How the Dukan Diet works - The French diet that is supposed to end the obesity epidemic

by Marshall Brain

Are you looking for a diet that will take off the pounds and keep them off? People in France seem to have this figured out – the French are significantly less obese than Americans. Why is that? The following article offers a possible explanation:

The answer could lie in their diet. Not the olive oil and red wine Mediterranean diet so popular on the Continent, but a striking weight-loss programme that has been taking the country by storm.

When eminent French nutritionist Dr Pierre Dukan introduced his Dukan Diet there ten years ago, the book rushed to the top of the French best-seller list and spawned an underground dieting revolution of 200 websites, forums and blogs.

The article then goes on, in three parts, to describe the Dukan Diet (or as it is known in France, Régime Dukan):

  1. The ultimate diet:The French have kept it a secret for years. Now the protein rich Dukan Diet is coming to Britain

  2. The Dukan Diet: Put your fat cells on a revolutionary weight-loss plan

  3. The Dukan Diet: Want to stay slim for ever? Eat whatever you want – except on Thursdays

Like any diet, this French protein diet sounds too good to be true: “It acknowledges the innate pleasure to be had from eating and, incredibly, promises efficient weight loss while eating unlimited quantities of real food.” It sounds like pie-in-the-sky. Yet I have found that this diet really does work. I have lost more than 50 pounds on this diet and have a day-by-day diary to show you how it happened – you can see before and after photos here). If you would like to consider it, here is a summary of how this diet works:

- Phase 1: Also known as the Attack phase. You eat low-fat protein only. And drink a lot of water (coffee, tea and diet sodas or OK too but they have to be zero calories and zero fat).

Your protein is likely to come in the form of meat (low-fat beef, chicken, turkey, fish), but there are also dairy possibilities (e.g. zero-fat yogurt and cottage cheese, etc) and vegetarian/vegan options (e.g. eggs, tofu, seitan). You can season your protein with anything that is zero fat and zero carbs, like salt, vinegar, onions, mustard, normal spices (oregano, basil, pepper, etc.) and so on. You also add some oat bran (1.5 tablespoons per day) to the mix and a 20-minute walk every day.

In the attack phase, the only thing that will passing your lips is the protein, the oat bran and the water.

Unlike the Atkins diet, the goal is low-fat meat. The article claims that in the first 5 days of eating nothing-but-protein, you could lose between 7 and 10 pounds. See the second article above for details.

(OK – I actually tried a five-day attack phase myself to see what would happen, and I lost 6.6 pounds. Click here if you want to see how it went.)

- Phase 2: Also known as the cruise phase. You have days of nothing-but-protein alternated with days of nothing-but-protein-and-vegetables. Salad is included as a vegetable. You continue the oat bran (2 tablespoons per day), the water and the walking (which increases to 30 minutes a day, briskly). You can see why the Dukan diet is also known as the French protein diet.

You get to pick how you mix the nothing-but-protein days with days of nothing-but-protein-and-vegetables. Some of the mixes you will read about are 5 days of protein only alternated with 4 days of protein and veggies. Or 4/3. Or you could try other combinations.

Phase 2 could last for months if you have a lot of weight to lose. How do you know how long you need to be in Phase 2 and when it is time to switch to Phase 3? Also, how do you calculate your correct target weight (which is what marks the end of Phase 2)? You use the calculator on Dukandiet.co.uk. One stone equals 14 pounds, by the way. So if you weigh 140 pounds, you weigh 10 stone. If you weigh 142 pounds you weigh 10 stone and 2 pounds. See also: What is your “ideal weight” if you want to be healthy?.

What does the menu look like in Phase 2? The vegetables you are allowed to eat are pretty limited, because some things that we consider “vegetables” actually contain a lot of carbs. Things like carrots, peas, corn and potatoes are out, therefore. Green is in. So anything you might normally find in a salad is OK, including: Lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers, mushrooms, onions. Also allowed are things like green beans, cabbage, cauliflower, asparagus and celery. You can eat them raw, or steam them, or boil them. Your menu could include soups or stews that combine protein and vegetables. The menu will definitely include salads. This site has some recipes for salad dressings, including Vinaigrette Salad Dressing and Creamy Salad Dressing.

Week 25 (Success! I lost 1.8 pounds and reached my goal. Includes before and after pictures)

- Phase 3: Also known as the consolidation phase, this phase starts once you reach your target weight. You don’t lose any weight here – you just maintain your new weight. The consolidation phase adds a little fruit, bread and cheese to the mix, as well as one “celebration meal” per week. See article 3 above for details. If you mine through the article you find that a typical menu for the week looks like this:

  1. Continue eating protein plus vegetables to your heart’s desire. They are always on the menu.
  2. You get one fruit a day, but you are looking for the watery fruits like watermellon, cantelope, apples, etc.
  3. You get two slices of whole-grain bread. If you must have butter, make it low-fat. Be stingy with the butter.
  4. You get one serving of carbs per week. This might be pasta or rice.
  5. Your menu expands to include one “celebration meal” per week, where anything goes. But really, if you are losing a significant amount of weight, it has been 6 or 8 months since you had real food. Do you really want to blow it now? I guess if you travel, this meal would allow you to eat one normal restaurant meal a week. As you move to the second half of Phase 3, you get two of these “celebration meals” per week.

If you take a look at the Atkins Diet, you will notice an eerie similarity between the Dukan diet and the Atkins diet. The 4 phases are the same. The emphasis on protein and the lack of carbs is the same. The Dukan diet looks a lot like the Atkins diet minus the fat that the Atkins diet allows.

So this all sounds... interesting.

People have some questions about the downsides, problems and side-effects of the Dukan diet, so let’s go through those:

1) What are the health effects or problems of the Dukan diet? Any side-effects?

When you look at the health effects of any diet, you have to weigh the tradeoffs. For example, obesity is a big health problem because it can lead to an increased probability of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack and stroke. If you can lose a lot of weight, those risks generally decline and that’s a good thing.

As mentioned above, the Dukan diet is similar to the Atkin’s diet, and there has been fairly extensive research on the health effects of the Atkin’s diet. This article summarizes some typical problems that people encounter, including:
- Gout – A high-protein diet may increase the liklihood of gout, but as you can see it is just one of many factors. If you fit the profile, this diet may not be for you.
- Headaches or Dizziness – Some people have an initial reaction to the loss of carbs in the diet. If you don’t see these symptoms going away in a day or two, this diet might not be for you
- Cholesterol problems – generally speaking, losing weight helps cholesterol long-term, although cholesterol may go up during the initial part of the diet. Sticking to non-red meats (e.g. chicken and fish) lowers cholesterol intake. There is a decent chance that your cholesterol will eventually go down on this diet. But if your doctor has you on cholesterol or BP medication, you should mention the diet to your doctor so he/she knows about it and can offer advice.

2) Isn’t all that meat going to make you constipated?

During the attack phase and on nothing-but-protein days, the high concentration of protein in the diet might cause constipation in some. Note that you are asked to drink a lot of water and to take oat bran as part of the Dukan diet – both are designed to relieve constipation. However, if a constipation problem arises, this diet may not be for you, or you might need to skip the attack phase and go straight to the meat-plus-veggies phase.

3) Aren’t you just going to gain all the weight back once you end the diet?

If, after losing the weight, you go back to eating 4,000 calories per day, then yes, you will gain all the weight back. But the intent is that you will not do that. If you were to stick with this diet as designed, the idea is that the consolidation phase changes your eating habits and exercise habits while maintaining a stable weight. Also, the nothing-but-protein-on-Thursdays idea is designed to counteract mild overeating. The success of this diet, and any diet really, depends on your ability to change eating and exercise habits.

4) Are there people who really shouldn’t be doing this diet?

As mentioned above, you should talk to your doctor about this diet or any diet. If you have a family history of gout, severe constipation or cholesterol fluctuations, these are concerns you should definitely discuss with your doctor.

5) What about kidney failure? Won’t your kidneys fail eating all that protein?

I haven’t seen any evidence of kidney failure – as best I can tell this is an urban legend that has grown up around low-carb diets. But I am not a doctor. I am simply telling you my personal experience.

PS – The article starts with this sentence: “Have you ever wondered why most French women appear to be so effortlessly chic and slender, whatever their age?” So the first question to ask is, “Is that true? Do French women have any advantage over the rest of us when it comes to obesity?” This page would seem to indicate that they do. French women are definitely doing better than the majority (although Italian women seem to be doing much better than the French according to the chart).

These articles can also be very helpful:




You may also enjoy this in-depth interview, "Marshall Brain on Singularity 1on1: We're approaching humanity’s make or break period":

On the coming Singularity and Artificial Intelligence:

A Conversation with Marshall Brain from MIRI on Vimeo.

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