Does the Nutritarian Diet Really Live Up to Its Hype?
The Nutritarian Diet touts impressive health benefits like weight loss, reversing disease, slowing aging, and increasing life expectancy. There aren’t many people who don’t find claims like that pretty appealing. This eating plan wasn’t one that I was too familiar with, so I was eager to dive into the information and see what the diet was all about.
What Is a Nutritarian Diet?
The nutritarian diet is an eating pattern created by Dr. Joel Fuhrman initially published in his top-selling 2003 diet book Eat to Live. The diet is vegan, gluten-free, low in sodium, and low in fat. The diet also avoids or minimizes processed foods, and focuses on eating nutrient-dense foods that are high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants.
Dr. Fuhrman suggests that following the diet not only prevents, but reverses, chronic diseases, and “maximally slows aging and promotes lifespan.” Nutrient-density in the book is based on a formula and index Dr. Fuhrman created called the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI). This index scores food based on nutrient-density to help people identify healthier food options. The six-week diet promises an approximate 20-lb weight loss and improved energy and health—so much so that the book says most people opt to continue following a nutritarian diet after the initial six weeks.
What Do You Eat on a Nutritarian Diet?
On the Nutritarian Diet, there are food you can eat in unlimited amounts, and those you can eat in limited or small amounts. Non-starchy vegetables can be consumed in unlimited quantities; beans and legumes should be limited to 1 cup per day; fresh fruit can be eaten 4 times per day, but dried fruit shouldn’t exceed 2 tablespoons; starchy vegetables or cooked whole grains are limited to 1 cup per day; nuts and seeds shouldn’t exceed 1 ounce daily; avocado should not exceed 2 ounces daily; and you may have up to 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed daily.
Animal-based foods (meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs, and dairy); fruit juice or canned fruit; processed foods; oils; snacking between meals; added salt; and alcohol should all be avoided on the Nutritarian Diet. After following the Nutritarian Diet for six weeks, some lean meat, fish, refined carbohydrate foods, dairy, and olive oil can be added back to the diet in minimal amounts.
Cost of the Nutritarian Diet
Since oil, added salt, added sugar, and animal products are off-limits, this virtually eliminates all prepared foods—even healthier ones that can save time. Initially, I thought dieters’ grocery bills would skyrocket due to the cost of whole foods and fresh produce. But one of the diet’s claims is that grocery bills should not increase since the increased amount of fresh produce bought is offset by not buying more expensive meat and dairy products—a pretty good point (although I haven’t had a have a chance to test the theory out to see how true it holds).
Though the cost of groceries may remain the same, I can’t help but think that time in the kitchen would increase—particularly for those who ordinarily rely on a lot of convenience products. Also, the diet can be completed without buying anything other than groceries, but Dr. Fuhrman’s website offers lots of supplemental products including vitamins and dietary supplements, food products, kitchen utensils and appliances, cookbooks, t-shirts, and even skin moisturizers.
Lifetime membership plans ($400, $2,000, or $3,000) are available for purchase which give an individual access to recipes, menus, position papers, and more on his website, depending on the level chosen. He also hosts nutritarian retreats on topics such as a 3-week detox with a juice fast.
Potential Health Benefits of Nutritarian Diet
Emphasis on Whole Plant Foods
The Nutritarian Diet is a little like a vegan form of Paleo or Whole30 eating, and one thing that I think those eating styles have right is their emphasis on whole, minimally processed plant foods. Not only are these foods more nutrient-dense, but they don’t have added sugar, fat, preservatives, coloring, or added ingredients and compounds. Another potential benefit is that increasing plant-proteins has been associated with a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes.
The Nutritarian Diet is essentially a strict form of an anti-inflammatory diet and is jam-packed with foods containing phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals, and more to boost the immune system and protect against lifestyle related diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. There’s substantial research to support increased intake of nutrient-dense foods, particularly plant foods, when it comes to both short- and long-term health.
The concept of “nutrient-density” or choosing foods that are high in nutrients relative to calories is the basic foundation for healthy eating. So while “nutrient-density” isn’t exactly a new idea, Dr. Fuhrman’s concepts are research-based and supported for the most part.
Short-term Weight Loss
Most people who stick to this diet will probably lose weight, because it is relatively low in calories and high in fiber. This can be helpful for people who feel stuck in their weight loss journey and want to totally reset or detox their diet following a holiday or vacation.
Negatives and Potential Health Concerns
The Nutritarian Diet is probably one of the strictest diets that I’ve reviewed. Deficiencies in nutrients such as B-12, calcium, and vitamin D are highly likely—unless you purchase a supplement from Dr. Fuhrman’s online store or make a point to get from vegan food sources. Strict food rules pose a concern for people with a history of disordered eating, and because most of the food has to be prepared at home, people on this diet may experience some feelings of social isolation.
Extreme Interpretation of Research
The Nutritarian Diet limits a lot of foods that are considered to be healthy, such as whole grains, olive oil, yogurt, and eggs. Granted, excessive intake of any food isn’t good—this is particularly true for foods high in sodium, saturated fat, or sugar—but Dr. Fuhrman’s diet guidelines are based on pretty extreme interpretations of research. I like to think that the concept of moderation —not necessarily elimination—is the key to balancing the health and enjoyment we get from food.
It’s a Quick Fix
The nutritarian diet promises 20 pounds of weight loss in just six weeks (about 3.33 lbs per week) which is above what’s recommended for healthy, sustainable weight loss (1 to 2 lbs per week). It’s likely due to the low-calorie intake—which would be difficult to maintain and get adequate nutrients in the long-term. It’s also a large time commitment to cook all meals for yourself, especially if the dieter is responsible for cooking different meals for different family members. In addition, coupling the low calorie intake with the mindset of such a restrictive diet will likely lead to “falling off the wagon” and feelings of failure.
Final Verdict: Does the Nutritarian Diet Live Up to Its Hype?
The idea of eating nutritious plant foods is a great concept, and one that everyone should use to guide food choices in general. However, the Nutritarian approach takes the concept of nutrient density to an extreme, and it’s an extreme that we don’t know is really necessary.
While this plan might be good for a person who wants to see how a limited, vegan diet could work for them, other individuals—like those who have a history of disordered eating behaviors, those who don’t have time to prepare all meals at home; or those with increased protein, sodium or other specific needs—should probably avoid it. Although this diet is marketed as an eating pattern, it is essentially a fad diet. Those who do try this diet should go into it knowing that it is not sustainable for everyone long-term, and is only a temporary quick fix to lose weight.