What Is the Scarsdale Diet?

Scarsdale 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.

The Scarsdale diet was created in the 1970s by Herman Tarnower, MD, a cardiologist in Scarsdale, NY. He developed the diet at the Scarsdale Medical Center after his patients complained that other diets weren't working for them.

The high-protein, low-calorie, low-carb weight loss plan is designed to last 14 days. It restricts foods such as starchy vegetables, rice, and wheat flour and eliminates alcohol. According to reports, Dr. Tarnower wrote out his weight loss program as a two-page plan that he handed to patients who needed to slim down for better heart health. The program quickly gained popularity through word of mouth, and hoping to capitalize on the success of the Atkins diet, Dr. Tarnower turned the diet plan into a book. "The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet Plus Dr. Tarnower's Lifetime Keep-Slim Program" went through 21 printings in less than a year after its initial publication in 1978.

The program gained widespread media attention as the go-to quick weight loss program for high-society types and fashion elites. The diet increased in popularity when Dr. Tarnower was murdered in 1980 by his jilted lover, Jean Harris. While the diet is no longer as popular as it once was, movies and other television programs based on Tarnower's life and the scandal surrounding his murder continue to gain attention.

The book is no longer in print, though you may be able to find a copy from some online vendors. You will also still find many unofficial websites devoted to the plan. However, health experts have criticized the very low-calorie requirements of the Scarsdale diet and the inflated weight-loss claims. Find out why this popular fad diet of the late '70s is not recommended by health and nutrition experts.

What Experts Say

"The Scarsdale diet drastically reduces calories to an unsustainable level, which nutrition professionals advise against. The diet prohibits many nutrient-dense foods (such as sweet potato and avocado), making meals less enjoyable and putting you at risk for nutrient deficiencies."
Chrissy Carroll, RD, MPH

What Can You Eat?

The Scarsdale diet is a very strict eating plan that allows for just 1,000 calories per day, regardless of your body size, sex, or activity level. No substitutions of any kind are allowed and each meal is specifically defined for each of the 14 days of the diet.

This is a high protein program that also includes fruits and vegetables. You consume 43% of your calories from protein, 22.5% of calories from fat, and 34.5% of your calories from carbohydrates.

Dr. Tarnower is very explicit in his book that you are not to extend the program beyond 14 days. During the two weeks of the diet, he says that you will lose up to 20 pounds, which is unrealistically high and potentially unsafe.

What You Need to Know

After the 14-day weight loss phase, Dr. Tarnower outlines a lifetime "keep slim" plan. During this program, you follow a similar but slightly more relaxed version of the Scarsdale diet. For example, in the maintenance phase, you can have one alcoholic drink per day. The maintenance plan can be followed indefinitely, but if you start to gain weight (as defined as a four-pound weight increase on the scale), you are advised to go back on the 14-day Scarsdale diet.

Most people who followed the Scarsdale diet did so by purchasing the book. The program was available in both paperback and hardcover editions, although paperback versions were more popular.

Keep in mind that at the time this diet was released, the internet did not yet exist. However, since the book has gone out of print and technology has evolved, several websites are now dedicated to the program. These sites outline the 14-day meal plan and some provide recipes for the protein bread, a staple on the diet. But none of these sites are affiliated with the original program.

The book provides two modified versions of the diet: a vegetarian plan and an international plan. However, the calorie and macronutrient intake are the same and the eating rules don't change.

The vegetarian plan recommends the same caloric intake, but the meal plans are based on vegetables, fruits, some dairy products, nuts, and limited amounts of grains. Some vegetables (such as sweet potatoes) are not allowed. The international plan is a diet plan that allows for more variety. Each day is assigned a specific cuisine (i.e. Monday is American Day, Tuesday is Japanese Day, Wednesday is French Day, etc.).

In the book, Dr. Tarnower writes that the Scarsdale diet is designed for adults in "normal health." He states that those with medical problems and those who are pregnant should not use the plan without the approval of a physician.

What to Eat
  • Limited vegetables

  • Cheese and eggs

  • Nuts

  • Fruit (especially grapefruit)

  • Meat, poultry, seafood, cold cuts

  • Black coffee, tea, water, diet soda

  • Protein bread

What Not to Eat
  • Butter, salad dressing, avocado, and most other fats

  • Potatoes, rice, sweet potatoes, beans

  • Sugar and sugary treats

  • Pasta, most bread, flour-based foods

  • Full fat milk

  • Alcoholic beverages

Limited Vegetables

Some vegetables, including leafy green vegetables, zucchini, green beans, and Brussels sprouts are usually part of the day's diet, generally at dinner. Carrots and celery are the only snacks allowed on the plan.

Cheese and Eggs

Eggs are included in a few lunch menus and can be prepared according to your preference as long as no fat is used. Cheese slices and cottage cheese are also included in a few lunch menus.

Nuts

Nuts are not included in the standard meal plan, however, on the substitute lunch plan, you are allowed to have six halves of walnuts or pecans.

Fruit

Grapefruit is included in every breakfast. It is also included in several lunches. Fruit salad is also included in a lunch menu.

Meat, Poultry, Seafood

Roast chicken and turkey, lamb, hamburger, and broiled steak are included in dinner menus. Fish and shellfish are also on a dinner menu. Cold cuts are included in lunch menus although fatty meats such as bologna are not allowed.

Zero-Calorie Beverages

Black coffee, tea, water, and diet soda are included in the plan. Cream and sugar in your tea or coffee are not allowed.

Protein Bread

Protein bread (made with soy flour, whole wheat flour, and gluten flour) is a staple on this plan. A recipe is provided in the book, but this product was also available in grocery stores in the 1970s.

Alcoholic Beverages

No alcohol is allowed during the 14-day Scarsdale diet. However, on the maintenance plan, one serving of dry alcohol is allowed per day.

Butter and Other Spreads

No added fat is allowed on the program, including butter, margarine, salad dressings, peanut butter, olive oil, or avocado.

Potatoes, Rice, Sweet potatoes, Beans

Starchy vegetables and legumes are not allowed on the plan as they are significant sources of carbohydrates.

Sugary Treats

No desserts of any kind (ice cream, baked goods, candy, etc) are allowed on the program. On some days fruit may be consumed.

Pasta and Flour-Based Foods

No bread or pasta products are consumed on the diet, except for specific amounts of protein bread.

Full Fat Milk

Only low-fat and nonfat milk products are allowed.

On the plan, you eat three meals per day. Snacks are not allowed except for carrots and celery.

Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Simple

  • Specific meal plans provided

  • Inexpensive

  • Requires no subscription, long-term commitment

Cons
  • Extremely low in calories

  • Not likely to be sustainable

  • Limits healthy carbohydrates

  • Provides unrealistic guidelines

  • Overpromises weight loss


The rules are easy to follow, which makes this plan seem appealing. However, the drawbacks of the Scarsdale diet outweigh any potential benefits. Review the pros and cons associated with the program to inform your decision before trying this diet.

Pros

Simple

The Scarsdale diet is easy to follow and leaves very little room for error. Each meal is outlined and includes only two to three foods. Substitutions are strongly discouraged. Dr. Tarnower explains that if you have a food allergy, substitutions are allowed, but otherwise, foods should be consumed exactly as indicated.

Specific Meal Plan Provided

Consumers who don't like having to plan meals or count calories may prefer this program because it takes the guesswork out of meal planning. There is not a lot of variation from one meal to the next, so shopping should be simple and most foods (except for the protein bread) are easily found in most grocery stores.

Inexpensive

Compared to weight loss programs that require you to buy prepackaged food, this program is likely to be less expensive. Food is consumed in very small quantities, so your grocery bill for the two weeks of the plan is not likely to be very high.

No Subscription or Long-Term Commitment

Unlike many weight loss programs that are popular today, there is no subscription required to follow the Scarsdale diet. Consumers can simply buy the book (if they can find an available copy) or get one from the library to follow the plan.

Cons

Extremely Low in Calories

Everyone who follows the Scarsdale diet consumes 1,000 calories per day, regardless of age, sex, weight, or activity level. As a basis for comparison, most weight loss programs today set a calorie target of roughly 1,200–1,500 calories for women and 1,500-1,800 calories for men. Those who are very active generally consume more calories.

Not Sustainable

While some people may be able to follow this program for two weeks, many people will find that the program is too restrictive to maintain. Researchers have recommended that diets should be nutritionally adequate and tailored to meet individual needs in order to be sustainable for the long term.

Limits Healthy Carbohydrates

During the two weeks that you follow the Scarsdale diet, your carbohydrate intake is substantially limited. While you will still consume healthy greens such as spinach and green beans, your intake of healthy fiber-rich foods like legumes and whole grains is severely restricted.

Unrealistic Weight Expectations

A "desired weight chart" is provided in the book that readers can use as a guideline to see if they should lose weight. The chart does not take any factors other than sex into account. According to Dr. Tarnower, the chart is simply based on his years of medical experience.

By today's standards, the weight ranges Dr. Tarnower provided may seem restrictive. For example, the chart indicates that a 5' 4" woman should weigh between 110–123 pounds, which is on the lower end of the current healthy BMI recommendation. Similarly, a man who is 5' 11" should weigh between 152–168 pounds, according to Dr. Tarnower. In addition, there is no discussion of lean muscle mass or body composition.

Overpromises Weight Loss

The cornerstone of the Scarsdale diet's popularity was its promise of quick weight loss. According to the book's claims, you can lose 20 pounds in 14 days when you follow the plan. But any weight lost on this plan is likely to be primarily water weight as a result of carbohydrate restriction.

Those following the Scarsdale diet would need to choose foods very carefully to get their recommended intakes, which makes the program harder to follow and therefore eliminates one of the few appealing aspects of this plan.

Is the Scarsdale Diet a Healthy Choice for You?

The Scarsdale diet was widely compared to the Atkins diet when the program was first released. Both programs were developed by cardiologists in a medical setting and were provided to patients before being published in book form. But the Atkins diet has since gone through many changes. While the first phase of Atkins is similar to Scarsdale in its low-carb, high-protein approach, Atkins gradually introduces more low-glycemic, high-fiber carbohydrates, including whole grains.

The Atkins program has changed substantially over the years and the programs are no longer comparable. Following the death of Dr. Tarnower, the Scarsdale diet never evolved or adjusted to reflect updated dietary guidelines provided by health experts or the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The Scarsdale diet does not adhere to the current recommendations provided by the USDA for protein, carbohydrate, or fat intake. According to the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, adult men and women are advised to consume 10–35% of calories from protein, 45–65% of calories from carbohydrates, and 20–35% of calories from fat with an emphasis on healthy fats. The USDA also provides a recommendation for dietary fiber (approximately 22–34 grams per day).

On the Scarsdale diet, you consume 43% of your calories from protein, 22.5% of calories from fat, and 34.5% of your calories from carbohydrates. Fat intake comes primarily from saturated fat and fiber intake is low. The USDA recommends limiting your intake of saturated fats to less than 10% of daily calories.

Current dietary guidelines also suggest that calorie intake should be personalized and take into account a person's age, sex, weight, height, and level of physical activity. None of these factors are considered in the Scarsdale diet aside from an individual's sex. The calorie target provided for the duration of the two-week program is substantially lower than what current guidelines would suggest.

To lose weight, the USDA recommends a reduction of 500 calories a day. On a 2,000 calorie diet, that's an intake of roughly 1,500 calories a day, but this number, too, can vary. To get an estimate of your daily calorie needs, this calorie calculator takes into account personalized information to give you a healthy weight loss or weight maintenance goal.

Health Benefits

The Scarsdale diet restricts calories to create a calorie deficit, which will likely lead to weight loss. But any weight lost on this plan is likely going to be water weight. Current health recommendations advise that a safe and healthy rate of weight loss is 1 to 2 pounds per week. Anything more than that is typically unsustainable.

Health Risks

The very low-calorie intake and extreme weight loss promises of the Scarsdale diet have been heavily criticized by health experts. While current research on the Scarsdale diet is lacking since the official program is no longer available, a report from 1983 indicates that a woman was diagnosed with symptoms resembling porphyria, a rare blood disorder that is normally genetic, after following a three-week version of the Scarsdale diet.

If calories and healthy carbohydrates are limited, it is possible that those following any iteration of this program will not meet the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for vital nutrients. For example, without whole grains or legumes, it would be challenging to meet the RDA for fiber. Research shows that low-carb, high-protein diets are notoriously low in fiber.

Additionally, those who live active, healthy lifestyles may struggle to maintain their physical activity level on just 1,000 calories per day. You may feel lethargic, experience headaches, and have an overall decrease in motivation if you don't consume enough fuel each day. Highly restrictive diets may also not be appropriate for those who have had or are at risk for developing an eating disorder.

Health experts typically recommend that very-low-calorie diets such as the Scarsdale diet should only be followed under the guidance of a healthcare professional.

A Word From Verywell

The Scarsdale diet gained widespread popularity because the substantial weight-loss claims it made were appealing to many people. While this specific diet is no longer popular, many other weight loss programs that make similar claims are widely promoted.

It’s important to critically evaluate any claims made by a diet program or nutritional plan that you choose to undergo. In general, a healthy rate of weight loss is 1 to 2 pounds per week. Programs that promise much more than that may use methods that don’t promote good nutrition or wellness. When in doubt, talk to your healthcare provider or speak to a registered dietitian to get personalized advice.

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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