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What is the McDougall Diet?

Nicole Madison
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The McDougall diet is a low-fat diet intended to help individuals lose weight and enjoy better health. It is even said to help reverse certain health conditions, without requiring medication. The diet was created by an American doctor named Dr. John McDougall. Dr. McDougall asserts that a range of diseases can be prevented if people eat whole, unprocessed foods that have low-fat content. His diet places particular focus on the consumption of starches.

The McDougall diet began after one of Dr. McDougall’s patients asked him whether he thought a person’s diet contributed to health conditions. The doctor went on to ask his patients about their diets and conduct research into the connection between diet, lifestyle, and health problems. Eventually, the doctor began to experiment with changing his diet to include more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains while eliminating his intake of meat and dairy products. As a result, he experienced such benefits to his health as lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. He lost weight as well.

Individuals who’ve followed the McDougall diet have claimed to experience significant weight loss and a range of improvements in their overall health. Among these health improvements are lowered blood pressure and better control of blood sugar. Some people have experienced relief from headaches, constipation, and fatigue. Some patients have even experienced fewer allergy and arthritis symptoms.

To follow the McDougall diet, a dieter stops eating meat, fish, and poultry. In fact, he’s not supposed to consume any animal products at all, so he also eliminates eggs, milk, dairy products, and shellfish from his diet. The dieter also cuts fats and oils from his diet, which works to encourage speedy weight loss. Eliminating these foods may also help improve a person’s health, as meat and animal products are sources of cholesterol and fats contribute to a wide range of medical conditions.

A person new to this diet might assume that all plant foods are acceptable. This is not the case with the McDougall diet. A person on this diet also eliminates high-fat plant foods, such as peanut butter, olives, and nuts. Even tofu makes the list of foods to eliminate. The idea is that getting rid of these foods helps a person to maximize weight loss.

Refined flour is also restricted from this diet. This means eliminating breads, crackers, and pasta products that are made using refined flour. Instead of such foods, the dieter is supposed to eat whole grain products. Whole grains are not only helpful for those who are hoping to lose weight, but they are also considered heart healthy and helpful for cancer prevention. Dieters should also eliminate or dramatically reduce their use of added sugars, including honey and molasses.

Fresh fruits and vegetables, especially those that are green or yellow, are emphasized with this diet as well as whole grains and starches. Foods such as potatoes, beans, and peas are consumed not only for their healthy qualities, but also for their ability to make the dieter feel full and satisfied for longer. Foods that are safe to consume raw are also included, as they may help boost weight loss.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Nicole Madison
By Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a The Health Board writer, where she focuses on topics like homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. Her passion for knowledge is evident in the well-researched and informative articles she authors. As a mother of four, Nicole balances work with quality family time activities such as reading, camping, and beach trips.
Discussion Comments
By anon1006405 — On Mar 05, 2022

Dr. McDougall now also allows pasta.

By anon984293 — On Jan 07, 2015

I am total fan of McDougall and all the other 'whole foods/vegan' lifestyle diet plans. (been one for years-- even before it was the 'thing' to do). I have all the cookbooks and follow the blog and newsletter. I am never bored with the recipes or menus and find them nutritious as well as delicious! ( And I don't understand or agree with those who criticize this "diet" and say it isn't healthy just because someone isn't eating a dead cow or chicken for their protein or taking in ounces of fatty oils a day?) By the way, I am also a runner and notice a definite negative effect in my performance if I sway off this type of eating and eat too much hummus, pb or other high fat food!

By anon978527 — On Nov 18, 2014

I am on the diet now. It can be hard to follow if you don't like veggies or beans or starches or if you don't explore new recipes, but I feel amazing. I have so much energy, need less sleep and am mentally happier and more alert in my thinking.

By anon975652 — On Oct 28, 2014

This is the first diet which allows me to eat/cook/plan around food and be satisfied, not hungry. I am only three weeks into it and my weight has dropped noticeably. Especially around the middle.

Don't understand it? Is it hard to follow? We have been eating delicious meals and having fun cooking around the no oil/animal fat rule.

Pureed veggies/beans go a long way.

I'm a 13 year breast cancer survivor and have also read great things about cancer/environment and a plant-based, low fat diet.

But number one, life must be enjoyed and the McDougall plan is enjoyable for our family.

By anon958315 — On Jun 26, 2014

Perhaps this works great for weight loss but I am seriously concerned about how it would set you up for long term brain health. Everything that I've researched shows that healthy fats (avocados, olive oil, coconut oil, nuts, etc.) are the main fuel for our brain. With the tremendous increase in brain disease I think I will stay away from this diet.

By anon334569 — On May 13, 2013

I have been on the McDougall diet for seven months. I am an athlete and to be honest, I was extremely dubious at the start. I was worried about protein and losing muscle mass. Now I am totally sold. I run faster and further, taking a full 30 seconds off my mile sprint! All of my lift are through the roof, in 5 months my deadlift is up nearly 100 pounds to 380 pounds! The best part of all is that I am totally ripped and it was easy and maintainable. That's the big one, maintainability.

My friend made fun of me all the time, men eat meat right? So I challenged two of them to a body fat contest. The rules were simple: lowest body fat average over three months. I knew that they would lose because there is no way you can keep your BF low for three months starving or on something stupid like the Paleo diet.

Ha. I crushed them with a 6.8 percent and the guy that did do Paleo gained 2.5 percent BF overall. They had good progress in the first month, then it just fell apart because you can't sustain a low BF on a crazy diet. Now none of them make jokes.

P.S. BF testing was preformed at SFU in their Bod Pod which is supposed to be as accurate as immersion testing. I hope this helps somebody make the leap. You will not be sorry.

By anon332507 — On Apr 29, 2013

Let me enlighten you. Like Doctor McDougall says: starch is good, starch is great and by not changing to this diet, you shortchange your chance of a healthy and very happy lifestyle.

I eat starches. And when I say eat, I mean I eat. Some meals are gorge fests. Why? Because I work and play hard and starches are to humans what rocket fuel is to jets. It is a high octane fuel which the meat and dairy industry prays hard that you never get past their propaganda and find out.

Anyone who is not being satiated while eating their starches means they are still listening to the rhetoric that is connected to high fat foods.

There is no portion control or small plates or mind control. You eat until you are completely full because you know that no matter how much you eat, you will not get fat. Starch is not fat and does not turn into fat. Fat is fat and that is all there is to that.

And yes, he does not recommend even vegetable fats. Why? Because most people are fat and they want to change their life. If you are at a healthy weight go ahead and indulge a little. Fats have their place in any healthy person's diet.

Just remember though: fat is fat and fat can make you fat and that is all there is to that.

By anon322900 — On Mar 01, 2013

I follow the Mcdougall diet. My depression is gone, the weight is going without hunger and my eczema is improving. I am happy, feeling good and very pleased to have found it. Also, my food bill was cut in half!

By anon316651 — On Jan 29, 2013

My father has been on this diet for five months now and has lost 60 pounds so far. He was also able to get off his high blood pressure pills and has seen much improvement on his atrial fibrillation, which he has had his whole life!

He admits it was hard at first,(he was a steak and potatoes kind of guy) but swears by it. He has never felt better. He is in his late 50's and works 10 hour days in construction in the Florida heat, and thanks to this diet he runs circles around the younger guys. My mother also started the diet and has lost 40 pounds in five months.

By anon315390 — On Jan 23, 2013

In my humble opinion, it's a tough diet to follow, but it's good for you. When I can follow it, my acne clears up and my migraines ease up. When I slip and go for the non fat white mocha or the chocolate cream filled donuts at work and a soda, my acne comes back and hits hard. It's worth it if you can follow it, but not everyone is at a point in their life where they can.

By anon314859 — On Jan 20, 2013

Regarding Post no. 13, which I wrote. I didn't mention that I am 6'2" and had a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 26.5 when I began McDougall's diet. I've struggled for years to lose those twenty extra pounds to no avail. Having lost some of these difficult pounds since New Year's Eve is, for me, very, very encouraging.

I eat a lot on this diet, am never hungry, and have lots of energy. I don't cook "fancy" as I live alone. In addition to rice, beans and salsa, I make mashed potatoes with non-dairy milk, frozen corn and frozen green beans. I make a vegan gravy from orange lentils and a great powdered vegetable seasoning from the local Earth Origins store (can't remember the brand name of the seasoning, but it is imported from Germany. Delicious! Best I've ever tried.). Some green salads, green pureed soups in the Vita Mix, and green smoothies are pretty much the whole of my diet. Oh, and old-fashioned oatmeal with raisins and non-dairy milk for breakfast. A favorite dessert: eight prunes, two dates soaked overnight in the fridge and then blended with some non-dairy milk; this is a great snack before going to bed.

Twice this month I've eaten a can of sardines in water: nobody's perfect! --A Guy in Gainesville

By anon314665 — On Jan 19, 2013

I've been on the McDougall diet for about three weeks, and so far I love it. I've brought my blood sugar down from 310 to 111! Wow! The weight is coming off -- but more slowly: 210 to 203.

I feel great. I could not believe that eating all those whole grains would reduce my blood sugar, but it did! I walk a lot and do aerobic exercise with five-pound weights.

I am 71 years old. I've been "mostly vegetarian" for decades and have always been a devoted walker -- but I was also addicted to fat: olive oil, butter, cheese, and sometimes meat. I did not think I could give up fat, but eating lots of beans and rice and salsa significantly reduces the craving for fat.

Guy in Gainesville

By anon311722 — On Jan 03, 2013

I thought the no-fat concept was too radical, but I gave this diet a chance since there was promise of getting rid of my inflammation and pain (from autoimmune diseases). There was a testimonial from a woman with fibromyalgia pain who woke up on day eight with no more pain.

On a talk-radio program, Dr. McDougall said there was a free 12-day program on his website, so I emailed him because I couldn't find it. He sent me the link as well as answers to my other questions. The 12-day program is so full of information that you don't need to buy any of his books.

My pain got steadily worse instead of better, so after two weeks I have added fish oil capsules and good fats back into the diet, and that has definitely helped. Also, I had no energy, which tells me it's not the diet for me.

It's very hard to cook healthy food with no fat, even with teflon. And I think a little olive oil is a healthier option than teflon.

The diet got me losing weight and into healthier eating habits to lower my cholesterol, without costing me a penny, so I'm thankful for that. I did, however, buy some of his soups for convenience (inexpensive at Target) -- and they are fabulous. I am also sleeping a lot better.

By anon295858 — On Oct 08, 2012

I have been on the diet for four years. My starting weight was 230 at a height of 6'-1". My starting cholesterol(total) was 225. After 6 months my weight stabilized at 188, and my total cholesterol was 127. This diet is a lifesaver for me. I'm 65 years old, and have never felt better.

By anon288383 — On Aug 30, 2012

I have been on the McDougall diet and the McDougall maximum weight loss plan for four months.

Upon starting the plan, my energy increased and within a couple weeks or so, I saw a marked improvement in mood. I have suffered from debilitating depression and obsessive thought patterns (OCD)off and on for years. I was literally at the bottom on the depression scale and I love the way the depression has lifted. I am in treatment for an eating disorder currently.

I still have yet to see the weight loss that other McDougallers experience, but this could be due to years of disordered eating. Since I started this way of eating, I no longer binge on anything, and haven't had a recurrence of either bulimia or restricting or binge eating. Those are the reasons I will continue to McDougall. I am starting to live again.

Yes, ultimately I do want and need to drop the weight that I have put on in recovery from this eating disorder, so I am starting an experiment in adding in healthy fats, which would mean I am no longer doing the Maximum weight loss plan, but I need something to work to get this fat off.

My only other complaint is getting in enough calories eating this way is difficult for me. I am full and seem to have enough energy for 8 mile runs, but when i add up all my food, I'm still at about 1300 calories. I'll keep trying.

By anon281331 — On Jul 23, 2012

A vegan diet high in fresh fruit and vegetables, legumes, whole grains as well as healthy plant based fats seems to me to be an optimal way of eating. What could be wrong with eating nuts, using good olive oil, and including avocado in one's diet? I say bah humbug to stringent low fat diets. Trust me, I went that route. I was hungry frequently. Now, I eat nuts, nut butters, avocado and olive oil, as well as smart balance light margarine.

I'm currently taking algae capsules for omega 3 efa's. My lipid levels need to come down. But no way am I going to do it eating a 10 percent fat intake. Sure, that did work in the past, bringing my total cholesterol to 179 at one point. But, again, I reiterate that I was always hungry.

Nothing wrong with plant based fats. Eat them and be happy!

By anon269721 — On May 19, 2012

Actually, I have tried the McDougall diet. All that needs to be done is to just cut out the fat (animal derived), oils (plant derived) and refined foods like crackers, and stick to plants and that is about it. And possibly things like keeping the salt low and other little things.

But to experiment with the diet, just cut out all fats (animal), oils (plant), for example, nuts, avocados, etc. and see how it makes you feel. I can usually make it about a half to a full day of eating nothing but potatoes or rice or oats without fat or oil or animal protein, and the cravings kick in so strong that I end up binging on junk food -- foods that are probably worse than a piece of chicken or fish, for example things like candy and other bad stuff. I do not have the willpower to do it, but once every few weeks I try it again, thinking, maybe there is like a turning point: if I can last long enough without the fats, oils, or animal protein, something might click in my body. You know, maybe insulin levels need time to adjust, which might be creating the unbearable cravings. Maybe there is too much fat floating around in my blood, and it needs to be cleared out so the insulin can drive the sugars into the cells. But as I mentioned, I cave every time.

What I have learned is to eat as much healthy fruits and veggies as I can, but if I get cravings, I have some chicken, turkey, pork, beef, fish, etc. It is better than going on a feeding frenzy with cakes and cookies.

By anon156329 — On Feb 26, 2011

The McDougall-diet is the "optimal diet" in my opinion. The reason why I claim this, is because the Mcdougall-diet, which is a very low-fat, high-fiber complex-carbohydrate based vegan diet, has been shown to reverse heart disease by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn as well as type-2 diabetes by Dr. Neal Barnard.

The McDougall diet is the best way to increase SHBG and IGFBP-3, which are sensitive biomarkers of insulin-sensitivity and are vital for hormone-balance. Dr. McDougall did a study showing that his diet reduced C-reactive protein by 16 percent!

The diet is centered on the belief that starch is the perfect food for humans. He bases his argument with evidence from around the globe, stating all major populations who maintain a grain-based or starch-based diets with the addition of vegetables (such as the traditional Asian diet based on rice or traditional Southern American diets based on potatoes) never encounter western diseases like heart disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, bone loss, cancer of the breast or prostate, etc. But as soon as the country becomes wealthy and begins eating more “rich foods” like processed foods and animal products, they become diseased.

McDougall states that glucose stimulates leptin and insulin, lowering appetite and increase satiety.

The food he recommends is naturally low in calories so you can eat as much as you want, and since starch doesn’t turn to fat, this allows for effortless weight loss and compliance to the diet. The low-fat/high-fiber aspect of the diet keeps insulin sensitivity the best it can be, allowing the glucose to be burned as energy and stored as glycogen, rather than converted into triglycerides and stored as fat. Also starch does not turn to fat (unlike fructose) via de novo lipogenesis.

I’ve been on the McDougall-diet for a year. It has drastically improved my triglycerides and cholesterol profile. It truly is the perfect diet for a nice lean athletic body and clean blood vessels. Good for the environment and animal well beings also.

By anon153694 — On Feb 17, 2011

There is no one diet that is perfect for everybody. We are all biochemically and genetically unique. That being said, I can definitely see a lot of beneficial aspects of the McDougall diet, especially to promote healthy weight loss and detoxification.

As a holistic nutrition student, though, I definitely do not promote a low-fat diet for anyone. Instead I recommend a diet rich in healthy good fats.

Some of the processes in which healthy fats are needed include: to protect the myelin sheath surrounding nerves, to protect and strengthen cell membranes, to manufacture hormones, involved with the metabolism of fat soluble vitamins, to nourish brain cells. Our bodies absolutely need good fats!

I consume a vegetarian diet rich in organic, non-gm whole grains, legumes, vegetables, green leaves, fruit, nuts, seeds, flax oil, sea vegetables, fermented foods, and herbal tea. This diet works for me. I look and feel great every day and I don't gain weight.

@StreamFinder: There are many excellent theories for multiple causes of MS.

It is an autoimmune disease where an overactive immune system attacks and degrades the fatty myelin sheath that protects nerves. A lot of foods can cause overactive immune activity including: chemicals and additives, hormone and antibiotic residues in meat and dairy, gluten, nightshades, citrus, nuts, etc.

When you remove "irritating" allergenic foods (they differ for everyone) and consume only good quality whole foods, over time the body is able to regulate immune system functioning and promote anti-inflammatory prostaglandin activity.

By anon137135 — On Dec 26, 2010

The McDougall Diet is different from a vegan diet because it advises one to avoid fatty vegan foods such as oil, high sugary vegan foods, and other vegan foods such as processed flours and tofu.

Portion control is not an issue - as it is with Dean Ornish's diet - though you are advised to only eat when you are hungry. Also, I doubt McDougall is trying to get rich - look at his website more closely - he offers so many free things to the public.

I think it is obvious that his diet won't hurt someone; the question is whether it is really as beneficial and healthy as McDougall claims it is. So, the best thing is to try the diet and see how you feel.

By anon129612 — On Nov 24, 2010

We try the diets and understand for ourselves.

He does not want people to focus on Vegan. If people would try things themselves first with basing our lives on opinions of others, that is I found in my life religion to be another master manipulator, along with eating meat and dairy.

I am not pooh-pooing others, but try it.

By StreamFinder — On Nov 19, 2010

I have heard a lot about the Dr. John McDougall diet, but I'm a little leery about it for a few reasons.

First, that much starch seems a bit excessive for me. Although the whole unprocessed, vegan-type food thing is great, the diet does seem to load up on the starch, which can't be that healthy.

Secondly, I've looked at his website and read about the retreats. The way I interpreted it (and I could be totally off, so correct me if I'm wrong), there's no portion control in this diet.

Although it is certainly healthier to eat the foods approved by the diet, eating them in unregulated amounts is still not the best thing in the world for your body.

Finally, I'm a little bit confused as to how his diet can prevent degenerative disease. I am sure it can make you healthier, and that it's great for weight loss if you do it properly, but I simply don't see the science to back up his claims about preventing dieseases like MS.

I'd love to discuss this though, so if anybody's got an opinion, let me know.

By CopperPipe — On Nov 19, 2010

It sounds to me like this is pretty much your basic vegan diet plan. So what exactly is the difference between the Dr. McDougall plan and vegan diet?

It seems like this is just another gimmick -- I have no problem with a vegan diet plan in general, but after seeing the eight or so books that this man has put out about dieting, I can't help but wonder exactly how beneficial his diet is for people rather than for his wallet.

I think that I'll just stick with my regular low fat diet plan, and skip out on Dr. McDougall's Digestive Tune Up (and its hefty price tag!)

By pleats — On Nov 19, 2010

Has anybody ever tried McDougalls diet? I've been reading a lot of McDougall diet reviews, and some of them are really positive, but I've also seen a lot of criticism about the McDougall diet.

It's like I can't find a good middle ground -- all the McDougall diet reviews are just over the top positive, while all the McDougall diet criticisms are very, very negative.

I would really like to get an unbiased, personal review about this diet, so I would love to hear from someone who has tried it.

If you're reading this and have tried the McDougall diet program, then I'd love to hear about your experience -- whether you found that it worked, whether it did what it claimed, how hard it was to follow, etc.

So let me know, I'm really curious!

Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a The Health Board writer, where she focuses on topics like...
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