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.

If you're interested in culinary science, then there's a good chance you've heard of TV personality and food expert Alton Brown and his show, "Good Eats," which ran on the Food Network and the Cooking Channel from 1999 to 2012. 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.

Brown explained his weight-loss method on an episode of "Good Eats" called "Live and Let Diet," which first aired in January 2010. In it, Brown was transparent about the fact that he is not a dietitian or doctor and that he did not consult a doctor when he developed his "four lists" diet.

The four lists of foods include what you can eat on this plan. Brown had a shortlist 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 a list of foods to avoid completely.

While Brown was able to successfully lose weight, what worked for one person may not always work for another. Learn about what you can eat on the Alton Brown diet to decide if it's the right plan for you.

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

What Can You 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).

What You Need to Know

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.

What to Eat
  • Fruit

  • Whole grains

  • Nuts

  • Leafy greens

  • Other vegetables

  • Oily fish

  • Avocado

  • Tofu and soy milk

What Not to Eat
  • 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

Eat Every Day 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 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.

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 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 unhealthy sugary foods, 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, 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

Sample Meal 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 three-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.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Features nutrient-dense foods

  • Flexible

  • Practical

  • No calorie- or carb-counting

Cons
  • Eliminates foods unnecessarily

  • No structure or guidelines

  • Not a long-term plan

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

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.

Flexible

Brown is reporting on 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 larger variety of vegetables to the "every day" list, or put red meat on the "never" list if you are a vegetarian.

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.

Practical

For some people, these kinds of food rules work well. 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

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, 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 in the form of tracking everything you eat.

Cons

Eliminates Foods

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.

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.

Is the Alton Brown Diet a Healthy Choice for You?

The Alton Brown diet is unique because it was customized for one person. But it does have some underlying principles that resemble other diet plans backed by media personalities. For instance, the Ornish Diet, developed by Dean Ornish, MD, is a very low-fat, vegetarian eating plan that was developed to help reduce heart disease. Like Brown, Dr. Ornish suggests limiting alcohol as well and consuming plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

In addition, the Dr. Oz 21-Day Diet emphasizes nutrient-dense, plant-based foods. Like the Alton Brown diet, this one cuts out processed foods and artificial sweeteners and limits animal protein. This is a short-term plan, and it would be hard for most people to eat this way for longer than the prescribed 21 days.

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.

Health Benefits

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. In addition, studies show that a diet rich in fatty fish is associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular mortality.

Health Risks

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. Choosing low-sodium canned soup and lean cuts of red meats can be included in a well-balanced diet.

To that end, 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 may be at risk for developing one.

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.

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Article Sources
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