Look Behind the Headline

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Posted: 27/09/2018 Print

Look Behind the Headline

Is This True?

Have you seen the news today? “Low-calorie soups and shakes diets ‘recommended for obesity’”.  What is this information based on?

The Study

It was a study which looked at 278 people in Oxfordshire.

Half of the group:

  • followed the Cambridge Weight Plan programme for 8 weeks
  • had only 810kcal per day
  • and for the next 4 weeks, food was gradually introduced back (but the formula food products were recommended as one of their meals a day)
  • they were given a session with a trained counsellor every week for 12 weeks, and then monthly support for 3 months, to help keep the weight off and maintain their diet

The other half of the group:

  • were given the usual weight management advice and support from their GP

The study found that those on the replacement programme lost more weight in a year than those who were getting advice from their GPs. Is that surprising? Not really. Is it flawed? Yes, it is.

Are you Surprised?

Is it any wonder that the first group above, were able to lose weight? This group where they were given the low calorie, daily diet replacement shakes, received support and advice from professionals for a long period of time ie. for 7 months, with 4 months of that having weekly support sessions.

The participants were also allowed to return to the stage where they were only having the meal replacements for up to 4 weeks (an extra month). This programme was also free of charge, until week 24.

What assistance did the other (second) group get?

Nurses from their GP practice were asked to offer a programme for 12 weeks, at a frequency which is usual for the practice. This could be weekly, biweekly etc. Participants also received a 47-page booklet called ‘So you want to lose weight… for good’, which included information on goal setting, monitoring, feedback, advice on food groups, portion control, and physical activity.

This support is completely different from the one-to-one advice that the other (first) group received, to help them enable change. This second group was also not offered any National Health Service referrals during this study.

Who Funded This Study?

Funnily enough, I bet you wouldn’t be surprised if you heard that it was funded by Cambridge Weight Loss UK. 

Personally, I don’t think it’s the diet replacement that helped with the entire weight loss, but the contact and support from a professional. It would be interesting to see what would happen if they had another group working with dieticians and see what happens long term after the 12 months.

This kind of headline indicates that it’s the replacement meals which make the difference, not the support that they were provided with. It is misleading and leads us into a diet culture of restriction and deprivation. We should be promoting a lifestyle of physical activity, water, fruit and veg consumption and a healthy balance of protein, fats and carbohydrates.

The other issue is the accessibility and availability for all individuals to have the opportunity to speak to a health care professional who can direct and guide them into making informed choices. We know that if someone is struggling, handing them a large booklet isn’t always going to help, and may make them feel even more confused or lost.

Obesity isn’t just caused by one simple factor, there are a multitude of reasons behind it, which is why having a professional counsellor’s advice and input could have made such a difference in the second group.

In my opinion, it is irresponsible to post headlines like this, especially for those people who listen to this and try these replacement meals, without the support to make changes which are sustainable and for life. Often, the weight just comes back on, and guilt and the feeling of failure usually follows.

We should be trying to positively help and give the opportunity to those who want to make changes, so that they don’t get caught up in a cycle of guilt.

Always look behind the headline and what articles say. It’s usually not always black and white.

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Any information provided by us is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease. We always recommend referring your health queries to a qualified medical practitioner.

3 comments on this post

Thank you so much for this! I run health & wellbeing courses with cooking demos to teach people how to make easy healthy food. I am dismayed that the professor in this study called a normal diet boring.
And I totally agree that intense support is what makes the difference.
Quick fixes don’t work longterm - give peole the tools to look after themselves and you have a longterm approach & solution.


Thank you so much for such a lovely comment. I completely agree with what you’ve said, such an important area and not a simple one that can be changed just by giving people low calorie shakes

Daisy Xxx


That’s as maybe, but I have lost 6kgs in 6 weeks using slim fast with regular exercise (cycling 4 x 10 miles per week and a 4 mile walk x 1) and am continuing to lose weight at approx 1kg per week. As a 49 year old clinically obese 6’1” tall man, I find this pretty impressive weight loss and not difficult to follow - WITH ZERO MEDICAL SUPPORT! You should perhaps, be alive to both sides of the arguement.....

Hi Kaiser,

Congratulations, it’s brilliant as well that you are taking up physical activity. I agree with the other side of the argument, however, for many people seeing something like this headline could give them the sense that this is the one 'silver bullet' that will work to tackle weight loss, not the whole concept of behavioural change including taking up physical activity and changing your food consumption after the shakes. For weight-loss to be sustainable there needs to be a long-term change in your lifestyle approach not just something that can be perceived as a quick fix, and with everything there are individual differences. In the supplementary paper for this study they found that people in the study had put on 1/3 of the weight they had lost by the end of the study. As I said there are individual differences and it’s amazing what you have achieved so far, but the conclusion which says about getting GPs to subscribe this diet to those who fall into the higher end for their weight isn’t quite right. It’s a whole lot more complex than just prescribing individuals with the option for these low-calorie replacement meals, especially as there are many factors that impact weight. Not just one single cause. Also, those who would receive this theoretically if it was to come around, would not receive the support in the sense of counselling, and support. I agree there are two sides, but it’s not always a straight answer that putting people on a calorie deficit without the support or the education and behavioural changes will come out with long term, sustainable changes.

Heya Daisy

Great response. Personally I was horrified that the BBC and British Medical Journal would give this kind of study the "airtime". It's blatantly misleading and essentially an Front Page advert for Cambridge Weight Loss.

Don't get me wrong, I understand and know people get great success following the plans from Cambridge and other success companies, but this is the kind of study that needs to be suppressed, especially with Cambridge funding the study in part.

Our business, as I'm sure yours does too, suffers because we're unable to actively promote the benefits of our products and advice because trading standards and the EU food standards agency has strict regulations on health claims (which is as it should be). However a company like Cambridge can circumvent these restrictions by funding a study themselves and getting all the beneficial promotion it brings, without any recourse, because 'they' are not claiming anything. The BMJ and BBC do all the heavy lifting for them.

Sadly sensible nutrition advice from people like yourself rarely gets noticed.

Not sure what the solution is to this kind of thing. But positive awareness and educating our customers and readers is the right step.

Tim Goodwin
Lean Greens

Hi Tim,

Thank you for the comment. I know, it’s scary that it can just be misconstrued as advice without any bias. Exactly, and I know research needs to be funded from somewhere, but there are so many flaws with this study, as the control group had such limited help, and the group on the Cambridge diet plan had so much help – and even then people put weight back on. Just shows that it’s not a singular cause, and this kind of promotion doesn’t help.


Exactly ☺ we need to keep up with bringing awareness and education, one of the great things about social media now is that even though we get this kind of research, we also have the ability to follow and learn from qualified individuals who before we may never have got to.

Thank you again,


About Daisy Buckingham

Portrait of Daisy Buckingham

Daisy is a Registered Associate Nutritionist with a Master's Degree in Public Health Nutrition, which is Association for Nutrition (AFN) accredited. She, also, has a BSc degree in Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience; and has completed an AFN accredited Diet Specialist Nutrition course and is currently studying for a PgDip in Eating Disorders and Clinical Nutrition.

Daisy has worked for an NHS funded project, the Diabetes Prevention Programme; and shadowed a nutritionist in Harley Street. 

Daisy is Lucy's sister and is the Lucy Bee voice on all aspects of nutrition and its effect on the body. 

View all posts by Daisy Buckingham

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