A reader’s question: Is Dr. McDougall right?

Disclosure: This post contains a link to Amazon, of which I am an affiliate. If you purchase a book through this link, I make a few pennies.


I received the following comment on last post, & decided, after I started responding, to just turn it into another post.

Elizabeth writes: 

Ha!  You caught my attention with John McDougall because I attended his 10-day live-in program last August.  Every time I eat oil, I think of what he said…”the fat you eat, is the fat you wear!”  I don’t have heart disease or diabetes, I am very overweight and desperate for anything that will help me lose the weight and not want to eat my shoes at the same time…enter in Weight Watchers, Nutri-System, Jenny Craig, blah, blah, blah.  I applaud those that it works for, it doesn’t for me.  I was also looking for a solution to my chronic IBS, which Dr. McDougall attributed to the oil and in the 10 days I was there, I had not one IBS episode.  I wish I wasn’t an “all or nothing” kind of girl, I get sucked into these things and give up if I can’t do them 100% perfect.  Exactly why I’ve avoided Dave Ramsey, although I do read Mary Hunt (cheapskate monthly).


My response:

Hi Elizabeth!

That’s awesome that you attended Dr. McDougall’s 10 day program. As I said in the post, Dr. McDougall has done a great deal of good in helping people change their lives for the better, & for that, he has my admiration. I have enjoyed many of Mary McDougall’s recipes, & would recommend anyone starting out on a plant-based or vegan diet to read any of his books if you’re so inclined (in fact, you can find many of them in my Amazon shop).

However, this doesn’t mean I agree with 100% his approach or his recommendations. Or rather, I don’t think his recommendation are right for everybody, 100% of the time. And I don’t think you have to agree 100% either, in order to implement some good habits into your life.

A few things that warrant further discussion, & hopefully will be helpful to you in some way.


1) I am not a registered dietitian  nutritionist, or other health professional.  I give my opinion as merely that.

Your health, your relationship with food & diet, are complex & nuanced. I think it’s important to include several competent advisers (a registered dietitian, M.D., & other qualified health professionals)  in the discussion about your personal health & well being. I think it’s never a good idea to put stock in only one individual’s recommendations or advice (myself included).

Never hurts to get a second opinion!


2) Just like Dave Ramsey, McDougall advocates strict adherence to his recommendations in order to have success.

Part of his teachings include using fear as a tool (ie. fear of fat, fear of moderation) to get his clients/readers/followers to adhere to his recommendations. Dave Ramsey uses similar means to achieve that end. I don’t agree with this approach, but it seems to work with a good many people (at least for a while).


3) You mentioned you didn’t have one IBS episode during the time you did the 10-day live in program.

That’s fantastic!

Surely, that provides a good amount of credible evidence that you were doing something right. With that in mind, I think it may be worth pursuing the following question:

Did you have a positive experience because

a) the food you ate did not contain any oil
b) the foods you ate were wholesome, nourishing, plant foods
c) you were not eating any of the irritating culprits that may have been partly at fault for exacerbating your issues (ie. cheese or other dairy products, processed foods, sugars, refined flours, etc.)
d) b & c
e) or all of the above

If the answer is only b & c, then it stands to reason that it would have been possible to still have had a positive experience with the addition of a reasonable amount of plant-based fats (like avocados, nut butters, seeds, olive oil) to an already very clean, vegan diet.


4) About “the fat you eat is the fat you wear.”

It’s a nice catchphrase, but I think being overweight or obese is more complex than just: you eat fat, you get fat, & I think most R.D.’s & others would agree with that.


5) In regards to weight loss.

Weight loss, like debt elimination, takes a great deal of self-control, focus, & determination.  Believe me, I know the effort it takes to lose weight.

There are many ways to achieve that end goal of a healthy weight. Some approaches are not balanced, realistic, or healthy, while still others are downright snake oil (think most diet pills).

You mention that you have a significant amount of weight to lose. Dr. McDougall’s program for weight loss (MWL) does work (after all, it’s about the calorie deficit, which is easy to do when you’re eating mostly low calorie foods) & it’s fairly painless (although does require a good amount of time in eating/preparing food).

The large volume of food does ease some of the discomfort of high calorie restriction, but it is not the only healthy way to lose weight.

Personally, I’ve found the principle of volume eating to be helpful in satiety & weight maintenance, but I’ve found this doesn’t mean I necessarily have to be austere with my intake of plant-based fats.

Barbara Rolls, PhD, has done extensive research on volume eating & weight loss/maintenance & written several books on it. Volumetrics is the one that I’ve read, found helpful, & that I’d recommend.


6) If you find something that works, do it!

If you find something that you can realistically implement in the long-term, that is overall, a positive, balanced, & healthy way to have a greater sense of physical/emotional/spiritual well being & is not in conflict with your moral or religious values, do it.

I think strict adherence to Dr. McDougall’s approach can be a godsend for many, but I also think it’s important to realize it’s not the absolute, only way to achieve your unique & individual health goals.


Thank you for taking the time to comment, & best of luck!





Do you have anything to add or share with Elizabeth? 


  1. Cynthia
    on June 18, 2016 at 2:32 pm said:

    New here…great discussion. Searching for answers , almost 70, 8 yrs of chronic back pain/sciatica/neuropathy. Not diabetic. Former runner. Vegetarian many yrs…difficult to drop dairy, but want to try.

  2. Hannah Wetzel
    on April 4, 2013 at 11:46 am said:

    I love your thinking, Janae. It’s like you know what we are all thinking! =) Over the last year I have read several books and tried several diet plans trying to lose a little extra baby weight but mostly to improve the health of my family. It was a little frustrating to me that every diet lifestyle was basically all or nothing or made it sound like if you went with any other diet plan then your heart would explode and you’d be ‘fat’ all your life. It was really stressing me out! I’ve learned a few things admist all my readings:

    1)Don’t be Afraid: the more you fear, the worse things become (or seem to become. Hitting a dead end or making a nutritional mistake is not the end of the world. Tomorrow is another day! Be positive and enjoy the educational journey.

    2)Listen to your body: I found out recently that my body cannot tolerate wheat, grains in general or beans. So I avoid them. The elimination diet as suggested above is great because it gets you in tune with what you body can handle and what it can’t. I think once you know what doesn’t work (or rather what causes distress), it’s easier to focus on the good and healthful.

    3)Trust God: I am very lucky to be a Mormon and have the Word of Wisdom, a law of good health. It not only tells me what is bad for me (tobacco, alcohol etc) but also what is good (fruits veggies, etc). It has been educational for me to see that God placed things here on this Earth for us to use that will make us strong. He loves us and wants to help us. Admist all my studying, I have turned to Him and with little nudges I have found a nutritional life style that works for me and my family.

    Good luck, Elizabeth, and God bless!

  3. Elizabeth
    on April 1, 2013 at 10:09 am said:

    Thank you Janae for your thoughtful reply to my comment! It took me a few days to think through what I learned and digest what you had said. What I’ve figured out is, I’m not sure if it was just the clean diet or if it was truly the oil. Dr. McDougall said it was the oil. I believed him because he’s a Dr. and I am not. BUT I also live in my body and he doesn’t and maybe it isn’t so smart to give someone else so much power.

    I do know the first meal I had out when I returned home from Santa Rosa was at Chipotle and it was rice, beans, veggies and guac. and I got really, really sick. It could have been the guac., because it was too rich. At the time, I assumed it was hidden oil in the rice or something else and Dr. McDougall was right? Maybe, maybe not.

    I think I’m being way too hard on myself. Any steps toward a healthier/sustainable lifestyle are good ones. It’s really the oil that trips me up…veggies roasted without a little aren’t the same as “with” and no oil salad dressing, just isn’t as satisfying for me. I have to think that a pile of roasted veggies with a tsp or two of olive oil is LOADS better than fast food or no veggies at all. I’m going to work to let go of my “all or nothing” thinking and not let fear of not doing it 100% like it’s written stop me from making those healthier steps.

    Keep writing! You provide me with loads of inspiration and ideas.

    • Leanne
      on April 2, 2013 at 12:05 am said:

      Hi Elizabeth…just wanted to share this link with you, The Whole Life Nutrition Kitchen, if you have time to read about the Elimination Diet. It has tons of info. My husband tried the Elimination Diet, which is plant based, and lost 25 pounds in 1 month. He has tried numerous times to loose weight with no success. After reading about the Elimination Diet, it made sense why he was not loosing weight. We found out that he is Gluten sensitive…he has had IBS for many years, and while following this plan, it when right away..if he goes back to old eating habits, it returns. Good Luck!

      • Elizabeth
        on April 2, 2013 at 7:57 pm said:

        Thank you Leanne! I’ll check it out!

  4. alanna
    on March 31, 2013 at 2:35 pm said:

    Thank you for posting your response Janae (and very cute signature).

    I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about this lately. There are many great yet conflicting philosophies/programs out there. As diverse as individuals are, it stands to reason that varied approaches will work better for some than others.
    I appreciate your response about oil too. There is a great difference between brushing a little on veggies and consuming huge amounts in a standard western diet.

  5. lfwfv
    on March 28, 2013 at 10:12 am said:

    I agree that there is not a one-size-fits-all plan.

    I think sometimes kids could benefit from the “empty calories” of some fats if they are eating mostly low-calorie dense bulky foods that might otherwise make it hard to get enough calories in.

    I also think there is an argument to be made that the strict no-oil approach might become more necessary for a lot of individuals looking for a “medicinal effect” from their diet. Anybody needing to lose a ton of weight, reverse diabetes, end a food addiction, reverse heart disease, lower high blood pressure etc. might find more success with being more drastic with regards to cutting out fat. That said, i think you are right Janae, that everybody needs to figure this out for themselves, ideally with the help of an MD or RD that is addressing their specific needs and health concerns.

    Lastly, i think everybody needs to decide for themselves what gives them the most freedom, peace, and long-term health with regards to their food approach in their own lives. For me, following a fairly strict no-oil or added fats approach and eating lots of volume in the form of low-fat whole plant foods, gives me freedom with food. I don’t feel afraid of eating to satiation, and I trust my body to regulate my weight and stay lean and healthy. For my husband, he needs his 1/4 cup of walnuts and light smear of all natural peanut butter on his bread every day to feel balanced and not deprived. He is able to eat these items very moderately and they greatly increase his enjoyment of the diet we eat, and therefore increases his level of compliance.

  6. Mark
    on March 28, 2013 at 8:41 am said:

    It’s important to note, too, that Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, from 20+ years of peer-reviewed research, was able to REVERSE heart disease with a no-added oil plant-based diet. Free oil isn’t food. It’s nutritionally worthless (the amount of antioxidants to be significant would take a half cup of olive oil to eat), highly caloric, and has been measured to not only cause inflammation of your circulatory system, but to constrict it for several hours as well.

    We are addicted to the taste of fat, and eliminating free oil for 14+ weeks will, and I’ve done it (per Essy’s advice) re-calibrate your taste receptors. I no longer craze or desire added oil. Six years this month.

    McDougall and Esselstyn both agree that “moderation kills” and think that any added oil is not only unnecessary, but unwise. The moderation approach has not worked, judging from the level of obesity in this country.

    I do like your evenhanded writing style, btw, and found what you wrote to be quite thoughtful.

    Tks! Mark

    • Janae Wise
      on March 28, 2013 at 8:56 am said:

      That’s awesome Mark!

      I’ve read Dr. Essy’s book & actually LOVE all the recipes therein. They are great. I also am amazed at the work he’s been able to do with heart disease with dietary changes alone. Proof that diet is powerful stuff.

      I understand that olive oil, & other oils are rather nutritionally poor & extremely high in calories. That said, a little olive oil brushed on some zucchini, sprinkled with herbs & grilled, will get anyone in my family to eat those veggies. Earth balance on potatoes gets my kids to gobble them up. Personally, I find a lemon squeezed over a huge bowl full of salad & a few teaspoons of olive oil to be extremely more saitiating than just lemon juice. I will eat bowlfuls (literally) of salad with just a little (very satisfying) homemade vinegerette (that has some oil in it). I made oil free dressings for years, & can say, after “allowing” myself to using a small amount of olive oil has changed my experience with salads for the better.

      I’m well versed, well read on nearly all the arguments against oil. I can’t say that an oil-free diet isn’t for anyone, just as I can’t say a diet that includes oil & added fats is for everyone. The one size fits all approach (as I mentioned in my previous post), be it for money, relationships, or food, isn’t the best way to go.

      I suppose that’s my point. It’s a spectrum, we’re all individuals, with varying activity levels, health historys. And yes, I do believe a diet for a female should be slightly different for a male, particularly during childbearing years & breastfeeding. I’ve experienced this (having had 3 kids will vegan). I’ve been plant-based/vegan for nearly 7 years now, & having spent the first 5 years on a McDougall style diet, I can say, I’ve realized I’m okay with a slightly more lax approach to added fats.

      Thank you so much for sharing! It’s awesome to hear about others positive experiences with dietary changes.