Cabbage Soup Diet No Lucky Charm For Weight Loss, Says UF Expert

March 14, 2002

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — No St. Patrick’s Day meal would be complete without cabbage. While the leafy vegetable is a nutritional pot o’ gold, it also is the centerpiece of a weeklong crash diet that’s mostly blarney, says a University of Florida dietary expert. 

The “cabbage soup diet” promises users can lose 10 to 15 pounds in seven days by following a strict regimen that includes unlimited amounts of cabbage soup, but it’s no way to achieve permanent weight loss, said Elaine Turner, a nutritional scientist with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

“There’s nothing magic about cabbage soup,” Turner said. “It’s physically impossible to lose 10 to 15 pounds of fat in a week — that’s roughly equivalent to 40 to 60 sticks of butter. Anyone claiming that kind of dramatic result is losing mainly water weight that will come back after a short time.”

To lose one pound of fat, a person must burn 3,000 to 3,500 more calories than they consume, she said. This can be accomplished by eating less, exercising more, or by a combination of the two. Weight loss of one pound per week is generally considered a safe and achievable goal.

Turner, an assistant professor of nutritional science who has an academic interest in food fads, said cabbage soup diets have been around for years and recently came back into vogue, promoted by books and Web sites.

“People often claim the diet was developed at one hospital or another, but no doctor has ever stepped forward to take credit, strangely enough,” she said. “More likely, someone thought they could make a buck off their favorite vegetable soup recipe.”

The soup used in the diet typically includes cabbage, tomatoes, green peppers, carrots, celery, mushrooms, onions, onion soup mix and sometimes bouillon and canned vegetable juice.

Turner said one bowl of the soup could be a welcome addition to a balanced meal, but eating it non-stop isn’t a good idea, and might even be dangerous to your health.

“You may get too much sodium from the combination of soup mix, bouillon and juice, but otherwise the ingredients are healthy, low-calorie items,” she said. “However, they’re also low in protein and carbohydrates. That wouldn’t be a problem if the overall diet plan provided adequate amounts of those nutrients elsewhere, but it doesn’t.”

Turner said healthy individuals probably wouldn’t suffer permanent harm from using the diet for a week, but it could be a different story for those with special nutritional needs.

“This diet could aggravate many health conditions,” she said. “For example, people with diabetes could have problems maintaining their blood glucose level. Consult your physician before beginning any new diet, and that goes double here.”

Besides cabbage soup, the diet prescribes specific foods for each day of the weeklong program, mainly fruits and vegetables, she said. Some Web sites advise using nutritional supplements as well.

“In effect, they’re acknowledging that the diet provides inadequate nutrition,” she said. “For realistic weight control you need a variety of foods so you won’t get bored or suffer long-term health problems from nutritional deficiencies.”

Despite the diet’s shortcomings, cabbage can be part of a healthy, sensible weight control plan, she said.

“It’s a great food,” she said. “Cabbage is low in fat and calories and is a good source of fiber and vitamin C, and dark green varieties, such as bok choy, are also rich in folate and vitamin A. St. Patrick’s Day is an ideal time to appreciate it.”