You might wind up eating a LOT of fruit some days.
When we hear new weight-loss tips, most of the time they're coming from shiny, brand spanking new, science-backed sources. So when the dissociated diet, which has been around since the early 1900s, started getting buzz for being one of the most searched diets in 2016—we were confused.
Unlike modern weight-loss advice, which recommends that each meal should be a combo of carbs, protein, and healthy fat, the dissociated plan suggests limiting each meal or an even an entire day's worth of food to one food group (more on that later).
The meal plan is based on the principle that weight gain is caused by eating alkaline and acidic foods together, creating an imbalance of digestive and metabolic enzymes that the body can't deal with, says Lauren Blake, registered dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. This imbalance is thought to overtax the digestive system, stall metabolism, and cause weight gain.
To keep those enzymes in check (or so the theory goes), the primary rule of the dissociated diet is to only eat one food group at a time, says Grace Derocha, R.D., a certified diabetes educator and health coach with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Proponents of the diet claim that once the digestive system is operating at peak efficiency, nutrient absorption is maximized, and your body's needs are met with smaller portions.
The plan also encourages followers to eat fruits, vegetables, and whole grains as their main source of nutrition each day, while limiting protein, starch, and fat, avoiding processed foods, and waiting four hours between each meal.
Fans of the diet tend to follow it in one of two ways: Either using a weekly rotation, where they only eat one food group each day (for example, Monday fruits and veggies, Tuesday protein, Wednesday whole grains, and so on), or a daily rotation, where each meal only has foods from one food group.
The diet contains one obvious pro: "There's a focus on real, whole foods with an emphasis on increasing plant-based foods and limiting animal and refined products," says Blake. "Increasing your intake of plant-based foods correlates with a higher fiber intake, which can keep you satiated and aid in weight loss." Plus, plant-based foods are naturally lower in calories, so you can eat more food for fewer calories.
However, there's no proof to back up the claim that our bodies aren't able to digest alkaline and acidic foods together properly, especially since many foods include both properties, says Blake. Nuts, for example, contain alkaline carbs and acidic protein—and our digestive system is able to manage the nutrient combo just fine.
But even if there was scientific proof that eating alkaline and acidic foods together messes with digestion, improving digestion alone wouldn't result in weight loss, says Jackie Elnahar, R.D., CEO of Teladietitian. You lose weight on the dissociated diet simply because you're consuming less calories than you normally would.
"When you cut out all food groups and only eat meat for one meal or one day, for example, you won't consume the same amount of calories as you would when eating a normal diet with all the food groups," says Derocha. This is likely because you can only eat so much chicken before your taste buds are turned off by it. And once you stop following the diet, you're more likely to binge with a vengeance and gain the weight right back, says Derocha.
The biggest problem with the dissociated diet is that it focuses too much on maximizing the process of digestion and not enough on the quality of the meals being digested, says Elnahar. "It doesn't focus on the nutrient density or diversity needed to fulfill our daily macronutrient and micronutrient needs," she says. Depending on what food groups you're focused on that day, you'll inevitably be missing out on important nutrients not covered by those groups.
You also run the risk of going overboard in the fruit department when you eat fruit and veggies for an entire day. "Although fruit is rich in micronutrients, it's very high in sugar," says Elnahar. "Eating fruit without protein and fat will cause your blood sugar to rise too quickly, negatively impacting our insulin control." This could trigger a spike in your appetite, fueling feelings of deprivation even more, she says.
The dissociated diet does encourage better eating habits that promote weight loss, such as eating more nutrient-dense, plant-based foods and steering clear of empty calories. But the eating pattern alone makes it an unrealistic (and unhealthy) plan to maintain over the long-term, says Derocha.
The body requires a certain ratio of carbs, protein, and fat to function optimally, and the dissociated diet ensures you're nutrient-deficient most of the time. The best thing you can do is to apply the positives from this diet within a more balanced eating plan that includes regular exercise to lose weight and keep it off, she says.