I’m often asked what I think is The Best Diet. Clearly what we eat matters. It matters to our long-term health and our short-term well-being. Fortunately, nutrition science has a lot to say about healthy eating patterns. Science aside, however, eating is really rather personal too, don’t you think?
What I eat either satisfies my taste buds, or it doesn’t. It satisfies my hunger and appetite, or it doesn’t. And certain foods, on certain days, can even nourish my soul – like a favorite soup or a fragrant hot tea when I’m feeling a little cranky. And holiday foods! Yes, there are a handful of holiday foods that connect me with my past and with my family. All of this goes into my best diet.
US News Best Diet Rankings
The folks at US News honored me when they too asked me what I think is the best diet. I eagerly served on their 2018 panel of experts to evaluate 40 of the most popular diets. We were asked to use the available science and our own experiences to rank the diets in various categories, including best diet for diabetes, best diet for healthy eating, best diet for the heart, best diet overall and more.
No surprise to me, a handful of diet plans rose to the top in several categories. DASH, Mediterranean, and Flexitarian ranked in the top 3 for Best Diets Overall, Best Diabetes Diets and Best Diets for Healthy Eating. For the full results and the rankings of all 40 diets, check out the report on the US News site.
The 3 Best Diets
People who live in countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea have traditionally eaten wholesome health-boosting diets. Though the typical foods vary from country to country, the basics are the same. A traditional Mediterranean-style diet consists of mostly whole and minimally-processed foods; lots of vegetables; legumes like lentils, kidney beans and chickpeas; whole grains; and fruits. In fact, fruit is a common dessert. Diets in the Mediterranean region are also rich in nuts, olive oil and fish. People living there tend to consume wine in moderation and eat baked goods only now and then. The diet is not low in fat, but it is fairly low in saturated fats and rich in unsaturated fats. Meals are eaten leisurely, which may help prevent overeating. Unfortunately, like in other parts of the world, the traditional diet is being replaced with one that resembles a typical American diet in many ways, including more pastries, fatty meats and heavy meals.
It’s no wonder that my fellow panelists ranked the Mediterranean diet highly. Research links traditional Mediterranean-style diets to lower risks of developing type 2 diabetes, less incidence of metabolic syndrome, reduced risks of heart attacks, stroke and even dementia. You can learn more about Mediterranean-style diets at Oldways.
DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. This healthful dietary pattern was created and researched by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI). DASH is rich in fruits, vegetables, low-fat or nonfat dairy, whole grains, poultry, legumes and nuts. It is low in sodium, added sugars and saturated fats. It differs from a traditional Mediterranean-style diet by being much lower in fat and richer in dairy products. Though DASH includes more poultry too, both diets are largely plant-based. DASH is very effective for lowering blood pressure.
The DASH research compared three eating plans: a typical American pattern, the American pattern with additional fruits and vegetables, and the specially-devised DASH plan, as described above. Individuals in the extra fruits and vegetables group experienced lowered blood pressure. Those in the DASH group saw their blood pressure levels drop even more. Even when researchers lowered the sodium in the American eating pattern, DASH dropped blood pressure better. Researchers have also found that DASH is linked to less type 2 diabetes, better heart health and smaller waist sizes. One study found that DASH reduced the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 20 percent. Learn more about DASH on the NHLBI website.
My colleague Dawn Jackson Blatner created this diet plan that is well described in her book The Flexitarian Diet. The name perfectly describes this plant-based diet. It’s a flexible vegetarian plan. Flexitarian means that the emphasis is on delicious, disease-fighting plants. It minimizes meats without taking them away. Dawn has written a very approachable book. In general, plant-based diets are associated with less chronic diseases and some types of cancer.
3 Key Takeaway Messages from the US News Best Diet Report
There are a lot of ways to a healthy plate. But there are some similar characteristics too. Here are three things I’ll hope you’ll take away from the US News best diet rankings and my brief descriptions above.
- A healthy diet is built around whole and minimally processed foods and lots and lots of plants. There’s a big difference between a bowl of oatmeal with raisins and nuts and an oatmeal breakfast cookie from a vending machine. Choose wisely and avoid hype.
- It’s not all about a list of “bad” or taboo foods. Yes, it’s a good idea to avoid sugary drinks, greasy takeout, buttery croissants and candy. That doesn’t mean that you have to give them up entirely, if those are foods you really love. Just be smart about it. And if you do give up those types of foods, that’s no guarantee that your diet is truly health boosting. Healthy eating is also about what you do eat. There’s a whole world of wholesome foods to choose from. I’ve heard lots of people describe their diets as healthful, but their food choices tell me otherwise. They may not eat lots of “junk food,” but I want to know where’s the fiber, fruit, whole grains, fish, beans, lentils and the like. A chicken breast and salad may be a nutrient-dense meal, but it’s not a nutrient-dense diet.
- There’s lots of room for individualizing for personal preference. Instead of painfully following a specific diet program, incorporate the health-boosting aspects that appeal to you most. Make changes gradually and at your own pace. Forget the notion that there is one best diet, and enjoy the process of finding your best diet. Be sure to include the foods that nourish your soul and tantalize your taste buds.