Keeping cool in the diet wars
7 June 2006
Like most academics, Jennie Brand-Miller finds herself in intellectual skirmishes, furious debates, and at the sharp end of piercing peer attack. Her wars, however, are fought on an extremely public battlefield.
At 54, Professor Brand-Miller, from the University's School of Molecular and Microbial Biosciences, is the face behind one of the most successful nutrition publishing phenomena to have swept the weight-loss scene in the last decade: the low GI diet.
The co-author of 16 international best sellers, and with more than 3 million sales worldwide, she and her team have produced a popular diet book - and a subsequent series - based on rigorous, scientific studies.
"The work comes out of scientific experiments concentrating on the glycemic index of foods; how some foods raise our blood sugar levels faster than others," she explains.
The enormous success of the books - "we receive thousands of emails from people who are happier and healthier as a result of the diet" - has propelled Professor Brand-Miller into the fiercely competitive arena of weight-loss and nutrition. And she's not pulling any punches.
"Most popular diet books don't have a credible person at the helm. Our books are very popular in the United States, yet there is also the anti-GI brigade who don't understand it and peddle misinformation," she says.
Professor Brand-Miller talks tough but there is nothing tough about her. She eats porridge - "it's low GI" - rather than Sultana Bran; she's quietly spoken and has a eaceful equanimity. She is also hearing-impaired; a feature which has shaped her life since going deaf in her early teens.
"When I was 25, just after I finished a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of New South Wales, I was offered a lectureship at Sydney University. An ear specialist told me not to take the position; that an academic career would be too difficult for a deaf person. I took it anyway," she says.
She was given a hearing aid, completed her PhD at UNSW a year later, and, for the next 20 years tried to cope in an environment unsuited to someone with her impairment.
"I was excruciatingly humiliated and embarrassed when I could not hear what people were saying. I was sure everyone would think I was stupid. I limped through meetings, nodding despite having no idea what was going on. Sometimes someone would ask me what I thought, and I'd end up saying something really inappropriate," she explains.
In 1998, her life changed. During "assertiveness-training for the hearing-impaired" she was inspired to get a cochlear implant. She remembers her first sounds, such as the flushing of toilets - "which sounded like waterfalls" - and petrol pumping into the car tank - "I thought it was spilling out everywhere". She also remembers the rain as "the softest, most comforting sound".
Professor Brand-Miller describes the implant as being "like jump leads to a flat battery"; the car took off and it's been speeding ever since. The low-GI diet success has involved numerous media engagements and speaking commitments; in 2003 she was awarded the Clunies Ross Award in Sciences and Technology - "that year I spoke at around 50 functions"; and she continues researching and writing.
What does the success of the books mean for her personally and professionally? "Too much", she says. "They've become a part of me. In my mind, the success of the books means the success of me."
This is why the latest weight-loss craze - the enormous popularity of the CSIRO diet - has been "a needle in the balloon" for her. "The CSIRO diet needs to pay more than just lip service to the low GI diet," she says.
She may be temporarily deflated, but she's certainly not defeated. "Different diet camps will continue to argue about what's best. I have a tenacious belief that the low GI diet works well and that it will win in the end," she says.
Contact: Kate Rossmanith
Phone: 02 9351 3168