A Critical Look at "Natural Hygiene"

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Natural hygiene, an offshoot of naturopathy, is a philosophy of health and “natural living” that opposes immunization, fluoridation, food irradiation, and most medical treatment and advocates eating a “raw food” diet of vegetables, fruits, and nuts. It also advocates a vegetarian diet, periodic fasting, and “food combining” (avoiding food combinations it considers detrimental). According to its philosophy:

Health is the result of natural living. When people live in harmony with their physiological needs, health is the inevitable result. By supplying the organism with its basic requirements (natural, unadulterated food; sunshine; clean, fresh air; pure water; appropriate physical, mental and emotional activities; and a productive lifestyle) while simultaneously eliminating all harmful factors and influences, the self-constructing, self-regulating, self-repairing qualities of the body are given full rein.

Background History

The Natural Hygiene movement is said to have been founded during the 1830s by Sylvester Graham, (inventor of the “Graham cracker”) but declined until “resuscitated” from “almost dead” by Herbert M. Shelton (1895-1985). Shelton claimed that "Hygienic care is the only rational and radical care that has ever been administered to the sick in any age of the world in any place." [1]

In a 1978 interview in Natural Living, Shelton described his educational background this way:

I postgraduated from the University of Hard Knocks and left before I got my diploma. I went through the usual brainwashing process of the school system in Greenville, Texas and revolted against the whole political, religious, medical and social system at the age of sixteen.

During the next several years, Shelton obtained a “Doctor of Physiological Therapeutics” degree from from the International College of Drugless Physicians, a school established by Bernarr Macfadden, and took a postgraduate course at the Lindlahr College of Natural Therapeutics in Chicago. Then he went to New York where, “after nine months of brainwashing,” he acquired degrees in chiropractic and naturopathy. In 1920, after further study and apprenticeship at various institutions, Shelton published the first of his 40 books, Fundamentals of Nature Cure. In 1928 he founded Dr. Shelton’s Health School in San Antonio, which operated at seven different locations until 1981. From 1934 through 1941, he produced a 7-volume series under the title The Hygienic System. In 1939, he launched Dr. Shelton’s Hygienic Review, a monthly magazine that was published for about 40 years.

Natural hygiene’s primary organization has been the National Health Association (NHA), which is headquartered in Tampa Florida. Shelton founded NHA as the American Natural Hygiene Society (ANHS), which assumed its present name in 1998. Membership costs $35 or more and includes a subscription to Health Science, its quarterly magazine. Recent tax returns (filed under AHNA's name) state that the organization's income from membership dues was $29,209 in 2006, $50,242 in 2005, $53,794 in 2004, $54,866 in 2003, $43,174 in 2002, and $47,794 in 2001. These numbers suggest that during the past six years, NHA has had between 800 and 1500 members. NHA has actively promoted certification of “organic foods” and opposed immunization, fluoridation, and food irradiation.

In 2003, some "hygienic doctors" launched the International Natural Hygiene Society (INHS), a volunteer-based, web-based network with no membership fees. Its Web states that it has over 800 members.

The International Association of Hygienic Physicians (IAHP) is a professional association for licensed medical doctors, osteopaths, chiropractors, and naturopaths) who "specialize in therapeutic fasting supervision as an integral part of Hygienic Care." Founded in 1978, the IAHP offers an internship program for "certification in fasting supervision." In December 2007, its Web site referral list included 26 members from the United States and 11 from other countries. Most are chiropractors, but a few hold other degrees.

Therapeutic Philosophy

According to an ANHS brochure published in the 1980s:

A thoroughgoing rest, which includes fasting, is the most favorable condition under which an ailing body can purify and repair itself. Fasting is the total abstinence from all liquid or solid foods except distilled water. During a fast the body’s recuperative forces are marshaled and all of its energies are directed toward the recharging of the nervous system, the elimination of toxic accumulations, and the repair and rejuvenation of tissue. Stored within each organism’s tissues are nutrient reserves which it will use to carry on metabolism and repair work. Until these reserves are depleted, no destruction of healthy tissue or “starvation” can occur.

Natural Hygiene publications promote fasting for children as well as for adults. The brochure also stated:

Natural Hygiene rejects the use of medications, blood transfusions, radiation, dietary supplements, and any other means employed to treat or “cure” various ailments. These therapies interfere with or destroy vital processes and tissue. Recovery from disease takes place in spite of, and not because of, the drugging and “curing” practices.

In 1982, a federal court jury awarded over $800,000 to the survivors of William Carlton, a 49-year-old man who died after undergoing a distilled water fast for 30 days at Shelton’s Health School. An article in the Los Angeles Times stated that Carlton had died of bronchial pneumonia resulting from a weakened condition in which he lost 50 pounds during his last month of life. The article also noted that he was the sixth person in five years who had died while undergoing treatment at the school [2]. Shelton and his chiropractic associate, Vivian V. Vetrano, claimed in their appeal that Carlton had persisted in fasting after Dr. Vetrano had advised him to stop. However, the verdict was upheld by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court declined further review.

“Food Combining”

Another central component of Natural Hygiene is its system of “food combining,” the incorrect notion that various food combinations eaten during the same meal can cause or correct ill health. In Food Combining Made Easy, he stated:

To a single article of food that is a starch-protein combination, the body can easily adjust its juices. . . to the digestive requirements of the food. But when two foods are eaten with different . . . digestive needs, this precise adjustment of juices to requirements becomes impossible.

Natural Hygienists believe, for example, that consuming a high-protein food and a high-carbohydrate food at the same meal will, at the least, tax the body’s enzymatic capacity. In Food Combining, Shelton grouped foods into seven partially overlapping categories:

  1. proteins such as nuts, peanuts, and avocados
  2. starches, including sweet fruits, such as peanuts, chestnuts, pumpkins, bananas, and mangos
  3. fats such as most nuts and avocados
  4. acid fruits such as citrus fruit and tomatoes
  5. “sub-acid” fruits such as pears and apricots
  6. non-starchy and green vegetables such as lettuce, broccoli, and watercress;
  7. melons such as watermelon, honeydew, and cantaloupe.

Hygienic classification schemes differ somewhat, but certain foods are not recommended under any circumstances.

Shelton taught that the following combinations are indigestible: “acids” and starches; proteins and starches; acids and proteins; fats and proteins; sugars and proteins; sugars and starches (note that Shelton classified sweet fruits as starches); melons and anything other than fresh fruit; and even two different proteins. Such pronouncements were debunked more than 70 years ago in both scientific and popular literature.

Despite its many absurdities, Natural Hygiene enjoyed a resurgence in the 1980s, thanks to Harvey and Marilyn Diamond and their books Fit for Life (1985) and Living Health (1987). Harvey received his “Ph.D. in nutritional science” from T.C. Fry’s unaccredited American College of Health Science in Texas, which offered a voluminous correspondence course detailing Fry’s views. Natural Hygiene advocates have written two other popular books: The Beverly Hills Medical Diet (1982), by Judy Mazel, and Unlimited Power (1986), by Anthony Robbins

Although Natural Hygiene’s "official" dietary rules are rigid and restrictive, its adherants vary considerably in the extent to which they follow them. (Fit for Life gives reluctant consent to the consumption of milk (preferably unpasteurized) and plain yogurt; and its dinner menus include seafood and poultry.

The Bottom Line

Natural Hygiene is dangerous because it encourages prolonged fasting and discourages proven medical interventions. While its recommended diet has two admirable characteristics (low fat content and high fiber content), its recommended avoidance of dairy products is an invitation to osteoporosis. No scientific study has ever compared the disease and death rates of Hygienists with those of other people. But it appears to me that the hazards far outweigh the possible benefits.


  1. Shelton H. Food Combining made EASY. Booklet originally published in 1951 and reprinted in 1982 by Willow Publishing, Inc., San Antonio, Texas.
  2. In brief. Los Angeles Daily Journal, Sept 21, 1982, page 1.

Portions of this article were originally published in the September/October 1990 issue of Nutrition Forum in an article titled "Natural Hygiene: Still Alive and Dangerous," by Jack Raso, R.D.

This article was posted on January 1, 2007.

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