Scarsdale Diet: Overview, Benefits, and Downsides

alex brown

The Scarsdale diet was popular in the late 1970s. Based on a top-selling book by Dr. Herman Tarnower — a cardiologist located in Scarsdale, NY — the diet promised up to 20 pounds (9 kg) of weight loss in under 2 weeks. With its extreme restrictions and “quick fix” ideology, […]

The Scarsdale diet was popular in the late 1970s.

Based on a top-selling book by Dr. Herman Tarnower — a cardiologist located in Scarsdale, NY — the diet promised up to 20 pounds (9 kg) of weight loss in under 2 weeks.

With its extreme restrictions and “quick fix” ideology, the Scarsdale diet has been met with tremendous criticism by the medical community.

Still, you may wonder if this diet really works and whether it’s right for you.

This article reviews the benefits and downsides of the Scarsdale diet to show whether scientific evidence supports it.

Rating score breakdown

  • Overall score: 1.25
  • Weight loss: 1.0
  • Healthy eating: 1.0
  • Sustainability: 2.0
  • Whole body health: 0.0
  • Nutrition quality: 2.5
  • Evidence-based: 1.0

BOTTOM LINE: The Scarsdale diet slashes your calorie intake to only 1,000 per day using a strict list of approved foods. Its focus on quick weight loss and extreme restrictions make it difficult to follow long term, as well as dangerous.

The Scarsdale diet started as a two-page diet sheet made by Tarnower to help his patients lose weight for better heart health.

After many individual success stories, Tarnower published the book “The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet” in 1979.

The diet allows a mere 1,000 calories per day regardless of your age, weight, sex, or activity levels. It’s heavy in protein, consisting of 43% protein, 22.5% fat, and 34.5% carbs.

The diet also forbids snacks and numerous healthy foods, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, avocados, beans, and lentils.

Tarnower died 1 year after the book’s publication. Shortly thereafter, the Scarsdale diet was heavily criticized for its extreme restrictions and unrealistic weight loss promises. As such, the book is no longer in print.

Summary

The Scarsdale diet focuses on protein-heavy meals but limits you to 1,000 calories per day. The book it’s based on is no longer sold or promoted due to the various dangers of this eating pattern.

The rules of the Scarsdale diet can be found in Tarnower’s book “The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet.” Though it’s no longer in print, some copies are still sold online, and some unofficial Scarsdale diet websites list its details.

The main rules include eating a protein-rich diet, restricting yourself to 1,000 calories per day, and following a limited list of approved foods. You are forbidden from any snacks except carrots, celery, and low sodium veggie soups, which are only to be eaten when necessary.

You must drink at least 4 cups (945 mL) of water per day but can also enjoy black coffee, plain tea, or diet soda.

Tarnower emphasized that the diet is only intended to last 14 days, after which you transition to the Keep Slim program.

Keep Slim program

After the 14-day initial diet, you’re allowed to introduce a few banned foods, such as bread (up to 2 slices per day), baked goods (as a rare treat), and one alcoholic beverage per day.

While you’re still expected to follow the list of approved foods, you’re allowed to increase your portion sizes and calories to allow more flexibility.

Tarnower suggested following the Keep Slim program until you notice your weight increasing. If you regain weight, you’re instructed to do the 14-day initial diet again.

Summary

The diet’s initial phase lasts 14 days and is so restrictive that almost all snacks are banned. You then transition to the Keep Slim program, which is slightly more flexible.

A small selection of foods is permitted on the Scarsdale diet. As you’re only allowed 1,000 calories per day, it’s crucial that you monitor your portion sizes and stick to the approved foods.

Although it seems contradictory, the diet recommends that you eat until you’re satisfied.

Foods to eat

Foods allowed on the diet include:

  • Raw, non-starchy vegetables: bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, green beans, leafy greens, lettuce, onion, radishes, spinach, tomatoes, and zucchini
  • Fruits: choose grapefruit whenever possible; otherwise apples, blueberries, cantaloupes, grapes, lemon, lime, mangoes, papayas, peaches, pears, plums, starfruit, strawberries, and watermelon
  • Wheat and grains: only protein bread is permitted
  • Meat, poultry, and fish: lean beef (including hamburger), chicken, turkey, fish, shellfish, and cold cuts (except bologna)
  • Eggs: yolks and whites but prepared plain — without oil, butter, or other fats
  • Dairy: low fat products, such as 2% milk, cheese slices, and cottage cheese
  • Nuts and seeds: only six walnut or pecan halves per day, on occasion
  • Seasonings: most herbs and spices are permitted
  • Beverages: unsweetened black coffee, tea, and water, as well as zero-calorie diet soda

Foods to avoid

The Scarsdale diet forbids numerous foods, including many healthy ones like sweet potatoes, avocados, beans, and lentils. There are no stated reasons why these foods are prohibited.

Though grapefruit was originally the only fruit allowed, updated versions now permit most fruits — but reserve them as a treat.

  • Vegetables and starches: beans, corn, lentils, peas, potatoes (white and sweet), pumpkin, and rice
  • Fruits: avocado and jackfruit
  • Dairy: full fat dairy including milk, yogurt, and cheese
  • Fats and oils: all oils, butter, ghee, mayonnaise, and salad dressings
  • Wheat and grains: most wheat and grain products (e.g., bagels, bread, breakfast cereals, cookies, crackers, doughnuts, pancakes, pasta, pita bread, pizza, sandwiches, tortillas, and wraps)
  • Flours: all flour and flour-based foods
  • Nuts and seeds: all nuts and seeds except walnuts and pecans (in limited amounts)
  • Meat: highly processed meats, such as bologna, sausage, and bacon
  • Sweets and desserts: all sweets and desserts, including chocolate
  • Processed foods: fast food, frozen food, potato chips, premade dinners, etc.
  • Beverages: alcoholic beverages, artificially sweetened drinks, most fruit juices, soda, and specialty coffees and teas

summary

The Scarsdale diet limits you to a small list of approved foods. Many foods high in carbs or fat are banned.

The Scarsdale diet’s main claim is that it can help you lose 20 pounds (9 kg) in 14 days via a protein-rich, low calorie diet consisting of mostly lean meats, eggs, low fat dairy, leafy vegetables, and some fruit.

Since the diet permits just 1,000 calories per day — well below the recommended calorie intake for any adult — you will likely lose weight.

That’s because weight loss depends on a calorie deficit, which means that you burn more calories than you take in (1).

However, adult men and women need 2,000–3,000 and 1,600–2,400 calories per day, respectively. The 1,000 daily calories prescribed by the Scarsdale diet puts most people in a daily calorie deficit of 1,000–2,000 calories (2).

To compensate for the drastic decrease in calories, your body will begin to use fat, muscle, and glycogen stores as energy (3, 4).

Glycogen is a stored form of carbs that holds large amounts of water. As your body uses up glycogen and muscle stores, it releases water, causing a dramatic drop in weight (4, 5, 6).

Plus, the Scarsdale diet recommends that 43% of your daily calories come from protein. High protein diets have been shown to promote weight loss by aiding fullness, but they’re less effective in tandem with very low calorie diets like this one (3).

As such, you will likely lose weight during the first 2 weeks of the diet. However, very low calorie diets paired with extreme food restrictions are unsustainable and likely lead to weight regain once you stop dieting (7, 8).

Even with the Keep Slim maintenance program that’s slightly more flexible, few foods are allowed and calories are still restricted. Therefore, few people can expect to sustain this diet long term.

Though you may lose weight quickly, most medical experts agree that rapid weight loss is unhealthy and unsustainable. Instead, you should adopt healthy lifestyle habits, such as portion control, healthy cooking techniques, regular exercise, and stress management.

Summary

The Scarsdale diet is very low in calories, which likely leads to short-term weight loss — mostly from water weight rather than fat. You’ll likely regain the weight once the diet is over.

Despite its unrealistic weight loss promises, the Scarsdale diet has a few redeeming qualities.

It’s simple and straightforward for those who are looking for exact instructions, which take away the second-guessing that many diets involve.

Furthermore, it promotes high protein foods alongside vegetables at each meal. Depending on your routine eating pattern, this may improve your diet quality.

Finally, the Scarsdale diet is quite cheap and doesn’t require expensive food or equipment.

Summary

Though the Scarsdale diet is ridden with flaws, it’s straightforward, encourages high protein foods, and is relatively inexpensive.

The Scarsdale diet has numerous downsides and side effects that may endanger your health. As such, it’s best to avoid the diet.

Highly restrictive

To follow the diet correctly, you must eliminate many foods, including several nutritious options.

This diet leaves little room for flexibility and other important aspects of eating, such as cultural traditions and celebrations. If your meals become less enjoyable and even overwhelming, the diet will be difficult to follow long term (3).

In many cases, restrictive eating may damage your ability to control your food intake or increase your risk of overeating (9, 10).

The best diets are those that allow all foods in moderation, provide the optimal amount of nutrition through whole foods, and are easy to follow long term (3, 11).

Encourages yo-yo dieting

You’re meant to follow the Scarsdale diet for 14 days, then the Keep Slim maintenance program. However, you’re supposed to return to the Scarsdale diet if you begin to regain weight.

This recommendation proves that the diet is not only unsustainable but also prone to weight cycling, likewise called yo-yo dieting. This pattern involves a constant cycle of quick weight loss followed by weight regain (12).

Weight cycling can be harmful both physically and mentally, as it may lead to a slower metabolism, increased risk of weight regain, poor body image, and disordered eating thoughts and behaviors (12, 13, 14).

Vilifies calories

The Scarsdale diet emphasizes calorie intake over nutrition.

In fact, it may lead to nutrient deficiencies given its dangerous requirements to eat a meager 1,000 calories per day and eliminate entire food groups like whole grains, starchy vegetables, avocados, full fat dairy, nuts, and seeds.

Plus, the diet promotes the false belief that all calories are inherently bad. Rather, diets rich in nutrient-dense foods, which may be high in calories, are linked to a lower risk of obesity, mortality, heart disease, diabetes, inflammation, and certain cancers (15, 16, 17, 18).

Therefore, you should focus on nutrient quality rather than calories. Try to follow a diet full of nutrient-dense, minimally processed foods for healthy weight loss (3).

Prioritizes weight loss over health

Rather than improving overall health, the Scarsdale diet focuses on extreme food restriction and near-starvation techniques to trigger rapid weight loss.

The basis of the diet is that weight loss is paramount to health. Yet, adopting healthy lifestyle behaviors, such as eating nutritious food, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and managing stress, may improve overall health with or without weight loss (3, 11, 19).

Sadly, this diet fails to recognize that your health is more than just a number on the scale.

Summary

The Scarsdale diet promotes unnecessary food restrictions, dangerously slashes your calorie intake, is unsustainable, and prioritizes weight loss over health.

The Scarsdale diet recommends eating the same breakfast each day and drinking lukewarm water throughout the day. Snacks are banned, but you’re allowed carrots, celery, or low sodium veggie soups if you can’t wait until your next meal.

Furthermore, you aren’t permitted to cook with oils or other fats and cannot add spreads to your protein bread.

Here’s a 3-day sample menu for the Scarsdale diet:

Day 1

  • Breakfast: 1 slice of protein bread (no spread), half of a grapefruit, and black coffee, tea, or diet soda
  • Lunch: Salad (canned salmon, leafy greens, and vinegar and lemon dressing), plus fruit, as well as black coffee, tea, or diet soda
  • Dinner: Roast chicken (no skin), spinach, half of a bell pepper, string beans, and black coffee, tea, or diet soda

Day 2

  • Breakfast: 1 slice of protein bread (no spread), half of a grapefruit, and black coffee, tea, or diet soda
  • Lunch: 2 eggs (no fat), 1 cup (162 grams) of low fat cottage cheese, 1 slice of protein bread (no spread), plus fruit, as well as black coffee, tea, or diet soda
  • Dinner: a lean hamburger (a large helping allowed), salad (tomatoes, cucumbers, and celery) with lemon and vinegar dressing, and black coffee, tea, or diet soda

Day 3

  • Breakfast: 1 slice of protein bread (no spread), half of a grapefruit, and black coffee, tea, or diet soda
  • Lunch: assorted meat slices, spinach (unlimited amounts), sliced tomatoes, and black coffee, tea, or diet soda
  • Dinner: a grilled steak (all fat removed — a large serving allowed), Brussels sprouts, onions, half of a bell pepper, and black coffee, tea, or diet soda

There’s limited information on portion sizes, though to ensure you stay within the 1,000 calorie limit, you probably need to keep portion sizes small for all foods besides leafy greens and proteins.

Summary

The Scarsdale diet recommends small meals comprised of protein and veggies, and it encourages you to eat the same breakfast each day. No snacks, spreads, or high fat foods are allowed.

Though the Scarsdale diet was popular in the 1970s, it’s rarely promoted today.

While you may lose weight rapidly, the diet is extremely restrictive, low in calories and nutrients, and ultimately unsustainable.

If you’re looking for long-term weight loss, you’re better off following a diet comprising whole, minimally processed food and a lifestyle that includes regular exercise, quality sleep, and stress management.

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