Joel Fuhrman: The Doctor Is Out There
Credit: Photograph by Nathan Perkel

The key scene in a health-and-fitness guru's biography is almost always the "Eureka!" moment that launches him from obscurity to self-help superstardom. Charles Atlas was skinny and poor until he discovered the chest-expanding secrets of Dynamic-Tension. Dr. Robert Atkins was fat and unhappy until he stumbled across the waist-melting wonders of low-carb eating. Dr. Joel Fuhrman, whose radical ideas on nutrition have made him one of the most influential diet doctors in America today, followed, as he usually does, a different path. Fuhrman was already famous as a world-class pairs figure skater, competing on the same amateur circuit as Dorothy Hamill and other future Olympic medalists, when, in 1973, at age 20, he suffered a life-changing heel injury.

"I couldn't take any impact on it, couldn't jump and land on it," Fuhrman says. "I couldn't walk for almost a year." We're seated in his offices in a bland corporate park in exurban New Jersey, a suite that looks more like someplace to sign papers for a mortgage refinancing than the global headquarters of a health revolution. At 58, Fuhrman is still in excellent shape, a point that he illustrates by pausing midsentence to lift his shirt, flash his well-defined abs, and frog-jump up and down off his desk, an apple in each hand. His default facial expression is a smirk that implies he possesses an important secret, which he may. With a little more hair, he could pass for 15 years younger.

When the U.S. Olympic Committee's orthopedist urged Fuhrman to undergo an experimental surgical procedure for his heel, Fuhrman refused. He sought treatment instead from Herbert Shelton, a San Antonio naturopath who specialized in irregular cures. Fuhrman, a fit 150 pounds, was put on a regimen of only water for 46 days. "They nearly killed me," he says. "I fasted down to 88 pounds." His heel trouble vanished, but so did most of his muscle, and he was unable to regain top form in time for the 1976 Olympics.

A less-farsighted man might have sued Shelton for malpractice. Fuhrman – who'd watched his father use natural methods to rid himself of obesity, osteoarthritis, and back pain – saw an opportunity for a second act away from the ice rink. He earned a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in nutritional medicine, and, in 1995, published the alt-medicine manifesto 'Fasting and Eating for Health.' The book laid out the unorthodox, roughage-heavy rules for maximizing wellness that Fuhrman has since refined and expanded upon for an ever-widening audience. In June, the revised edition of his best-known work, 'Eat to Live,' hit number one on the 'New York Times' bestseller list.

Judging by its cheery, colorful cover, which promises "Lose 20 Lbs. or More in 6 Weeks" and bears a ringing endorsement from celebrity physician Dr. Mehmet Oz ("A medical breakthrough....There is no question in my mind that it will work for you"), 'Eat to Live' ought to be a typical diet book. A reader who cracks it open expecting WebMD-style advice about counting calories and taking the stairs more often might be surprised to learn that the author preaches something closer to fruitarianism or Christian Science than to conventional medical wisdom. In Fuhrman's world, the number of calories one consumes is far less important than the types of food he or she ingests. Low-carb, high-protein diets are not only unhealthy, but they will also almost certainly hasten one's death from an unpleasant disease. Olive oil should be avoided, and the Mediterranean diet is practically a sham. A slow metabolism is preferable to a fast one. "Why would you want to speed up your metabolic rate?" he asked me, throwing his hands up in disbelief. "You're aging yourself!"

Fuhrman's number-one predictor of whether someone will get cancer isn't family history; it's what that person puts in his mouth. "Your genes play a very small role," he says. "And nutrition has the power to overwhelm genetics. The medical profession and the masses have absolved themselves of all responsibility. They think drugs are the answer to everything."

Fuhrman isn't a crunchy holistic thinker. He's a data-analysis guy. He speaks in a combative tone underscored by a medium-thick New York accent and sketches little charts and diagrams to
illustrate important points. Fuhrman says he has reviewed 20,000 journal articles on nutrition, culling the most important information from each. Out of this collected wisdom, tested on thousands of patients over the years, he has devised a simple formula: H=N/C, or health equals nutrition divided by calories. It is the foundation of Fuhrman's proprietary eating system, which he calls nutritarianism. One of the core tenets of nutritarianism is that everyone should eat at least one pound of raw vegetables and another pound of cooked ones each day, the equivalent of a throw-pillow-size bag of spinach and a very large bowl of steamed broccoli. Follow his advice, Fuhrman promises, and you should stay healthy until at least the age of 95.