The Rosedale Diet: Turn Off Your Hunger Switch!
By Ron Rosedale, M.D. and Carol Colman
Harper Collins, 2004
Ron Rosedale enjoys a popular reputation as a leading authority in metabolic and nutritional medicine, with a keen interest in longevity research. He has founded Rosedale Metabolic Medicine and co-founded the Colorado Center for Metabolic Medicine, both in Denver, Colorado.
Rosedale has treated thousands of patients for obesity, as well as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other so-called “diseases of aging” primarily via his dietary and nutritional approach that seeks to control the hormones insulin and leptin. He was one of the first to herald the dangers of insulin—particularly insulin resistance— and its role in causing or exacerbating many degenerative diseases, along with its ability to prompt the body to store fat as well as resist burning it.
Leptin (from the Greek, leptos, meaning thin) is a newly discovered hormone that is produced by our fat cells and is now understood to be a powerful determinant of metabolism and hunger signaling. Leptin directly affects the hypothalamus, and controls such vital functions as reproduction, body temperature, blood circulation, and bone and tissue repair. Blood levels of leptin and insulin have much to say about the state of our general health as well as our prospects for long life.
Critical to those who wish to lose excess body fat, leptin is the hormone that signals the body when hunger has been satisfied, when enough fat has been stored for fuel, and when that fat is to be burned. For the body to properly “hear” these messages from leptin, communication must be clear between the hormones and the cells in our brains and other tissues. Unfortunately, the same modern dietary conditions that have caused insulin resistance to become epidemic have also caused a concomitant “leptin resistance” or “deafness” in the body’s response to leptin’s messages. Rafts of starchy carbohydrates and a flood of damaged and dangerous oils and fats in the modern Western diet have altered human metabolism for the worse.
Humans are best suited for burning fat as fuel for all normal metabolic functions except in occasional short-lived emergencies when sugar metabolism allows for lightning-fast reactions— when we can run or lift enormous weight with almost superhuman powers. However, as a result of the sea of sugar and starchy carbohydrates in the standard modern diet, most of us have “learned” to become solely sugar burners. When sugar is burned almost exclusively as fuel, the body simply stores dietary fat. Excess weight on the body is a sign of the body’s insensitivity to leptin and its inability to burn fat as fuel. Other, more ominous health problems are engendered by excessive leptin (and insulin) levels as well.
High carbohydrate diets have become a major stressor in our lives, since sugar burning is associated with stressful situations in which we need to react quickly to avoid danger. Such diets constantly provoke the sympathetic nervous system, “revving” up metabolism, including blood pressure and the adrenal glands, and steadily wearing out the body. Further, being a constant sugar burner means that even when asleep the body will seek to burn sugar. When glycogen stores in the liver have been exhausted, the body will turn to protein from muscle and even bone to break down and burn as sugar for fuel—one reason that high leptin levels are associated with osteoporosis.
According to Rosedale, when our bodies are accustomed to burning sugar, even a meal composed of healthy protein and fat will largely be converted to stored fat (and not burned as fuel) if we also consume non-fibrous carbohydrates in the same meal. The body will preferentially start burning the sugar in the carbohydrates as fuel, storing a finite amount of it as glycogen in the liver, and the rest as fat on the body. Some of the protein in the meal will be used for repair and maintenance, but the excess will also be metabolized as sugar, and stored as fat. And since the body’s cells are replete from the sugar metabolism of carbohydrate, the fat in the meal is also stored as fat on the body. Even with plenty of good fat available for combustion, Rosedale contends, a body in the habit of sugar burning will “ignore” the fat and look to burn sugar—either by making us hungry for more carbohydrates or by breaking down muscle once the liver’s limited glycogen stores have been emptied. This is why someone who is a sugar burner and tries to lose weight—that is, lose fat—with an exercise program will either fail, or only lose muscle fiber while remaining flabby. A very sorry situation any way you look at it.
Enter the Rosedale diet. Rosedale promotes his meal plan as a “leptin sensitizing” regime that will train the body’s metabolism to become proficient at burning fat. The aim is not only to lose weight, but to reverse the unhealthy and harmful cascade of metabolic disorders influenced by leptin resistance that cause not only obesity, but cardiovascular disease, arthritis, diabetes and other modern diseases of aging.
Rosedale’s regime is a cold-turkey, full-abstinence diet from all sources of starchy carbohydrates. All grains in all forms—the obvious offenders— are excluded forever. For the introductory first three weeks, while the body is in a sort of “boot camp,” only modest amounts of protein from approved sources are allowed—largely fish and seafood, game such as buffalo, venison and ostrich, and skinless chicken and turkey. Rosedale requires his dieters to keep close tabs on protein consumption. “Adequate” protein levels must not be exceeded lest the sugar-burning body convert that excess protein into sugars and sabotage fat burning. For most people, protein is restricted to 50-75 grams per day, spread out over all meals and snacks. By comparison, an egg has about eight grams of protein; a piece of meat two by three inches has about fifteen. These amounts seem abstemious, to say the least, but Rosedale insists that too much protein is counterproductive both to his diet and to any ambitions we might have for longevity. You will be eating a lot of salads with this diet, and a fair amount of nuts, olives, and avocados. Rosedale also recommends a lot of water—eight to ten glasses a day. That will certainly fill you up!
Vegetables and fruits are restricted to a list even more severe than, say, the GAPS diet allows: along with predictably proscribed potatoes, parsnips and yams are also beets, carrots, pumpkin, tomato and most legumes such as green peas, lima beans and peanuts. Fruits such as bananas, oranges, apples, pineapple, grapes, and all melons are permanently verboten, as are virtually all dried fruit. In fact, the approved fruits for the three-week trial literally number only two: avocados and olives. After this trial period berries and lemons and limes are allowed. No sweeteners of any kind are allowed, but stevia powder is acceptable; the artificial sweetener sucralose (Splenda) is allowed “if you must.” Raw or plain, home-roasted nuts appear often as snacks to assuage hunger and sugar urges—seven to ten are allowed at a time. “High omega-3” eggs are allowed, and only goat cheese and non-fat or lowfat soft and hard cheeses. The only fats allowed in the introductory period are actually oils: avocado, olive and almond. Cod liver oil is highly recommended as a daily supplement.
Low-carb “veggie” burgers are allowed, as are various whey protein products, and rare portions of “high fiber” breads, typically made with oat bran and soy flour.
Rosedale insists that followers of his diet will never be hungry, and boasts that the percentage of calories from fat on his regime ranges from fifty to even higher. While scoffing at other health “experts” who foolishly promote “fat phobia” among their patients, and coming down squarely against damaged vegetable oils and trans fats, Rosedale seems nevertheless ambivalent about the role of saturated fats in the diet and for human health—much of the time he mirrors the mainstream condemnation of “bad” saturated fat, but then will follow with qualifying comments, as though he is not quite sure what he really thinks. “Saturated fat is much harder to burn off than good fat (until you become a good fat burner),” he writes, “so if you eat high amounts of saturated fat, you will interfere with your body’s ability to burn fat. A diet high in saturated fat promotes insulin resistance, and may increase the risk of heart disease . . . If you are trying to become a proficient fat burner, I recommend that you eliminate all beef, lamb, and pork from your diet, at least for the first three weeks you are on the meal plan (unless it is not grain-fed). . . It doesn’t make much sense to eat what you’re trying to get rid of.”
Later, however, in his discussion of recommended meats, Rosedale praises grass-fed livestock (and game) for their much healthier nutrient and fat profile compared to feedlot animals, and suggests readers work at finding such grass-fed meats. It seems that he does distinguish between fats from these differently raised livestock, (“Not all beef is the same”) but the good news must be teased out of his recommendations. I suspect the average reader might not even notice the import of his murmured parenthetical remarks and subordinate clauses.
Rosedale doesn’t help to clarify matters by constantly contrasting saturated fat (such as chicken skin) with “good” fat (such as avocado), especially since chicken skin contains more monounsaturated than saturated fat! Just once I would like to open a diet book and read, “Yes, on our diet you’ll be able to enjoy olives and avocados! They actually contain the same heart-healthy monounsaturated fat found in chicken skin and lard.”
The Rosedale Diet was first published in 2004, and since six years have passed it only seemed fair to discover whether he has updated anything about saturated fats on his website devoted to his meal plan. A visit to www.drrosedale.com pulled up this current take: “Yes, the major portion of your diet should be composed of healthy fats. The important distinction between good and bad fats lies not in whether they’re saturated or unsaturated, but whether they are omega-3 or omega-6. Omega 3 fatty acids, such as those found in fish and flax oils are tremendously healthy and will provide you a great deal of benefit. Omega-6’s such as are found in peanut, soybean and sunflower oils (among others) are almost the opposite. You do need a small amount, but you will get them naturally. The more you willfully eliminate, the better you will be. Saturated fats are generally (but not always) slightly harder to burn (a big exception being coconut oil, which is very healthy for you) but as your body becomes better and better at it by practicing on easy unsaturated fats, you are welcome to consume more advanced fats with the confidence that your body will know what to do with it. People do not become fat because they eat fat. They become fat because they cannot burn it. Through this eating plan, you can.”
Now it appears that saturated fat is sometimes only “slightly” harder to burn than unsaturated fats (and these days Rosedale embraces coconut oil) so the reader and/or diet adherent is still left to his own powers of discrimination regarding the reputation of saturated fat. It is amusing that Rosedale considers saturated fats more “advanced” than unsaturated fats, and that the latter are merely training wheels for wobbly novice fat burners. Saturated fat burning, on the other hand, is apparently like reaching the metabolic Olympics level. Why would the 18-carbon saturated fats be any harder to digest than the 18-carbon monounsaturated fats that he recommends? Seems like he is just making this up. And doesn’t he know that it is the monounsaturated fatty acids that tend to build up in the fatty tissue of those who gain weight?
Rosedale includes ghee on his list of approved fats and oils. Sweet (uncultured) milk and almost all commercial yogurt and cottage cheeses contain a fair amount of sugar in the form of lactose and added ingredients (and even sweet butter is only about 80-84 percent butterfat)—and should obviously be avoided during the “training” phase of Rosedale’s diet. Ghee (or clarified butter), on the other hand, is pure butterfat. Also, if you absolutely can’t live without that single cup of morning coffee, only add heavy cream, not milk, he advises. (Can’t argue with that.)
The short list of allowed dairy products contains only lowfat versions of cottage cheese, cream cheese and a few hard cheeses. Tiny portions of full-fat cheeses are allowed after the three-week training period, but clearly dairy products are given short shrift overall. Rosedale professes to be “no fan” of dairy, and argues that for us to drink the milk of other mammals is wholly unnatural—the great pastoralist cultures of the world, full of tall slender people, notwithstanding. It goes without saying that home-cultured raw dairy products from direct farm-to-consumer relationships is far outside the context of Rosedale’s diet and his perception of his audience’s ingenuity. Rosedale reminds us that cheese and other dairy products are loaded with saturated fat, and most readers will be numbed by the incessant repetition—both from Rosedale and the medicalized media—to accept the blanket condemnation.
It came as a surprise to find that fistfuls of supplements are strongly recommended as part of the Rosedale diet. (“No matter how healthy you eat, there are important vitamins that you simply cannot get out of your diet.”) Rosedale sells his own line of supplements.
Suggested recipes and menus are largely appetizing, mostly featuring honest cuts of seafood, eggs and meat. Olive oil and occasionally ghee and butter are the main additional fats used in simple cooking preparations. In a truly bizarre spasm of karmic fat comeuppance, however, the last recipe in the section, for French Silk Pie (mille pardons to the French!) calls for four cups butter (an error; one pound butter is the weight), one and one-third cups Splenda, two cups egg whites, chocolate, and one cup whipping cream!
The Rosedale Diet gives a valuable introduction to the role diet plays in our general health and especially to the diet’s effects on the key metabolic hormones insulin and leptin. These hormones in turn powerfully influence our risk for numerous degenerative diseases that bring misery and shorten life. However, the actual diet can in fact be very dangerous—much like the South Beach diet, it is devoid of carbohydrates, and unless the reader can thread through the subtleties of his discussion on fats, it is likely to be low if not completely lacking in saturated fats. When we avoid saturated fats, the body goes to Plan B and makes them from carbohydrates. Where are his dieters going to get the saturated fats the body needs so much?
The book provides many testimonials, but nothing in the way of long-term assessment. How did his clients do over the years, assuming they could actually stay on the diet and didn’t give in to the temptation of French Silk Pie?
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2010.