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Alternative Diet Programs

Topic Overview

What are alternative diet programs?

Most alternative diet programs center on the belief that you can improve your health by eating or avoiding certain foods. Alternative approaches to nutrition vary widely. Some alternative diets have been developed as a way to stay healthy. Others have been suggested as therapies for specific illnesses, such as cancer and heart disease. Most programs emphasize dietary changes plus lifestyle changes, such as routine exercise and stress reduction.

Some examples of alternative diet programs include:

  • The Pritikin diet. This diet is intended to prevent or reverse heart disease. The diet is nearly vegetarian. People who follow this diet are allowed to have several ounces of fish or chicken and small amounts of low-fat dairy products each day. The diet encourages eating high-fiber foods like whole grains and fruits and vegetables. The diet is extremely low in fat and cholesterol. It also encourages daily exercise.
  • The macrobiotic diet. This vegetarian diet is intended to improve overall health and is claimed—without evidence—to help cure diseases, including cancer. Brown rice and whole grains are the foundation of the macrobiotic diet. The diet encourages you to eat certain fresh vegetables and vegetable-based soups. The diet discourages high-fat foods, foods that are extremely cold in temperature, and most animal products, including dairy products and eggs.
  • Orthomolecular medicine. Orthomolecular medicine encompasses several different medical practices, including diet therapy. Orthomolecular diet therapy is based on the idea that the use of naturally occurring substances (such as vitamins, amino acids, trace elements, electrolytes, and fatty acids) can prevent and treat disease. Its practitioners believe that an imbalance of specific nutrients in the diet causes various diseases, such as atherosclerosis, cancer, schizophrenia, and depression.
  • The McDougall plan. This diet is thought to reduce a person's risk of developing health problems such as allergies, heart and kidney disease, osteoporosis, diseases of the stomach and intestine, and cancer. The McDougall diet is strictly vegetarian, based solely on grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans. Meats, eggs, and dairy-based foods are not eaten. This plan also emphasizes the importance of moderate exercise, adequate sunshine, clean air and water, and comfortable surroundings.
  • The elimination diet. This diet involves not eating a food that you think may be causing you to have an allergic reaction or symptom. You replace the food with another source of the same nutrients. For example, if you think corn is causing you a problem, you replace corn with another carbohydrate, such as rice. If allergy symptoms go away after the food is taken out of your diet, and then they come back when the food is eaten again, a diagnosis may be made. This diet is generally done with the guidance of a doctor or a dietitian.
  • The rotation diet. This diet is useful for you if you have allergies to a variety of foods. Ideally, you eat foods you are not allergic to on a 4-day rotation basis. This allows your body a recovery period before the same food is eaten again. It also reduces the likelihood of you developing an allergy to more foods. This diet can be quite restrictive, and it is generally done with the guidance of a doctor or dietitians.
  • The Ornish program. Like Pritikin, this diet was developed to reverse heart disease. The Ornish program is a very low-fat, vegetarian diet. Fewer than 10% of the calories in this diet come from fat. The diet is high in fiber. It does not allow dairy or meat products, oils, or fats. This program also focuses on reducing stress and getting regular exercise. Some people who are concerned that the diet is too high in carbohydrates believe that the biggest benefits of this program are from stress reduction and social support.

What are alternative diets used for?

Alternative diets attempt to improve physical and/or mental well-being. Many alternative diets claim to prevent or cure diseases, such as cancer and heart disease. But alternative diets have not been studied enough to prove that they work.

Some people believe that diet can help prevent or treat conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), fibromyalgia, and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. But there is not conclusive research to determine whether these conditions have a dietary link.

Are alternative diets safe?

Some alternative diet programs are safe when practiced in moderation. But diets that severely limit food choices or exclude entire food groups can lead to nutritional deficiencies or other health problems.

Children, pregnant or nursing women, and people with chronic illnesses should not start any alternative diet without first consulting a doctor.

Always tell your doctor if you are using an alternative therapy or if you are thinking about combining an alternative therapy with your conventional medical treatment. It may not be safe to forgo your conventional medical treatment and rely only on an alternative therapy.


Other Works Consulted

  • Katz DL, Friedman RSC (2008). Food allergy and intolerance. In Nutrition in Clinical Practice, pp. 275–280. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  • Mahan LK, Swift KM (2012). Medical nutrition therapy for adverse reactions to food: Food allergies and intolerances. In LK Mahan et al., eds., Krause's Food and the Nutrition Care Process, 13th ed., pp. 562–591. St Louis, MO: Saunders.
  • National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (2012). Understanding food allergy. (NIH Publication No. 12-5518). Available online:


By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Current as of June 11, 2013

Current as of: June 11, 2013

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