What Is the Alton Brown Diet?

Alton Brown Diet

 Verywell / Debbie Burkhoff

At Verywell, we believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy lifestyle. Successful eating plans need to be individualized and take the whole person into consideration. Prior to starting a new diet plan, consult with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian, especially if you have an underlying health condition.

What Is the Alton Brown Diet?

When TV food expert Alton Brown decided he needed to lose 50 pounds, he did it by making four lists to help him commit to eating certain foods more frequently than others. Brown shared his short list of things to eat daily, a list of foods to eat three times per week, items to eat no more than once per week, and a list of foods to avoid altogether.

While this strategy helped Brown lose weight successfully, what worked for one person may not always work for another. Still, the plan does encourage nutrient-dense foods, which are an important part of a balanced diet and may lead to weight loss.

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

The 7-Day Diet Plan

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

The following seven-day meal plan offers ideas for what to eat on the Alton Brown diet. Note that this plan is not all-inclusive and does not include indulgences, since those are limited to once a week and are an individual's preference. If you do choose to follow this diet, there may be other meals that work better for you.

What You Can Eat

Brown focuses on foods that are nutrient-dense, meaning they provide a variety of vitamins and nutrients for healthier eating while also being lower in calories.

As described, the diet is fairly restrictive. But it does include many nutrient-dense foods, and wisely recommends swearing off artificial sweeteners and junk foods (while still allowing a once-weekly dessert). As well, Brown advises people to make their own lists with the foods that work for them.

Eat Every Day Foods

On Brown's "eat every day" list are the foods listed below. He does say that everyone's food lists would be different, and this is what worked for him. Some people may prefer other dairy-free milk alternatives such as almond or oat milk. Others might want to incorporate adequate protein and healthy fats like olive oil on their daily lists.

  • Leafy greens (spinach, kale, chard)
  • Nuts (almonds, cashews, walnuts)
  • Carrots
  • Green tea
  • Soy milk

Three-Times-a-Week Foods

On Brown's "three times per week" list are the foods listed below.

  • Oily fish (wild salmon, sardines)
  • Yogurt
  • Broccoli
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Avocado

Once-a-Week Foods

Brown allowed himself some indulgences once per week.

  • Alcohol
  • Red meat
  • Pasta
  • Dessert

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.

What You Cannot Eat

There are not many specific foods that are absolutely off limits except for a few. Brown suggests making your own list of never foods.

"Never" Foods

Brown decided he would have to completely eliminate a few foods.

Brown also did not drink milk because he said 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 to crave sugary, low-nutrient foods, try to eliminate it.

How to Prepare the Alton Brown Diet & Tips

The key to Brown's plan isn't necessarily the specific foods on his lists. It's how the lists emphasize nutrient-dense foods, which means getting a lot of nutrition for fewer calories.

That means if you can't stand sardines, need more daily protein for energy, or wish to enjoy low-fat milk in your coffee, you should feel free to modify the lists so that they work for you.

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, nutrition experts recommend avoiding these foods to promote weight management and maintain overall health.

Sample Shopping List

The Alton Brown diet emphasizes nutrient-dense whole foods and restricts processed foods, pasta, red meat, and sugary desserts with the exception of a once-weekly indulgence. The following shopping list provides suggestions for getting started with this plan. Note that this shopping list is not all-inclusive and there may be other foods that you prefer.

  • Leafy greens (kale, collard greens, arugula, spinach, red leaf lettuce)
  • Vegetables (zucchini, broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower, eggplant, carrots)
  • Fruits (oranges, berries, apples, bananas, pineapple, mango)
  • Whole grains (whole wheat bread, quinoa, brown rice, amaranth)
  • Oily fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna, rainbow trout)
  • Lean animal protein (chicken or turkey breast, pork tenderloin)
  • Nuts (almonds, cashews, walnuts, pine nuts)
  • Avocados
  • Tofu
  • Dairy-free milk (soy, almond, oat, coconut)
  • Yogurt

Pros of the Alton Brown Diet

The Alton Brown diet worked well for Brown, but this program has its benefits and drawbacks, as with all diets. Review the pros and cons to inform your decision about trying this eating plan.

  • Includes nutrient-dense foods: 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.
  • Provides flexibility: Brown reports what worked for him, not espousing these specific (and very limited) lists as the only way to eat. That means there is room to add and subtract in ways that work for you. For example, you might add a wider variety of vegetables to the "every day" list or put red meat on the "never" list if you are a vegetarian.
  • Practical to do: These kinds of food rules work well for some people. You know what you can and can't eat, and you stick with it. (But for others, this method might not be as effective. They might rebel against the ban on certain foods.)
  • No counting necessary: The simplicity of this eating plan has its appeal. There's no carb or calorie counting, weighing, or measuring. There's no portion control, just some restriction around eating certain foods only once or three times a week. So while this takes discipline, it doesn't take extra time to track everything you eat.
  • May promote weight loss: It's possible to lose weight on the Alton Brown diet. Research shows that a diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and minimizes processed food, added sugar, and saturated fat can promote weight loss and improve overall health.
  • Includes heart-friendly foods: Studies show that a diet rich in fatty fish is associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular mortality.

Should you decide to follow this diet exactly the way Alton Brown did, 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.

Cons of the Alton Brown Diet

While there are no known health risks associated with the Alton Brown diet, eliminating certain foods (like canned soup and pasta) is not based on science and is probably unnecessary for most people.

  • May seem restrictive: Brown's lists of foods to eat are unnecessarily short. 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.
  • Provides no structure or guidelines: 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.
  • Not a long-term plan: While Brown thinks of this diet as a lifelong eating plan, he has said that after his 50-pound weight loss, he relaxed his rules. That would likely be necessary for most followers in a maintenance phase, but there is little advice for those who may need additional guidelines for weight management.
  • Restricts foods unnecessarily: Low-sodium canned soup and lean cuts of red meat can be included in a well-balanced diet.
  • May not be suitable for some: Some of the restrictions associated with the Alton Brown diet may lead to an unhealthy obsession with food and labeling otherwise healthy foods as "bad." This plan may not be suitable for anyone with a history of an eating disorder or who may be at risk for developing one.

Although the diet has no real rationale behind many of its lists, the idea is for you to customize your own lists of foods that work or do not work for you. You can certainly broaden the foods to eat each day or during the week and limit some foods you struggle to eat sensibly during weight loss. Note that any food in moderation is acceptable.

Is the Alton Brown Diet a Healthy Choice for You?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggests aiming for a balanced mix of protein, fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy products in each meal, or at least across each day. Based on Brown's lists of foods to eat, his diet plan is somewhat heavier on fruits and grains than federal guidelines. But limiting saturated fats, processed foods, and added sugars adheres to the USDA's guidelines for healthy living.

Brown's plan does not include calorie counting. In a way, the calorie counting is built into the foods he selected. He chose foods 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 will lose weight.

For a steady rate of weight loss, the USDA suggests a reduction of 500 calories a day. On a 2,000-calorie a day diet, that equates to an intake of around 1,500 calories per day. However, these numbers vary based on an individual's age, weight, sex, and level of physical activity. 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.

With the exception of a few restrictions, the Alton Brown diet relies on a variety of nutritious foods and can be an effective weight loss plan for some people.

A Word From Verywell

Alton Brown became a popular TV personality for a reason. He's witty, relatable, and is a culinary expert. 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 also 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 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, seek advice from a physician or dietitian so you can truly tailor your lists for your body and your health.

Remember, following a long-term or short-term diet may not be necessary for you and many diets out there simply don’t work, especially long-term. While we do not endorse fad diet trends or unsustainable weight loss methods, we present the facts so you can make an informed decision that works best for your nutritional needs, genetic blueprint, budget, and goals.

If your goal is weight loss, remember that losing weight isn’t necessarily the same as being your healthiest self, and there are many other ways to pursue health. Exercise, sleep, and other lifestyle factors also play a major role in your overall health. The best diet is always the one that is balanced and fits your lifestyle.

3 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Laura Dolson
Laura Dolson is a health and food writer who develops low-carb and gluten-free recipes for home cooks.