What Is the Scarsdale Diet?

In This Article

Steak with fresh salad
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The Scarsdale diet is a high-protein, low-calorie, and low carbohydrate weight loss program developed by a cardiologist from New York state. The program gained widespread media attention in the 1970s as the go-to quick weight loss program for society women and fashion elites. It gained additional notoriety after the diet's founder, Herman Tarnower, was murdered just a year after his best-selling book was published.

The diet is no longer as popular as it once was, as health experts have been critical of the very low-calorie requirements and the inflated weight loss claims.

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

Background

The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet Plus Dr. Tarnower's Lifetime Keep-Slim Program was a diet book published in 1979 by Herman Tarnower, M.D., a cardiologist, and Samm Sinclair Baker a self-help book author. Dr. Tarnower practiced medicine in Scarsdale, New York and developed the plan at the Scarsdale Medical Center after many of his patients complained that other diets didn't work.

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 improved heart health. The program was often copied and handed out to others and the plan gained popularity through word of mouth. Hoping to capitalize on the success of the Atkins diet, Tarnower turned the diet plan into a book.

The diet and the book were widely promoted in women's magazine including Vogue and many others. After its initial publication, the book went through 21 printings in less than a year. It gained increased popularity when Dr. Tarnower was murdered in 1980 by his jilted lover, Jean Harris.

The book is no longer in print and the diet is no longer popular, although you'll still find many unofficial websites devoted to the plan. The very low-calorie intake and extreme weight loss promises have been heavily criticized by health experts. However, movies and other television programs based on Tarnower's life and the scandal surrounding his murder continue to gain attention.

How It Works

The Scarsdale diet is a very strict eating plan that allows for just 1,000 calories per day, regardless of your body size, gender, 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.

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

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

What to Eat

Compliant Foods

  • Limited vegetables

  • Cheese and eggs

  • Nuts

  • Fruit (especially grapefruit)

  • Meat, poultry, seafood, cold cuts

  • Black coffee, tea, water, diet soda

  • Protein bread

Non-Compliant Foods

  • 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 carbohydrate.

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.

Recommended Timing

The Scarsdale diet is designed to last for 14 days. Dr.Tarnower is very explicit in his book that you are not to extend the program. During the two weeks of the diet, he says that you will lose up to 20 pounds.

After the 14-day weight loss phase, Dr. Tarnower outlines a lifetime "keep slim" program. During this phase, 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 until you see your weight creep up. 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.

Resources and Tips

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.

At the time that this diet was released, the internet did not 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 program and some provide recipes for the protein bread. None of these sites are affiliated with the original program.

Modifications

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

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

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 for weight

  • Overpromises weight loss

Pros

Simple

The Scarsdale diet is easy to follow and leaves very little room for error. Each meal is outlined and includes only 2-3 foods. Substitutions are strongly discouraged. Dr. Tarnower explains that if you have a food allergy, substitutions are alright, 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 liked this program because all the work is done for you. There is not a lot of variation from meal to meal so shopping should be simple and most foods (except for the protein bread) are easily found in most markets.

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 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.

However, even though the ease of this plan makes it appealing, there are substantial drawbacks that you should consider before going on this diet.

Cons

Extremely Low in Calories

Everyone who follows the Scarsdale diet consumes 1,000 calories per day, regardless of age, body size, activity level, or gender. As a basis for comparison, most weight loss programs today set a minimum calorie target of roughly 1,2000-1,500 calories for women and 1,600-1,800 calories for men. Those who are very active generally consume more calories.

Many health sources recommend that very-low-calorie diets such as this should only be followed under the guidance of a health care professional.

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.

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.

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 gender into account and according to Dr. Tarnower is based on his years of medical experience.

By today's standards, the weights provided may seem restrictive. For example, a 5' 4" woman should weigh between 110-123 pounds. A man who is 5' 11" should weight between 152 and 168 pounds. 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. Current health recommendations advise that a safe and healthy rate of weight loss is 1-2 pounds per week. Additionally, the weight lost on this plan is likely to be primarily water weight as a result of carbohydrate restriction.

How It Compares

When it was first released, the Scarsdale diet was most often compared to the Atkins diet. However, the Atkins program has changed substantially over the years and the programs are no longer comparable. Most likely due to the death of Dr. Tarnower, the Scarsdale diet never evolved or adjusted to updated dietary guidelines provided by health experts or the USDA.

USDA Recommendations

Food Groups

The Scarsdale diet does not adhere to current guidelines provided by the USDA for protein, carbohydrate or fat intake. According to 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, adult men and women are advised to consume 10-35 percent of calories from protein, 45-65 percent of calories from carbohydrate, and 20-35 percent of calories from fat with an emphasis on healthy fat. The USDA also provides a recommendation for dietary fiber (approximately 23-33 grams per day).

On the Scarsdale diet, you consume 43 percent of your calories from protein, 22.5 percent of calories from fat. and 34.5 percent of your calories from carbohydrates. Fat intake comes primarily from saturated fat and fiber intake is low.

Calories

Current guidelines suggest that calorie intake should be personalized and take into account a person's age, activity level, gender, and body size. None of these factors are considered in the Scarsdale diet. The calorie target provided for the duration of the two-week program is substantially lower than what current guidelines would suggest.

To get an estimate of your daily calorie needs, consider using a calorie calculator like the one below that takes into account personalized information to give you a healthy weight loss or weight maintenance goal.

Similar Diets

Atkins Diet

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.

While both programs started as low-carbohydrate, high protein plans, the first iteration of Atkins allowed for more saturated fat than the Scarsdale diet. And Atkins followers consumed no fruit during the first phase, making it even lower in carbohydrates than Scarsdale.

But the Atkins diet has since gone through many changes. The diet now includes three or four phases based on your current state of health and your goals. Atkins plans are personalized (to a certain extent) for different types of people.

While the first phase of Atkins is similar to Scarsdale in its low-carb, high protein approach, Atkins gradually includes more low-glycemic, high fiber carbohydrates, including whole grains.

Additionally, the Atkins plan (which is now available as a book or subscription meal delivery service) provides users with more lifestyle guidance including an exercise program, cooking tips, and other support resources.

A Word From Verywell

The Scarsdale diet gained widespread popularity because the substantial weight-loss claims it made were appealing to many people who were trying to slim down. 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 a diet program or nutritional plan that you choose to undergo. In general, a healthy rate of weight loss is one to two 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.

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