Creator of the Rice Diet Dr. Walter Kempner believed that a simple diet of rice and fruit could treat a host of medical conditions, including kidney failure. In fact, his diet had miraculous results, but the restrictive menu was hard for patients to follow.
What Is the Rice Diet?
Dr. Walter Kempner's rice and fruit protocol was developed in 1939, while he was a professor at Duke University. His theory was that altering the diet could reduce stress on the kidneys and effectively treat renal failure. The best way to do this was to drastically reduce protein intake, since the kidneys are largely responsible for processing protein.
Kempner also believed that cutting out sodium and cholesterol could lower blood pressure and improve heart failure in his patients. Dr. Kempner's rice and fruit protocol was a daily diet consisting almost entirely of carbohydrates with very low amounts of protein and virtually no sodium or cholesterol.
According to an article published in the Journal of the American Heart Association in 2014, the specific macronutrient breakdown was 4 to 5 percent of calories from protein (less than 20 grams per day), 2 to 3 percent from fat and the rest carbohydrates. Allowed sodium amounted to 150 milligrams per day, and fluid intake was restricted.
All that was on the menu for Kempner's patients was white rice and fruit. Some fruit juices were allowed containing citrate, which Kempner thought could counter metabolic acidosis, a condition associated with kidney disease and kidney failure in which body fluids become too acidic. Patients also received a vitamin supplement to make up for the lack of the B vitamin thiamin in white rice.
The diet had clinically significant results. Although 25 of the 192 patients enrolled in his trial died and 60 patients did not markedly improve blood pressure values, 107 patients saw significant improvements in blood pressure. In 66 of 72 patients, there was a decrease in heart size, and 73 of 82 patients had decreased blood cholesterol levels. Diabetic retinopathy improved or disappeared entirely for 21 of 33 patients who experienced the condition.
The authors of the Journal of the American Heart Association article point out that these results should be viewed within the context of the time, during which malignant hypertension had a life expectancy of six months.
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Rice Diet for Weight Loss
Later, the Rice Diet was used to treat obesity and a host of other conditions. In a study published in 1975 in Archives of Internal Medicine, Dr. Walter Kempner's rice and fruit protocol was used to treat 106 participants with obesity, who were also provided with an exercise prescription and received motivational support on a daily basis.
Each participant lost at least 99 pounds, and average weight loss was 141 pounds. Forty-three of the participants achieved a normal body weight. There were also significant reductions in blood pressure, blood sugar and triglycerides.
The residential Rice Diet Program in Durham, North Carolina, became a popular destination for those wanting to lose significant weight and improve their health. Under Kempner's rigid supervision, the diet program was akin to a bootcamp for weight loss.
To keep his patients on track, Michael Greger M.D., FACLM, reports that Kempner would bully his patients into conformity, both mentally and physically. One of Kempner's patients sued him for allegedly whipping her and other patients when they did not adhere to the diet.
The Rice Diet Center eventually split from Duke and Kempner in the early 2000s and was taken over by Robert Rosati, M.D., and Kitty Rosati, R.D. However, with the onslaught of dietary regimens, like the Paleo diet, the Rice Diet fell out of popularity, and the center eventually closed in 2013. But the following year, it was reopened under the direction of Dr. Frank Neelon under the name Rice Diet Healthcare Program.
The Rice Diet has changed over the years and is not nearly so strict. In their book The Rice Diet Solution: The World-Famous Low-Sodium, Good-Carb, Detox Diet for Quick and Lasting Weight Loss, the Rosatis outline their version of the diet, which has three phases:
Phase one lasts one week. The basic Rice Diet menu — rice and fruit — is only eaten on the first day. For the other six days, dieters can include vegetables, whole-grain bread and cereal and some nonfat dairy or plant milk.
Phase two lasts until you reach your weight goal and focuses on creating dietary habits for lasting weight loss. Each week begins with one day of the basic Rice Diet. Then, you add in the grains, vegetables and nonfat milk for the remainder of the week. On one day of your choice, you include one protein source, such as fish, extra nonfat dairy or organic eggs. Phase two includes slightly more sodium and more calories than phase one.
Phase three is the maintenance program, which gives dieters more choices, additional protein and more flexibility with sodium.
In each phase, you eat specific portions of each food, which helps you learn proper portion sizes and keeps calorie intake in control. The Rice Diet menu is divided into starch, nonfat dairy, vegetables, fruit and protein:
- One starch is equal to 1/3 cup cooked rice or dried beans, 1/2 cup cooked grains, pasta or starchy vegetable, one slice of bread, or 1/4 to 1 cup of cereal.
- One serving of nonfat dairy equals 1 cup of nonfat cow's or plant milk or plain yogurt.
- One vegetable serving is 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw vegetables.
- One fruit serving is one medium sized fruit or 1 cup of grapes or cut fruit.
- One serving of protein is 1 ounce of fish, skinless poultry, lean meat or 1/4 cup cooked dried beans or peas.
Dieters can eat any fruit, grain or vegetable they like as long as there is no added salt or fat. One teaspoon of maple syrup or honey is allowed each day.
The program provides a clear plan for each of your daily meals using the serving sizes for each food group. For the basic rice diet day, you can have two servings of starches and two servings of fruits at each meal.
On the other six days of phase one:
- Breakfast: one starch + one nonfat dairy + one fruit
- Lunch: three starches + three vegetables + one fruit
- Dinner: three starches + three vegetables + one fruit
During phase two, the basic rice diet remains the same. The other days of the week also stay the same except for the single day that protein is included. On that day, you can have:
- Breakfast: two starches + one fruit
- Lunch: four starches + three vegetables + one fruit
- Dinner: three proteins + two starches + two vegetables + one fruit
The final phase of the diet is the same as phase two, except that you eat the protein menu on one extra day each week (not the first day).
Is the Rice Diet Healthy?
Kempner's rice diet was too restrictive for the average person to follow. It also had nutritional gaps that could have led to deficiencies if the right supplements were not provided. The original rice diet was meant to be conducted under medical supervision; therefore, you should not attempt to follow it on your own.
The new version of the diet is accessible to a wider audience and does not require medical supervision. It's not an unhealthy diet, but it's still considered a fad diet because it requires following rigid menus and cutting out one or more food groups at least some of the time. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics warns people to stay away from these types of diets.
Read more: What You Should Know Before You Try That Trendy Diet
The goal of the modern Rice Diet is to change the way you think about food and to be more mindful of what you consume. By focusing on serving sizes, eating whole, fresh foods and avoiding high levels of fat and salt, it provides credible guidance on how to build healthy eating habits.
But, in reality, most people will find it difficult to follow such a strict plan for the long-term. The requirement to measure each portion and avoid many foods makes the diet very inconvenient, which is often the reason people abandon diets and fall back into unhealthy eating habits. Following a healthy, calorie-reduced diet that meets your individual needs and fits into your schedule is the best way to stick to a weight loss plan that works for the long term.
- Journal of the American Heart Association: "Who and What Drove Walter Kempner?"
- National Kidney Foundation: "Metabolic Acidosis"
- Archives of Internal Medicine: "Treatment of Massive Obesity With Rice/Reduction Diet Program. An Analysis of 106 Patients With at Least a 45-Kg Weight Loss"
- NutritionFacts.org: "Introducing the Kempner Rice Diet"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Staying Away from Fad Diets"
- Rice Diet Healthcare Program: "Home of Dr. Walter Kempner's World Famous 'Rice Diet'"
- News & Observer: "‘Fat City’s’ Rice House Is Back in Business"
- Daily News: "Rice Diet Center Shuts Its Doors After 70 Years"