix a big fruit salad Squeeze lemon juice over it to stop it going brown, then divide it into individual food-storage containers for breakfast, dessert or a snack each day. Making your own costs much less than buying deli- or store-made fruit salad.
  • Bake a potato With the right additions, it can make a satisfying meal. Add healthy or creative toppings such as cottage cheese, plain yoghurt, beans, low-fat cheese or salsa. Sweet potatoes can offer even more nutrients.
  • Avoid packaged drinks Dilute juice to cut down on kilojoules as well as cost. Don’t buy bottled water – drink tap instead. Invest in a reusable polyethylene (opaque plastic) water bottle to store it.
  • Buy in bulk Buy extra chicken, meat or fish when they’re on special and freeze what you don’t eat straight away. Buy large packages of snacks and re-bag. Buy fruit and veg with a longer shelf life (such as apples, oranges, potatoes and onions) in the large pre-packaged bags rather than a few at a time –but use unit pricing to compare value, as buying in bulk isn’t always the cheapest option.
  • Buy a whole chicken It’s more economical than buying separate breasts, thighs and wings, and you can get a nutrient-packed stock out of it, too. Freeze the pieces you don’t use in individual freezer bags.
  • Put meat and poultry on the side Keep meat and poultry to the recommended serving size of 65g-100g. Fill up your plate with whole grains and in-season or frozen vegetables.
  • Use your scraps Cook leftover meat and vegetables into a frittata, quiche or omelette; eggs are a great source of protein. Use bones, meat or vegetable scraps to make stock. Try our chicken stock recipe.
  • Grow your own veggies  This requires a little time, but can have nice payoffs (including exercise).
  • Know your supermarket Products that make the largest profit margin are usually at eye level in supermarket aisles, so check higher and lower shelves for better bargains. For more tips, see supermarket sales tricks.
  • Plan ahead Avoid impulse buying – make a weekly menu and shopping list and get everything you need in one trip.
  • Cook for the week One-pot meals such as casseroles, pot-roasts, soups and stews use cheaper cuts of meat, and you can divide into portions and take to work for lunch or freeze the remainder for later. Slow cookers are great for one-pot meals.
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