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                              THe catabolic diet
   fact or fiction?                                                     Nicole Jumper








The desire to change one’s body image is very prevalent in today’s society; and in most cases what people want to change is their weight.  Companies who market diet programs and miracle diet drugs are very much aware of this commonality among consumers and take advantage of the susceptible nature of those who want to lose the weight and lose it fast.  Among the multitude of pills, programs and promises that are offered as cures to the unhappiness of being fat, one new concept has emerged that stretches the boundaries of logic: the catabolic diet. 


                                                        WHAT IS THE CATABOLIC DIET?



The catabolic diet is based on the concept that a person can eat “catabolic” foods that actually have a negative calorie effect.  These are foods that supposedly take a person more calories to digest them than the food itself actually contains.  Simply put, they are foods that burn fat instead of creating it. (


                             INFORMATION FOUND ON THE NET

The creators of the catabolic diet have used the Internet as their primary marketing tool; therefore, there are many sites about the diet.  Some are blatant advertisements and others pose as being informative and factual.  The bottom line: all the sites found on the catabolic diet are looking to make a profit and want the browser to buy into a program.

One site,, claims that the catabolic diet is so effective that, “[It] works three times faster than starvation.”  Yet, after making this statement the site also says that the “Catabolic Diet is a medically created diet. . .”  Needless to say there is no medical doctor’s endorsement found anywhere on the page because no doctor would recommend a diet that in effect kills you.  The site also gives an explanation on how the diet works.  In order to digest food, your body must use several organs like muscles, intestines, digestive juices, blood cells, liver, pancreas, etc.  By using these organs during the digestive process, your body burns calories.  Eating a 300-calorie piece of cake may only require fifty calories to be lost in the digestive process, therefore you retain 250 calories.  But, if you were to eat a twenty-five calorie catabolic food, it may take 100 calories to digest it, thus you have lost 75 calories from your fat deposit.   After this “factual information” the site gives the necessary testimonial. Apparently while on the catabolic diet, “ . . .one lady went from 395 pounds to 156 pounds in a matter of months.  The site also claims that this miraculous weight loss of 239 pounds is documented in the Journal of the American Medical Association.  But wait, what about the list of catabolic foods? Well, to be privy to that information, one must pay $23.70 for the diet program book.  Looking for something a little more informative on the catabolic diet, like the history of the diet and its creator? If you go to, you will come across a thirteen page detailed explanation of the diet from it’s debut in 1935 to the present.  According to this website, the catabolic diet was created by Dr. Victor Lindlahr, who started a local radio program in Chicago about health and nutrition.  It was on this radio station that Dr. Lindlahr introduced his diet to the world.  After giving some brief biographical information on Dr. Lindlahr, the site goes on to tell how he discovered the diet.  One day a 240-pound woman came to his sanitarium complaining that she wanted to lose thirty pounds in the next month before her wedding.  Dr. Lindlahr’s solution: “a carefully supervised fast.”  After seven days the woman had only lost four pounds, so Dr. Lindlahr had to do a bit of brainstorming.  Being the ingenious health nutritionist that he was, he remembered a very effective diet that was low in carbohydrates and decided to put the woman on the “L.C.”(low carbohydrate) diet.  Consequently the woman lost thirty-four pounds.  Dr. Lindlahr made some adjustments to the L.C. diet and named it the catabolic diet.   

After giving a similar explanation on how the diet works as the site, this site tells of the benefits of catabolic foods, like the fact that they are very high in vitamins and minerals and provide alkaline ash that is “very useful in offsetting the acid residue of fat destruction in the body.”

To officially test the effectiveness of the diet Dr. Lindlahr asked 1000 listeners of his radio station to go on the diet.  Within a month 936 listeners had reported that their average weight loss was one pound a day for ten days.  To prove that this test actually occurred, the site lists several testimonials of people proclaiming the miraculous results.  However, the quotations are cited from “-a man in Manhattan,” “–a woman in Philadelphia.” 

Finally the site provides a list of catabolic foods.  The foods are categorized under Fruits, Vegetables and Meats.  Under Fruits are apples, kumquats, apricots, strawberries, limes, tangerines, blackberries, nectarines, currents, peaches, watermelon, cantaloupe, mangoes, and about twenty other fruits.  Listed as vegetables are asparagus, green beans, cucumbers, peas, string beans, dandelion greens, celery, dill pickles, beets, carrots, leaks, lettuce, mushrooms, and almost every other common vegetable.  The meat list is very sparse because, “most meats are not on the catabolic food list because they are not catabolic.”  However a dieter is allowed to eat sea bass, crabs, oysters, buffalo flounder, frog legs, cod steaks, mussels and terrapin.

Another site, is very similar to  In fact much of the wording and examples are exactly the same.  They too give the example of the 395-pound woman who dropped 239 pounds in a couple months.  This site has actual pictures of people who have lost weight on the catabolic diet.  It shows one woman, Melissa from Los Angeles who looks like a swimsuit model after being on the diet.  At the bottom of the picture the site gave the browser the option of seeing “more” pictures.  Yet, instead of providing more pictures, an order form came up. 




In order for the catabolic diet to work, the human digestive system would have to be drastically altered.  No living animal’s digestive system is formatted to give off a reverse thermo result; if so, the species would not survive.  When a person eats something, his/her body immediately begins to break the food down and turn it into energy to be used or stored.  The first process of the digestive system begins with the actual chewing and tearing of the food.  The salivary glands provide moisture in order for the food to be tasted, but they also produce an enzyme in the saliva that begins to digest starch.  After the food is swallowed, it is passed through the pharynx and esophagus.  Peristalsis allows the food to travel through the digestive system through a series of “rhythmic” muscle contractions.  This same process blends the semi-digested food with the gastric juices of the stomach.  The stomach absorbs little nutrients; rather it is simply a place where the food is broken down into a format in which the small intestine can absorb it.  Because the food at this point is very acidic, the pancreas has to secrete acid-reducing enzymes so the small intestine can process the material.  Protein and starch digestion are completed in the small intestine, but fat must be broken down by bile salts produced in the liver.  Therefore, fat is absorbed in the “middle one-third” of the small intestine.  The absorption of water by the small intestine is also coupled by the absorption of vitamins and electrolytes.  Digestion is furthered by the large intestine in which more water is absorbed and inhabited bacteria create several vitamins.  Whatever remains after this process is the “leftover” or feces.  Feces mainly consist of undigested fiber, inorganic material, water and bacteria (Brannon and Feist, 440-442).

   The creators of the catabolic diet claim that this process burns more calories when digesting certain types of food, but it is obvious simply by understanding how the digestive system works that this concept is impossible.  According to Arne Astrup, Director and Professor of the Research Department of Human Nutrition at The Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University in Denmark (Holly 1999, p. 109), “There is no evidence to support that the differences in dietary composition exert clinically important effects on energy absorption and energy expenditure, so the main mechanism of weight reduction diets is to reduce total energy intake.”  




Cornell University News defines thermogenesis as “ burning energy through a metabolic process.”(   According to JAMA, “Body weight is dependent on the balance between energy intake in the form of food and drink and energy expenditure.  Daily energy expenditure consists of resting energy expenditure, the energy required to metabolize food (thermic effect of food), and energy expended as a result of activity.  Basically, when energy expenditure and energy intake are in balance a person’s weight does not fluctuate, whereas when the energy intake is greater than the expenditure weight gain will result. (


Recent Advances in Basic Obesity Research
(JAMA. 1999;282:1504-1506)



Figure 1. Daily Energy Expenditure




Because every scientist knows that researching foods that take more calories to digest them than they actually contain is both stupid and a waste of time, there have been no studies done on the effectiveness of the diet alone.  There have, however, been studies done on Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR), thermogenesis, and the thermic effect of food. 

A study found in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition performed in April of 1983 tried to predict the RMR of 154 women and 48 men before the beginning of a weight reduction program.  This study basically shows what determines the amount of calories people need.  In both sexes there were definite connections between RMR and fat-free body mass, body fat, weight, fat cell weight, and fat cell number.  Multiple regression analysis showed that fat-free mass and fat cell weight and number were significant in the prediction of RMR.  The study concluded that the main reason for the differing RMR between men and women is the fact that men have a higher proportion of fat-free mass ( Berstein RS; Thornton JC; Yang MU; Wang J; Redmond AM; Pierson RN Jr; Pi-Sunyer FX; Van Itallie TB, 1983).

Another study shows the relationship between a diet-induced thermogenesis and satiety during high protein/carbohydrate and high fat diets.  The study was performed in the respiration chambers at the department of Human Biology at Maastricht University on eight females ages 23-33 with body mass indexes of 23+/-3kg/m2.  The subjects were fed “in energy balance” with protein/ carbohydrate/fat.   Thermogenesis that resulted due to the diet was considered as part of the energy expenditure.  The results showed that the energy balance was almost complete.  On the high protein/carbohydrate diet the DIT (diet induced thermogenesis) was 14.6+/-2.9%, and 10.5+/-3.8% on the high fat diet.  The study concludes that in lean women, satiety and DIT were higher with a high protein/carbohydrate diet than with a high fat diet (Westerterp-Plantenga MS; Rolland V; Wilson SA; Westerterp KR).


Cornell Nutritional Biochemist T. Colin Campbell experimented on lab rats with a high plant-based fiber diet that was low animal based protein/fat.  He concluded that rats fed diets with less protein consumed more energy but gained slightly less weight and underwent increased thermogenesis due to “enhanced metabolic body heat and to diet-driven physical activity.  According to the site,, details of this experiment are to be published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 







Although these studies do not correlate directly with the catabolic diet, they do destroy its validity.  Each study shows that by ingesting food, whether high in carbohydrates, low in fat, high in fat, or high in fiber, energy is taken in by the body.  Never once was there a documented “reverse caloric effect” where the body actual expended energy by digesting the food rather than gained energy from it.  Therefore, it is logical to think that the catabolic diet is a complete farce.  If someone were to lose weight on the catabolic diet it would be because the foods they were eating were very low in calories and fat, not because they were consuming “negative calorie foods.”  Sorry Dr. Lindlahr, but your diet is a no go.





Astrup, Arne.  “Dietary Approaches to Reducing Body Weight.”  Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.  Ed.  Jeff P. Holly.  New York: AMA 1999. 109-120.


Berstein RS; Thornton JC; Yang MU; Wang J; Redmond AM; Pierson RN Jr; Pi-Sunyer FX; Van Itallie TB.  (1983a).  Prediction of the Resting Metabolic Rate in obese patients.  American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1983 Apr, 37(4): 595-602.



Brannon, Linda and Jess Feist.  Health Psychology: An Introduction to Behavior and Health.  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000.



Westerterp-Plantega MS; Rolland V; Wilson SA; Westerterp KR.  (1999a).  Satiety related to 24 h diet-induced thermogenesis during high protein/carbohydrate vs high fat diets measured in a respiration chamber.  European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1999 June; 53(6): 495-503.




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