Introduction: What is the Scarsdale Medical Diet?
I came across the Scarsdale Medical Diet book recently while cleaning out my bookshelf. The book claims that you can lose up to 20 pounds in 14 days, and that this diet ‘actually works’ so I was a bit sceptical but started flicking through it anyway. I quickly changed my tune once I started reading it!
The Scarsdale Medical Diet was developed by the late Dr Herman Tarnower, a cardiologist with 45 years of experience. It is high protein, low carb and low fat, with a breakdown of approximately 43% protein, 22.5% fat and 34.5% carbohydrates. According to the book, food intake averages 1000 calories or less a day, and aids rapid weight loss via a unique combination of foods which produces ketones as our bodies burn fat. Again I was a bit sceptical reading this, but I don’t know much about weight loss (or ketones!) so I decided to give it a go anyway. With my 30th birthday fast approaching, I wanted to try and fit into my favourite dress to wear to my birthday dinner and I thought a 4kg loss should help greatly. I aimed for 4kg because I was already nearing a healthy weight, and as Gen (who is my sister by the way!) has blogged about previously, losing the last 5kg can be tough, and I didn’t think a 7-10kg weight loss would be at all realistic for me.
One of the reasons I was attracted to the diet, apart from the promise of effective fat loss, is that the food seems really quite normal and sensible, and not vastly different to the food I already eat. The diet goes for 14 days and there is a set menu for every day which takes some of the guess work out. There is also no need to count calories and importantly for me, you are allowed to eat as much as you want (of some foods), without overfilling your stomach. This was a big thing for me because I don’t like the work involved in weighing and measuring out portions, and I hate feeling deprived or restricted.
So, to the diet. As I mentioned, it goes for 2 weeks only, and meals are set out for each day of the week. The basic diet sets out the protein and vegetables to eat at which meal, and then the supplementary diets (Gourmet, International, Vegetarian and Money-Saving) have actual recipes you can follow to make the most of that protein-and-vegetable combination.
For example, I started on a Wednesday, and my meal plan looked like this:
Breakfast (every day is the same): cantaloupe*, black coffee, no sugar, one piece of toasted protein bread.**
Lunch: Tuna salad, one piece of toasted protein bread, assorted berries.
Dinner: The basic diet says roast lamb, salad, and coffee/tea. I followed the Gourmet Diet for dinner and made a lamb casserole dish, grilled tomatoes, beans and cucumbers.
*The standard breakfast is ½ grapefruit and one piece of protein bread. You can substitute the grapefruit for any fruit in season. Dr Tarnower recommends, where possible, you choose ½ cup fresh diced pineapple, ½ mango, ½ papaya or a thick slice of melon. I went with a ¼ of a cantaloupe, diced, which ended up being about 1 ½ cups. That might be a bit much but I don’t really care, I don’t think ½ cup of extra cantaloupe a day will make or break me.
**Protein bread is bread made with a very high protein flour. You can substitute for any dense wholemeal bread. I used a homemade rye bread which is like a brick, but quite filling and tasty.
The only snacks allowed are carrot and celery sticks, which scared me a bit as I’m a big snacker. You can also have diet soft drinks, black tea and coffee without sugar, and if you’re really hungry, an extra piece of fruit.
NOTE: Just a word of caution. This diet is not suitable for pregnant women, diabetics and alcoholics, due to the ketone production. Also, my copy of the book was published in 1981 so some of the language is a bit outdated. The recommended weight range for someone of my height (163 cm or 5”4) is 49.8 to 55.7 kg (110-123 pounds) which I feel is quite low – sure, I could sit in that range with a lot of work, and if I lose my desired 4 kg I will fall into that range, but in general I don’t think it would be sustainable long term. By comparison, the Australian government BMI calculator gives someone of my height a healthy weight range of 49.5 to 66 kg…a HUGE difference. I think the Australian government range is much more realistic, and certainly for people like Gen who have a reasonable amount of muscle mass.
I ate the meals as detailed above on day 1. Breakfast got me through easily until 11am when I started to feel weird and weak. I wasn’t hungry exactly, but I had NO energy and could barely move. Thankfully I’d prepared lunch the day before so it was ready to go. I had lunch at 12, feeling absolutely terrible, but by 12:30 felt amazing, full of energy and raring to go. Thank God for that bit of bread at lunch though, I think if it was just the tuna salad I would have still felt crap (did I mention I LOVE carbs?). I was ‘allowed’ berries with lunch which I didn’t eat so I had an apple about 4pm, and then by 6 was feeling really hungry, sick and weak again. Dinner was not that delicious but certainly filled the gap and kept me full for the evening. I had a thumping headache from about 6pm onwards that wouldn’t shift even with pain killers, it felt like a caffeine withdrawal headache so I think it was my body objecting to the lack of processed sugar.
The rest of the week followed the same pattern as the first day – I was feeling really weak in between meals and really good straight after a meal. The meals varied, I had scrambled eggs for lunch one day, fruit salad with cottage cheese and nuts another, salad and deli meat another. Dinners were salads and meat, or a stirfry. I had learned from day two to eat the fruit for breakfast slowly over a couple of hours to keep the morning hunger at bay, and every afternoon I snacked on something, usually a carrot (which is surprisingly satisfying), but sometimes when my stomach was screaming at me and I was feeling weak with hunger I had some cheese and/or ham, which always perked me up.
After day 4 I started to feel grumpy and a bit sad and deprived. It’s ridiculous because I wasn’t actually physically hungry, and I shouldn’t have been feeling deprived when I can eat my fill of delicious, fresh, unprocessed food. But the mind is a funny thing and I started to crave toast and felt quite angry for the rest of the week. You may remember Gen also experienced this grumpiness when she was eating an extreme low carb diet during her 12 Week Challenge.
On day 6 I returned to work after a week’s leave and my work clothes were quite a bit looser than before, which renewed my motivation a bit. The best thing about this week was how easily I came off processed sugar! I haven’t craved a single bit of refined sugar. I’m sure the copious amounts of fruit salad were helping with that.
Warning: I sort of caved and ‘cheated’ a lot during the second week.
I weighed in on day 8, feeling really nervous, and found I’d lost 1.4 kg. I was pretty happy with that amount of loss in one week with no real exercise. It made me think I wouldn’t meet the target of 4kg lost but I wasn’t upset. Then on day 9, I started the day feeling okay but within a couple of hours of waking up I felt terrible. I had no energy, could hardly move and was ready to stab someone, I was so cranky. I had a ham and cheese roll midmorning which immediately perked me up, but then the damage was done, so to speak, and I snacked on different things through the evening including pasta, half a sandwich, and mini chocolate muffins. Interestingly though, the muffins were the first bit of refined sugar I’d had for over a week and I found them too sweet.
Day 10-14 I realised something had to give as I was making myself sick, so I started tweaking the diet to suit myself. This is a big no-no according to the diet’s creator but I could not continue on the way I was going. I think I could handle the first week, but 2 weeks is not sustainable for me. So my tweaks included a piece of cheese mid afternoon and a coffee with milk in it, an extra bit of bread with a meal, some rice crackers and low fat hummus during a social event, things like that. I didn’t go crazy and start chowing down on chocolate and Maccas, but I did let loose a lot compared to the first week.
I weighed myself on day 11 and was stunned to see that I had lost 4.2 kg, and dropped 3.1% body fat. As far as I know my scales are accurate, but it meant a 2.8kg loss in just 3 days. Now apparently this is quite normal on the diet but I was astounded. I have not maintained this weight since eating a bit more normally, and my weight fluctuated a bit during the remainder of the diet.
I tracked my food intake for a typical day’s eating on MyFitnessPal, and intake was 1100 calories (that’s rounded up to allow for things like the diet soft drink I drank, the vinegar on my salad and the bite of chicken I had to make sure it was cooked properly). The actual calorie count was 1034 for a breakfast of bread and a banana, coffee, lunch of fruit salad, cottage cheese, yoghurt and nuts, a snack of carrot and celery sticks and a cheese slice and a dinner of chicken, salad and bread.
Because I didn’t stick to the diet in the second week, and my birthday dinner wasn’t until 4 days after the diet was meant to finish, I continued to eat well and didn’t do my final weigh in until day 17. I certainly wasn’t expecting to have maintained the 4.2 kg loss, but I’m pleased to say my final results were
3.6 kg lost
2.1% body fat lost
0.5 cm lost from my hips
7 cm lost from my stomach
And I fit into my dress! Quite nicely too, with the help of some slimming underwear to eliminate any VPL and bulges. This has been an adventure and a real eye-opener for me. It has been very, very difficult, and near impossible to stick to for the full fortnight, but it has really helped me examine some of my behaviours and mindset when it comes to food. Examining my thoughts and feelings at different stages has taught me a lot about myself, particularly my awareness and mindfulness around snacking out of habit vs. snacking when I’m actually hungry.
On the second day, I was in the pharmacy and they had a display of liquorice allsorts at the counter and my hand automatically reached for them without me even thinking about what I was doing. As soon as I remembered I was on the diet, I pulled my hand back and I didn’t feel sad or annoyed or deprived, so I wonder why my instinct was to buy them in the first place? Similarly, when my son snacks on rice crackers and savoury biscuits, I always eat some too. But not this past fortnight, and although it’s been really hard at times, I’m not really missing out on anything. So why do I sometimes feel like I am, and why do I eat when I’m not hungry? I even noticed a shift in mindset from week 1 to week 2, like once I loosened up a bit and gave myself permission to eat more, I was back to looking longingly at rice crackers and my son’s chocolate frog.
The thought of low-carb eating has always been scary to me, as a HUGE carb lover, but I now know there’s nothing much to be afraid of. I certainly couldn’t eat like this all the time, but I can see that it could be beneficial to follow the diet for 3 or 4 days each week, as I certainly drop weight quickly when eating low carb. And as a result, I eat more protein, which I have always known I don’t get quite enough of. Even in the lead up to the diet, I had 3 or 4 days of ‘practicing’ and was choosing lower carb meals like calamari and salad, and I lost weight even in that short time, so I started the diet a little bit slimmer than I would normally be.
What will I do differently from now on? Well, the daily breakfast of a piece of toast and some fruit can kiss my butt, I don’t think I’ll ever eat dry toast and cantaloupe together again. But the substitute lunch (you can swap it for any day’s lunch if you want to) of fruit salad, cottage cheese, yoghurt and nuts is delicious and a lovely light meal to have on a hot day. I even had it for dinner one night after a big lunch of calamari and salad. It also helped keep any sugar cravings at bay, so I will be adding this one to my repertoire. And I am going to TRY my hardest to not snack in between meals unless I am starving, essentially following the habits of the last fortnight, and I will aim for my snacks to be cheese, low fat meat, eggs or vegie sticks. This is all very basic and nothing we haven’t all heard before, but my instinct is for snacks to be carb-based, like a biscuit, rice cakes or crackers, a piece of toast, etc. Additionally, I hope to stay away from processed sugar. I won’t quit it completely, and I have no intention of ever giving up fructose, but stopping sugar has been the easiest part for me and I’d like to leverage off that if I can.
I encourage you to give the Scarsdale Medical Diet a go, even if just to kick-start your weight loss and see what lessons you learn along the way. You can find it on Amazon and also read other reviews of the program there. But I’d recommend starting with one week instead of 2, or even just a few days of eating this way, as I truly think 2 weeks is too difficult.
I’ve written a few of the biggest pros and cons for me below.
- Effective for rapid weight and fat loss
- Extremely nutritious, very little processed food (particularly if you bake your own bread like I do)
- Cheap, especially if you’re near a good fruit and veg shop or market
- The food is normal and simple to prepare
- The eczema on my hands has cleared up well
- The opportunity to clear my mind and examine my attitudes to food
- Quitting processed sugar and how easy it was
Cons: (many of these improved in the second week when I started eating more normally again):
- Feeling weak and lethargic a lot of the time, and in a foul mood the rest of the time
- No energy, not enough to do any real exercise
- Constipation (ironic, huh?)
- Socially restricting – eating at social events can be tricky when you’re trying to avoid carbs and also not offend your host
- The skin on my hands improved but the rest of my body has been dry and itchy
As you can see, there are more pros than cons, although some of the cons were pretty major. If you try this out, even for a few days, I’d be really keen to hear how you go. I’m really pleased I gave it a go and got out of my comfort zone (that’s not where the magic happens, hey Gen?) and I’m thrilled to be starting my ‘dirty thirties’ a few kilos lighter!
And finally, here’s me, in ‘the dress’ 🙂