What Is the Alton Brown Diet?

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Alton Brown
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If you're interested in kitchen science, then there's a good chance you have checked out Alton Brown's show "Good Eats," which ran on the Food Network and on the Cooking Channel. When Brown decided he need to lose 50 pounds, he did it by making four lists to help him commit to eating certain foods more frequently than others.

What Experts Say

"The Alton Brown diet categorizes foods into four lists: daily, three times a week, once a week, and never. While there’s no scientific rationale, defining rules may help some people stick with a diet and lose weight. Experts emphasize that any food can fit occasionally, though."
Chrissy Carroll, RD, MPH

Background

Brown explained his weight-loss method on an episode of "Good Eats" called "Live and Let Diet," which first aired in January 2010. Brown clearly states that not only is he not a dietitian or doctor, he did not consult a doctor when he started his "four lists" diet. He devised a plan where he would stick to four lists of foods that he was allowed to eat. He had a short list of things to eat daily, a list of foods to eat three times per week, a list of items to eat no more than once per week, and one of foods to avoid completely.

How It Works

Brown focused on foods that were nutrient dense, meaning they provided a variety of vitamins and nutrients for healthier eating while also being lower in calories.

What to Eat

Compliant Foods

  • Fruit

  • Whole grains

  • Nuts

  • Leafy greens

  • Other vegetables

  • Oily fish

  • Avocado

  • Tofu and soy milk

Non-Compliant Foods

  • Pasta (more than once a week)

  • Alcohol (more than one drink per week)

  • Red meat (more than once a week)

  • Desserts (more than once a week)

  • Fast food

  • "Diet" food

  • Soda

  • Processed foods

  • Canned soup

Daily Foods

On Brown's "eat every day" list: Fruit, whole grains, leafy greens, nuts, carrots, and green tea. During the weight-loss period, he started most days with a fruit smoothie that included soy milk. He does say that everyone's food lists would be different, and this is what worked for him. Some might want to incorporate adequate protein and olive oil on this daily list.

Three-Times-a-Week Foods

On Brown's three times per week list: Oily fish (wild salmon, sardines, etc.), yogurt, broccoli, sweet potatoes, and avocado. The sweet potatoes offer carotenoids, and the oily fish has lots of healthy fats. Sardines also offer calcium because you consume the fish bones and all. If you're making your own "often but not daily" list, perhaps consider expanding upon broccoli to include other vegetables in that family of cruciferous vegetables, like cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.

Once-a-Week Foods

Brown allowed himself some indulgences once per week: alcohol, red meat, pasta, and dessert.

"Never" Foods

Before adopting this plan, Brown was a frequent diet-soda drinker. He decided he would have to completely eliminate that, and a few other foods: fast food, processed meals, canned soups (too much sodium), and "diet" anything (too many artificial sweeteners).

Brown explained his rationale like this: He wouldn't eat "anything with the word 'diet' on it because, after all, I'm not on a diet. Besides, the way I look at it, artificial sweeteners have so deadened our collective palates that we can't even taste how sweet real sweet even is when we get it," he said on "Good Eats." Brown did not drink milk because it made him crave cookies, cake, and other sweet temptations. That's something to take away from Brown's plan: If a certain type of food leads you down a wrong path, try to eliminate it.

Getting a fast-food burger once in a while or having a little artificial sweetener is not the worst choice in the world. But, in general, it makes sense to avoid these foods.

Recommended Timing

Aside from spacing out certain foods to one or three times per week, Brown does not give much other instruction on when to eat. However, he does suggest having breakfast every day. For him, that usually means a fruit smoothie.

Modifications

The key to Brown's plan isn't necessarily the specific foods on his lists. It's how they emphasize nutrient-dense foods, which means getting a lot of nutrition for fewer calories. So if you can't stand sardines, need more daily protein for energy, or can enjoy low-fat milk in your coffee without craving brownies on the side, you should feel free to modify the lists so that they work best for you.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Features nutrient-dense foods

  • Flexible

  • No calorie- or carb-counting

Cons

  • Low in protein

  • Eliminates foods unnecessarily

  • Too DIY for some people

Pros

Nutrient-Dense

Brown designed his lists so they would encourage him to eat a lot of foods that are rich in nutrients, but lower in calories: Leafy greens, whole grains, fruits, and fish. And on the "never" list are foods that offer little more than calories with no nutritive value.

Flexible

Brown is reporting on what worked for him, not espousing these specific (and very limited) lists as the only way to eat. So there is room to add and subtract in ways that work for you. For example, you might add a larger variety of vegetables to the "every day" list, or put red meat on the "never" list if you are a vegetarian.

No Counting

The simplicity of this eating plan has its appeal. There's no carb or calorie counting, weighing or measuring. There's not even any portion control, except in the sense of choosing to eat a food only once or three times a week. So while this takes discipline, it doesn't take extra time in the form of tracking everything you eat.

This diet does have its benefits, and was effective for Brown. But be aware of these drawbacks as well.

Cons

Low Protein

The USDA recommends that most adults consume five to six "ounce equivalents" of protein every day, or about 55 grams for a 150-pound person. An ounce equivalent is 1 egg, 1 ounce of meat or fish, or 1/4 cup of legumes. Protein sources on Brown's diet are nuts (a daily food), fish, tofu, and (once weekly) red meat; whole grains also contain small amounts of protein. But you'd need to eat 10 ounces of almonds (Brown's choice for nuts) to get 60 grams of protein. That would come with 1600 calories—a full day's amount for many people—and almost 90 grams of fat.

Eliminates Foods

Brown's lists of foods to eat are unnecessarily short, experts say. For example, his daily list includes leafy greens and carrots, and his three-times-a-week list includes broccoli and sweet potatoes, but that's it for veggies. There's no reason why other vegetables, and sources of lean protein, should be excluded from these lists.

Too Do-It-Yourself

The flip side of flexibility is a lack of structure. Since there aren't a lot of fixed rules here, this diet could be modified—possibly right out of effectiveness.

How It Compares

On the one hand, this diet is unique because it is customized to one person, Alton Brown. But it does have some underlying principles that other people could use, and that it shares with other diets.

USDA Recommendations

Food Groups

The USDA suggests aiming for a balanced mix of protein, fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy products in each meal, or at least across each day. Brown's plan is heavier on fruits and grains than these guidelines, although it is a little hard to tell because we only have Brown's lists to go on (no sample daily meal plans).

Calories

Brown's plan does not include calorie counting at all. In a way, the calorie counting is built in to the foods Brown selected. He chose those that deliver a lot of nutrients without a lot of calories for his daily and frequent picks, and he limits or avoids foods that "cost" a lot of calories for little nutrient return.

But for many people, weight loss comes down to a matter of calories in vs. calories out. If you consume fewer calories than you burn (through daily living and purposeful exercise), you lose weight. The USDA suggests a range of about 1600 to 2000 daily calories for weight loss, depending on age, weight, sex, and activity level. If Brown's four-list plan doesn't give you the results you're seeking, you might need to adjust your calorie intake. This calculator helps you determine a good target number.

Similar Diets

See how Alton Brown's diet compares to other eating plans, including some with a celebrity tie-in.

Alton Brown Four-List Diet

  • Nutrition: As described, the diet is fairly restrictive. It does include many nutrient-dense foods, and wisely recommends swearing off artificial sweeteners and junk foods (while still allowing a once-weekly dessert).
  • Flexibility: Should you decide to follow this diet exactly the way Alton Brown does, it's not especially flexible. Foods are either on the lists or they're not. The exception is the way the diet allows special indulgences (red meat, alcohol) once a week rather than banning them completely.
  • Practicality: For some people, these kinds of food rules work well. You know what you can and can't eat and you stick with it; there is no counting calories or measuring portions. For others, this method might not be as effective. They might rebel against the ban on certain foods.
  • Sustainability: Brown thinks of this as a lifelong eating plan, although he has said that after his 50-pound weight loss, he relaxed his rules a bit. That would likely be necessary for most followers in a maintenance phase.

Ornish Diet

  • Nutrition: First outlined by Dr. Dean Ornish, this diet is a very low-fat, vegetarian eating plan. It was originally conceived with the goal of reversing heart disease. No animal proteins are included, except egg whites, and saturated fats and refined carbs are also off-limits. Like Alton Brown, Dr. Ornish suggests limiting alcohol as well, and consuming plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Flexibility: Especially in the first, or "reversal," phase, there is little room for modification here. But other phases and versions exist which offer more options, even including lean proteins such as fish and chicken.
  • Practicality: This diet allows for only 10 percent of daily calories to come from fat, which is challenging for most people. In addition, vegetarian cooking can be time-consuming, especially if it is something new to learn. But as with the Alton Brown diet, there is no calorie or carb counting.
  • Sustainability: This diet is intended to be used as a long-term lifestyle, especially in its "prevention" mode. It is safe to do so, but may be hard to achieve due to its restrictiveness.

Dr. Oz 21-Day Diet

  • Nutrition: Another Dr. O, Dr. Oz, has a 21-Day Diet plan that emphasizes nutrient-dense, plant-based foods. Like the Alton Brown diet, this one cuts out processed foods and artificial sweeteners and limits animal protein. Both specifically recommend drinking tea (green for Brown, oolong for Oz). The Oz diet limits grains (even whole grains) sharply, where for Brown they are a daily food.
  • Flexibility: There is not much in this short-term plan. It comes with a list of foods to eat, and approved amounts for each.
  • Practicality: While portion control is required, calorie counting isn't. Neither are special supplements or ingredients. But only whole foods are allowed, which means extra prep and cooking time.
  • Sustainability: This is a short-term plan, and it would be hard for most people to eat this way for longer than the 21 days it's designed for.

Whole30

  • Nutrition: The Whole30 diet shares some qualities with Alton Brown's four lists, because it is an elimination diet. For 30 days, followers eat only whole foods, cutting out many of the things Brown does, such as processed meals, canned soup, diet sodas, and artificial sweeteners. Whole30 goes further, though, also excluding dairy, whole grains, and legumes. All of these have lots of nutritional value.
  • Flexibility: This is considered an elimination diet, which means if you slip up, you have to start over from the beginning. There are no "cheat days" or once-a-week foods as in Brown's plan.
  • Practicality: Although many foods are excluded from this plan, many are included too: fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, herbs, and spices. Still, it is a radical change from the way most people eat, and will take time to execute. However, there is no counting, measuring, or tracking.
  • Sustainability: This diet is meant to last 30 days, followed by a reintroduction of some of the eliminated foods to see how the body responds. As noted, though, the diet must be followed carefully for 30 days before any changes can be made, which could be a challenge for some followers.

A Word From Verywell

Alton Brown is a popular TV personality for a reason. He's witty, relatable, and seems to know his stuff when it comes to food science. And he did lose 50 pounds with his four-list method. There can be a great appeal to an approach like this, because it tends to simplify your life. There can be value to having food rules to follow.

Brown's focus on foods that are nutrient dense is a good one, but it still eliminates a great many healthy foods. If you're interested in this plan, you might try drawing up your own lists, knowing the foods that tend to trigger you to overeat. Ideally, get advice from a physician or dietitian so you can truly tailor your lists for your body and your health.

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