Joel Fuhrman: The Doctor Is Out There
Credit: Photograph by Nathan Perkel
On a chilly Friday night in Princeton, New Jersey, more than 300 people who have paid $800 and up for one of Fuhrman's Weekend Immersions have arrived at the Hyatt Regency. The event is sold out, and a spacious ballroom that has seen its share of rented tuxes and bridesmaid dresses is filled with an odd cross-section of the Fuhrman faithful and curious newcomers. Ectomorphic women with yoga arms wander aimlessly between the tables as if searching for their mislaid kombucha. Wide men with rolls of fat bulging from the back of their necks sit with their arms folded, their grim facial expressions hinting at recent bad news from their cardiologists.

I found a seat next to a slim fellow named Rob Alexander-Carew, who'd flown down from Toronto. He'd been following a nutritarian program for four months. "I've lost 30 pounds," he told me. "I'm the same size I was when I was 15." He started eating nutritarian in hopes of finding relief for his pulmonary fibrosis, a scarring of the lungs with no known cause or cure. Though he looked like a cross-country runner, Rob was down to 60 percent lung capacity.

"Do you feel like it's working?" I asked.

"I'm lighter and fitter. My kids come home with a cold and I catch it, but 12 hours later it's gone, and I'm like, what just happened? But my lungs haven't opened up yet."

I noticed that Rob was picking at his nutritarian dinner – steamed kale in creamy cashew sauce.

"Any foods you miss?" I asked him.

"Bread," he said, stirring his vegetable soup. "I really miss bread."

Fuhrman took the stage, flanked by slender acolytes dressed in black. He gave a short speech, exhorted the audience to "Change your life!" – and was followed by testimonials from patients relating the miraculous changes they'd seen under his care. One had overcome rheumatoid arthritis; another had lost 144 pounds. A children's book author with stage-four ovarian cancer had eaten her way back to health.

All this sounded completely plausible to me. I had followed Dr. Fuhrman's Eat to Live plan for six weeks, and the results were undeniable. But it's hard to be perfect all the time, even if the payoff is near-eternal health. I don't know how many people who aren't facing imminent death – or who wouldn't be capable of living on water for 46 days to cure a heel injury – would have the willpower to stick with nutritarianism forever. When it comes to the link between diet and health, Americans not only expect to have our cake and eat it, too, but we also insist that our doctors prescribe something to undo the consequences of our gluttony. In the months after meeting Fuhrman, as I tried to weave some of his dietary precepts into my life, the second-biggest story in health news was First Lady Michelle Obama's inexplicably controversial initiative to encourage kids to exercise and eat more vegetables. The biggest health-news story was that the FDA had granted preliminary approval to a new anti-obesity drug.

Fuhrman puts forth a convincing case that by making some fundamental dietary changes – sacrifices, really – Americans can live longer, healthier lives. The question is, can we live with that?

The Fuhrman Plan: How to Eat to Live

The regimen: The cornerstone of Fuhrman's Eat to Live plan is a six-week starter phase during which a person adopts his nutritarian diet. The first month, Fuhrman promises, the average person will lose 15 pounds by expunging his diet of animal products (including dairy), oils, added salt, caffeine, fruit juices, alcohol, potatoes, and all refined carbohydrates. One to two servings of egg or fish per week are allowed, provided no more than 10 percent of calories come from protein. (On a per-calorie basis, Fuhrman says, broccoli has double the protein of steak.) You are permitted to eat as many vegetables, fresh fruits, and beans as desired. Overeating, Fuhrman says, results from poor eating habits, which leave the body starved for nutrients. "Completely rethink your idea of what a portion is: Make it huge," he writes. That means at least one pound of raw vegetables a day, plus a pound of cooked; four fresh fruits; and a cup of beans. Limited amounts of raw nuts, seeds, whole grains, and avocado are allowed. No calorie counting is required. No snacks are permitted.

The benefits: What can a budding nutritarian expect in return for these lifestyle changes? Fuhrman promises improved sleep, increased immunity, and more energy. Ninety percent of type 2 diabetes patients can leave insulin within a month, he says; 80 percent of headache sufferers – including those with migraines – recover without medication. The price of admission to this natural-health nirvana is several days of mild discomfort (headaches, light-headedness, hunger) as the body detoxifies from its habit of indulging every craving with food.

The results: I tested Fuhrman's ideas for six weeks, though I did allow myself a small cup of black coffee. My detox phase lasted about four days and wasn't especially unpleasant; any hunger pangs I had could be avoided with punchbowl-size portions of leafy greens. After a couple of weeks, my skin was clearer and felt more supple. I slept a little better but didn't feel any amazing surge of mental energy. I didn't catch colds that my children brought home, and the stomach bug that had pestered me for months vanished. My blood pressure dropped, my physical stamina improved, and my personal trainer didn't notice any dip in strength, despite my vacation from animal protein. I lost about nine pounds and two inches from my waist. Unfortunately, while Fuhrman insists that one's palate adapts to the nonpiquant pleasures of nutritarian cuisine, mine was a holdout. Twice, I awoke at night convinced I'd dreamed of the world's most delicious food. The third time, I jotted it down. In the morning, the taboo delicacy haunting my subconscious was revealed in my handwriting: Mustard.