The Kempner Rice Diet: Whipping Us Into Shape

Franklin Delano Roosevelt brought us through the Great Depression and World War II; who knows how history would have been different had he not died in his fourth term as President from a massive stroke. In the following days and months, we learned that Roosevelt had suffered from severe high blood pressure for years. In spite of this, he was on no medications or other treatments. The reason for the lack of treatment is stark and simple: there were none. The state of the art at that time was: death. Death from so-called malignant hypertension, out-of-control high blood pressure for which, it was thought, there was no remedy. But they were wrong. There was Dr. Walter Kempner and his rice-fruit diet.

The physician-scientist, Kempner, trained with the best, fled Nazi Germany and set up shop at Duke, where he began treating malignant hypertension patients with a radical diet consisting of only white rice and fruit, with strikingly favorable results: a rapid reduction in blood pressure, rapid improvement in kidney failure, eye pressure, heart failure and other manifestations of this previously fatal illness.

He figured that if a low salt diet helped with blood pressure, a low protein diet helped with kidney function, and a low fat and cholesterol diet helped the heart, why not take it to its logical conclusion and design a no-salt, no cholesterol diet of almost pure carbohydrate. So, he designed a diet with less sodium than any low-sodium diet, less protein than any low-protein diet, and less cholesterol and fat than any other low-fat diet.

His hope was that it would just stop progression of the disease. Instead, something miraculous happened. In about two-thirds of cases, the disease reversed. We’re talking reversal of heart failure, reversal of eye damage and reversal of kidney failure. At the time, this was effectively a terminal disease where people just had a few months to live, but with Kempner’s rice diet,  they got better. In the video below, you can see before and after of the back of people’s eyes. They started out swollen, bloody and leaking and then were nearly normal in a matter of months.

A striking fact is that in some patients, after being effectively cured by the diet over many months, they could then relax the diet to a more conventional plant-based diet and go on to live a normal, active life. The rice diet may actually drop blood pressures too low, so we have to add back other foods to bring the pressures back up to normal.

An editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine described Kempner’s results as little short of miraculous. Practically speaking, there’s probably no more effective diet for obese cardiac patients. The problem, though, is that most physicians lack the extraordinary persuasive powers required to keep the patient eating such a restricted diet.

When Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn presented his study results demonstrating in some cases reversal of near end-stage heart disease with a whole food plant-based diet, the Chair of Cleveland Clinic cardiology department asked, “How can we expect patients to stay on a strict diet like this when we can’t even get them to quit smoking?” Just like penicillin drugs don’t work at all unless we take them, plant-based diets don’t work unless we actually eat them.

The answer may be that the physician must have a zealous belief in the diet and must convey that passion to the patients. For Kempner, to keep his patients on the rice diet, Kempner “brow-beat, yelled at, and castigated them when he caught them straying.” And he didn’t just browbeat them; he sometimes actually beat them. It came out in a lawsuit in which a former patient sued Dr. Kempner, claiming that he had literally whipped her and other patients to motivate them to stick to the diet.

Reminds me of the famous diabetes physician, Arnoldo Cantani back in the 1800s, who knew the remedy for diabetes is not in the drugstore, but in the kitchen. To ensure compliance, if necessary, he would lock a patient up in a room for six weeks.

Thankfully, in terms of personality, Dr. Esselstyn is the opposite of Dr. Kempner. He is polite, soft-spoken, gentle and able to keep his patients on track without whipping them. And last but not least, Esselstyn walks the talk, following the diet himself, whereas Kempner died of a heart attack (though at the age of 94). His work continues on in Durham, where they continue a relaxed version of the diet, allowing actual vegetables.

A year before Roosevelt died, Kempner had already published his miraculous results. It seems highly likely that had the rice diet been “provided to President Roosevelt a year before his death, his disease might have been controlled before his fatal stroke, and that this fatal event could have been averted.”


In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of DeathMore Than an Apple a DayFrom Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

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Maritza D.
Maritza D2 years ago


Michelle Hall
Michelle Hall2 years ago

Thank you for sharing. I'm going to go look up the details of this diet and consider trying it.

Ellen J.
E Away J2 years ago

I've got a friend who goes to drs @ Duke - the rice diet didn't work for her & she was religious in following it. They are now trying other diets. She did find it extremely difficult to follow.

NitaSick L.
Nita L2 years ago

Interesting but sounds a bit dangerous and extremely difficult to stick to. Thank you for sharing.

Marija Mohoric
Marija M2 years ago

interesting, tks for sharing

Karen H.
Karen H2 years ago

Great article. Thanks so much.

Lisa M.
Lisa M2 years ago


Angela K.
Angela K2 years ago


Shirley S.
Shirley S2 years ago


Ruth S.
Ruth S2 years ago