Photo: Getty Images
This story originally appeared on Health.com by Amanda MacMillan.
When Joel Fuhrman, MD, became involved in nutritional science more than 30 years ago, the family physician couldn’t find a diet he felt was truly optimized for improving health, boosting longevity, and reducing risk of disease. Sure, some diets limited calories and shunned unhealthy fats and sugars, but many of them also allowed for other less-than-ideal food groups, he thought, or were too loose and vague with their instructions.
So he decided to create his own diet—one that was backed by scientific research and designed to prevent cancer and heart disease, slow aging, and extend lifespan. In his 2003 book Eat to Live, Dr. Fuhrman unveiled what he calls the Nutritarian Diet, which he describes as a nutrient-dense eating style. “With this diet, you get optimal exposure to the full orchestra of micronutrients and phytochemicals your body needs, in the absence of empty calories,” he tells Health.
A diet that’s designed to help you live longer and healthier may sound like a no-brainer. Before you jump on board, though, it’s important to know that the Nutritarian Diet is quite restrictive and may be difficult to follow—especially if you’re a big fan of meat, dairy, pasta, or sweets. Here are the basics.
The Nutritarian Diet is based on the idea that long-term health is predicted by a person’s nutrient intake per calorie eaten—a formula Dr. Fuhrman refers to as H = N/C. The diet even has its own food pyramid, which includes vegetables at the bottom (these should make up 30 to 60% of your calories, he says) and commercially raised meats, sweets, cheeses, and processed foods at the top (these should be consumed rarely or not at all).
Between those two extremes are the rest of the food groups: Fruits; beans/legumes; and seeds, nuts, and avocados should each make up between 10 and 40% of the Nutritarian Diet. Whole grains and potatoes should be 20% or less. And eggs, oil, fish, and wild or naturally raised meat and dairy products should make up less than 10% of daily calories.
The diet also pays attention to what Dr. Fuhrman calls “hormonal favorability.” Animal proteins and certain carbohydrates—those with high glycemic indexes—have been linked to hormone levels that contribute to cancer, cardiovascular disease, and obesity, so the Nutritarian Diet keeps these foods to a minimum.
Instead, it encourages eating plenty of G-BOMBS—an acronym that stands for greens, beans, onions, mushrooms, berries, and seeds. “These are the most health-promoting, anti-cancer superfoods on the planet,” says Dr. Fuhrman.
There are a few different ways you can try the Nutritarian Diet. On Dr. Fuhrman’s website, he offers instructions for a “10 in 20” detox program (designed to help you lose 10 pounds in 20 days), a six-week jump-start plan, or a long-term—and slightly more flexible—“Eat to Live” plan.
“For some people it’s better to jump right in with two feet and just do what I tell them, and their palate will adjust and they’ll develop a taste for this eating style sooner than they think,” says Dr. Fuhrman. “For others, if I give them such a strict approach, it’s going to drive them away—so it’s all about finding the right balance for each person.”
No matter what plan you choose, you’ll be eating a lot of vegetables—ideally, about half raw and half cooked. Dr. Fuhrman recommends eating a large salad every day and thinking of meat and cheese (if you eat them at all) as condiments rather than main courses.
How much you eat matters too. Eating between meals is discouraged, and during meals, Dr. Fuhrman recommends stopping before you feel full. He also recommends leaving at least 13 hours between dinner and breakfast the next morning, which gives the body time to enter the fat-burning stage of digestion.
Earlier this year, U.S. News and World Report ranked the Nutritarian Diet #15 (in a tie) for Best Diet Overall, and #3 for Best Commercial Diet Plan. But it only ranked #30 (out of 41) in Easiest Diets to Follow.
“Whether the Nutritarian Diet is easy to follow depends on how much you like raw and cooked whole veggies and fruits versus breads, meats, and sweets,” according to the U.S. News review. “Beverage restrictions from coffee to alcohol could be chafing,” it says, and “you’ll need willpower to stick with the shorter weight-loss versions.”
The diet also requires a guided plan, available for purchase either through Dr. Fuhrman’s website or one of his six published books. The good news, though, is that there are plenty of recipes available online. “Once you’ve restocked your pantry and fridge, preparing Nutritarian-based meals shouldn’t be difficult,” says U.S. News.
Dr. Fuhrman says he doesn’t agree with U.S. News’ rankings system and believes that the Nutritarian Diet can’t be judged accurately based on the criteria involved. But he does agree that, by design, the Nutritarian Diet is stricter and more limiting than many other popular plans out there.
If a person is coming from an unhealthy diet, he says, it’s normal to feel tired or crave fatty or sugary foods when they first start following such a nutrient-rich plan. “But this diet can be sustainable—it can be made palatable so that people will stay with it long-term and enjoy eating this way as much as their old diet,” he says.
The rule about no snacking may also be difficult for people to follow, and it’s not necessarily one that other health experts would agree with: While it’s certainly possible to go overboard or make unhealthy snack choices, most nutritionists agree that small snacks—up to 200 calories—can provide important nutrients and reduce hunger cravings, which can help you avoid overeating at mealtime.
The Nutritarian Diet is modifiable—for example, it can be vegan or it can include meat and dairy, depending on a person’s individual needs. It can also be tailored to avoid specific food allergies or sensitivities. Besides that, though, there’s little flexibility.
Overall, Dr. Fuhrman believes that the Nutritarian Diet’s strictness is a strength, not a weakness. “The fact that the bar is set so high makes it easier to do, not harder,” he says. “You don’t have mixed messages about what you can and can’t have, and you’re not being tempted with things pulling you in different directions, and that makes it more effective.”
But for many people, the diet will require a major lifestyle change. “The only legitimate criticism of this way of eating is that most people don’t want to do it—most people want to recreate with food and not pay attention to what they’re eating,” says Dr. Fuhrman. “But if they gave this a try and saw how much better they feel, there would be no argument.”
To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter
This article originally appeared on Health.com