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What is the Mayo Clinic Diet and how does it work?

If you like tracking progress toward your goals, the New Mayo Clinic Diet might be a fit for you.
What a yummy start to the day
The Mayo Clinic diet focuses on building new healthy habits and breaking old, less healthy habits.mapodile / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

For the past several years, the Mayo Clinic Diet has been in the top five of U.S. News and World Report's much-anticipated annual rankings of the best diets. For 2022, the Mayo Clinic Diet was also tied with WW (formerly Weight Watchers) as the best diet program.

The comprehensive Mayo Clinic Diet was first released in book form in 2010 and quickly became a New York Times bestseller. Its second edition came out in 2017, and a third edition is expected in 2023, according to Mayo Clinic Press.

The diet was recently updated in January 2022 and is now referred to now as the New Mayo Clinic Diet, but the driving goal behind it has stayed the same: maintaining a healthy lifestyle and weight loss by using research-backed and medically supported strategies. The New Mayo Clinic Diet also includes a mobile app that offers habit-building tips, recipes, meal plans and at-home workouts.

“This is a way to take a tried-and-true program that’s been around for a while and deliver it to more people in a digital-friendly way,” Dr. Donald Hensrud, associate professor of nutrition and preventive medicine at Mayo Clinic and author of The Mayo Clinic Diet book, told TODAY.com.

He added to U.S. News and World Report: "The fundamental premises behind the diet have not changed, nor should they, as we believe the rationale and evidence supporting it are solid. ... The changes have to do with how the Mayo Clinic diet is delivered to and used by participants. We have a new online program with interactive features designed to help people use the dietary program more effectively."

How does the Mayo Clinic diet work?

The Mayo Clinic Diet focuses on building new healthy habits and breaking old, less healthy habits — think of it as a "lifestyle approach," as the Mayo Clinic Diet book says.

The diet has two main principles, according to the book:

  • Follow an eating plan that's low in calories but includes foods that fill you up and that you enjoy eating
  • Using physical activity to burn more calories

The Mayo Clinic Diet eating plan is low in fat and calories and prioritizes whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

The diet also has two phases lasting 12 weeks, with the option to continue for as long as you would like the support. Your program is customizable, as well. You can choose meal plans that are keto-friendly, high in protein, vegetarian or Mediterranean.

Phase one of the Mayo Clinic Diet: Lose It

The "Lose It" phase lasts two weeks initially, but you can return to it anytime that you like. During this phase, you focus on 15 habits that Mayo Clinic researchers have identified as key to safe and healthy weight loss. The goal is to add five healthy habits, break five unhealthy habits and adopt five bonus habits. Even though this phase is designed to jumpstart your weight loss, there's no calorie counting, and you can eat as many fruits and veggies as you want.

“The more habits you change, the more weight you will lose,” Hensrud said.

In fact, during the two-week "Lose It" period, you can safely drop between 6 and 10 pounds. "We believe the Lose It! phase is the healthiest way to quickly lose weight there is," the book asserts.

The healthy habits that you'll try to add are:

  • Eating a healthy but moderately sized breakfast
  • Eating vegetables and fruits
  • Eating whole grains
  • Eating healthy fats
  • Exercising (including walking) for 30 minutes or more a day

Habits you'll try to ditch are:

  • Eating added sugar
  • Snacking on anything but fruits and veggies
  • Eating a lot of meat or full-fat dairy
  • Eating while watching TV
  • Eating out, unless you can follow your eating plan's rules

Some of the bonus habits include: maintaining a diary of your foods, activity and goals, exercising more than an hour a day and eating minimally processed foods.

Phase two of the Mayo Clinic Diet: Live It

After the first two weeks, you transition to the “Live It” phase, focusing on lasting diet and lifestyle changes you can maintain in the long run. This phase, ideally, will last the rest of your life. From time to time, you can break some of the rules you followed in the "Lose It" phase, and you should still lose 1 to 2 pounds each week.

In the "Live It" phase, you estimate (without measuring) and count servings of food, rather than calories, which the program teaches you how to do. You try to eat a certain number of servings of certain types of food each day based on your personal program. You also exercise on a regular basis.

The Mayo Clinic Diet emphasizes making food choices to align with the Mayo Clinic healthy weight pyramid, with vegetables and fruit dominating the diet, followed by whole-grain carbohydrates, proteins and dairy, healthy fats and lastly sweets. For example, with a plan that allots 1,400 calories a day, you can eat four or more servings each of fruits and vegetables, five of carbs, four of dairy and/or protein and three of healthy fats. In addition to fruits and vegetables, some recommended foods are legumes, beans, whole-wheat flour and bran, nuts, salmon, tuna, avocados and olives.

“(The Mayo Clinic Diet) provides evidence-based advice,” Dr. Hensrud said. “It’s not effortless, but it’s practical, realistic and enjoyable enough to be sustainable. It will not only help people manage their weight but improve their health in the process.”

What does the research say about the Mayo Clinic diet?

Dr. Hensrud said the changes to your habits that are encouraged by the Mayo Clinic Diet are based on science and have some support for weight management. And eating more plant-based foods — which the diet encourages — is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Tracking, or self-monitoring behaviors, can also promote weight management. That’s because they keep you connected to what you’re doing and what’s working for you. For example, tracking what you eat can show you whether you’re eating enough fruits and vegetables, or whether your portion sizes are too big.

“Those tools have been shown in multiple studies to be useful in helping people manage their weight,” Samantha Cassetty, a registered dietitian based in New York City and co-author of “Sugar Shock,” told TODAY.com. “These are all things that make you feel better emotionally and physically.”

Other research on foods that the Mayo Clinic Diet emphasizes or discourages also supports its benefits. A recent study in JAMA Neurology found that having more than 20% of your calories be ultraprocessed foods — which the program advises against eating all — increasea dementia risk. Eating high amounts of highly processed foods is also linked to cancer, mortality (especially from heart disease) and poor mental health. Another 2021 study in the journal Neurology found that consuming low amounts of fruits, vegetables and beans (three recommended foods in the Mayo Clinic Diet) also increases dementia risk.

The benefits to regular exercise, another tenet of the Mayo Clinic Diet, abound, as well. Research shows it can boost your brain health, mood and lifespan, as well as strengthen bones and muscles, and reduce risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers, according to the CDC.

Is the Mayo Clinic diet a good choice for you?

“This diet is focused on promoting healthful foods like fruits and vegetables and whole grains, and it’s also focused on helping you establish healthier habits,” Cassetty said. “It has a lot going for it.”

The two-week “Lose It” phase may feel restrictive, but it can also jumpstart your weight loss.

“It’s a short enough time to see some success and start making long-term lifestyle changes,” Hensrud said. While the “Lose It” phase isn’t sustainable long term, it can give people confidence. “At first, when people start changing their habits, they are intimidated. Once they get into it and see they are losing weight, they become empowered. They’re in it for the long haul,” he added.

So, if you want to push yourself for two weeks to see some progress, this diet might be a good choice for you.

“There’s a good chance you’ll lose weight because your eating habits have changed significantly, and that can be motivating to get you to the next phase, where you can figure out what works for you long-term,” Cassetty said.

This diet could be challenging if it’s a complete overhaul of your eating habits or for people who don't want a low-calorie and low-fat approach. “It’s OK to feel like your health behavior is somewhat of a stretch,” Cassetty said. “But it still has to feel like it can fit within your lifestyle.”

And if the diet brings up any disordered eating habits, you might want to find a different approach.

You’ll pay from $20 to $50 per month for the plan, depending on how long you enroll. There's also a book based on the program.

What do you eat on the Mayo Clinic diet?

The Mayo Clinic Diet emphasizes vegetables and fruits, whole grains and healthy fats like olive oil and avocado and includes smaller amounts of meat, cheese and eggs.

There are six meal plan options available:

  • The Original Mayo Clinic Diet, which is intended to be family friendly and easy to follow.
  • The simple diet, which emphasizes efficiency and fewer ingredients. It's also less costly.
  • Higher protein, which balances protein across your meals to help control your appetite.
  • Healthy keto, a high-fat, low-carb diet that highlights olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds.
  • Vegetarian, which includes eggs and dairy as well as protein from beans and soy.
  • Mediterranean, which is plant-based and includes fish and some meat.

In a typical day, you might eat:

  • Breakfast: Whole-grain toast with part-skim ricotta cheese, strawberries and almonds.
  • Lunch: Mexican-inspired bowl with squash, bell pepper, onion, olive oil, eggs, brown rice, black beans, tomatoes and spinach.
  • Dinner: Salmon with cucumber and tomato dressing.
  • Snack: Unlimited fruits and veggies.

The Mayo Clinic diet is similar to:

  • Mediterranean diet, which also emphasizes whole, plant-based foods.
  • DASH diet, or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, which aims to reduce or control high blood pressure.
  • MIND diet, which combines the Mediterranean and DASH diets to help promote brain health.
  • Flexitarian diet, a primarily vegetarian diet that includes some meat.
  • Blue Zones diet, a plant-focused diet modeled after the food choices of the people in the world who live the longest.

 

Is the Mayo Clinic diet effective long-term?

The “Live It” phase of the Mayo Clinic diet incorporates healthy diet and lifestyle changes you can maintain for life.

“People often say they’re ‘on a diet’ to lose weight. This often implies something rigid, focuses on what you can’t eat, and that’s a negative experience,” the intro to the book explains. “Therefore, it’s not surprising that most people eventually go “off” their diets and soon regain any weight they may have lost.”

The Mayo Clinic, on the other hand, isn’t an “on-again-off-again” diet, as the book notes. “The program is designed to be practical and enjoyable so you’ll stick with it for the long haul.”

U.S. News & World Report ranked the Mayo Clinic Diet as 3.42 out of 5 for long-term weight loss. The program also has majority four- and five-star (out of five stars) reviews on Trustpilot.com.

Talk with your doctor before starting the Mayo Clinic diet or any other diet — your doctor or a registered dietitian can recommend the best eating plan for you, based on your health needs.