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Diet Therapy

By Steven Novella, MD, Assistant Professor of Neurology, Yale University School of Medicine

Diet therapy uses specialized dietary regimens (such as the Ornish diet, the Gerson diet, a macrobiotic diet, and the Pritikin diet) to

  • Treat or prevent a specific disease (such as cancer or cardiovascular disorders)

  • Generally promote wellness

  • Detoxify the body (by neutralizing or eliminating toxins from the body)

Some diets (such as the Mediterranean diet) are widely accepted and encouraged in traditional Western medicine.

Because its effects usually take months or years to be realized, diet therapy is more likely to be effective if started at a young age. When beginning a therapeutic diet that involves a dramatically different way of eating, people should ask an expert to supervise them so that they can avoid nutritional deficiencies.

Ornish diet

The Ornish diet, a very low-fat vegetarian diet, is intended to help reverse arterial blockages that cause coronary artery disease and possibly to help prevent or slow the progression of prostate and other cancers. However, no well-designed studies have been done to confirm these benefits.

Gerson diet

The Gerson diet involves eating 15 to 20 pounds of fruits and vegetables (nearly all converted into juice) each day, as well as taking supplements and using coffee enemas.

Proponents claim that this regimen can help treat cancer, heart disorders, arthritis, autoimmune disorders, and diabetes. However, no well-designed studies support any of these claims. Also, detoxification has not been shown to remove any specific toxin.

One risk with this diet is that if it is used to treat cancer, it can delay treatment with a effective conventional therapy.

Macrobiotic diet

A consists of largely vegetables, whole grains, fruits, and cereals. Some people following a macrobiotic diet have reported cancer remission, but no well-designed studies have been done in people with cancer.

One risk with a macrobiotic diet is inadequate nutrition if the diet is not followed carefully.

Paleo diet

The Paleo diet consists of types of food allegedly consumed in the distant past during the Paleolithic (Stone Age) era, when food was hunted or gathered. That is, it consists of foods made from animals and wild plants. Thus, the diet results in the following:

  • Eating more protein

  • Eating fewer carbohydrates and, when eating them, eating mainly nonstarchy fresh fruits and vegetables

  • Consuming more fiber

  • Often eating more fat, mainly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats

Foods thought not to be available during the Paleolithic era (such as dairy products, grains, legumes, processed oils, refined sugar, salt, and coffee) are avoided. Proponents claim that people cannot process (metabolize) many of these foods. However, knowledge of what was eaten in the Paleolithic era is limited, and some evidence suggests that in the Paleolithic era, the diet was not as limited as the modern Paleo diet.

Proponents of the Paleo diet claim that it reduces the risk of coronary artery disease, type 2 diabetes, and many chronic degenerative disorders. They also claim it promotes weight loss in overweight people, improves athletic performance, enhances sleep, and improves mental function. However, there is no convincing evidence that this diet has any of these effects.

Risks of the Paleo diet include inadequate nutrition (due to decreased consumption of whole grains and dairy products) and possibly an increased risk of coronary artery disease (due to increased consumption of fat and protein).