Dear Readers: It seems that most Americans, including me, will be happy to put the year 2020 behind us. No doubt, it’s been a tough year. It’s difficult to focus on healthy eating during the holidays with so many sweets available, but the new year is just around the corner, and many people will resolve to eat healthier.
The U.S. News & World Report ranks 35 diets every year. A panel of nutrition experts, made up of registered dietitians, professors of nutrition and medical doctors evaluates the diets. Assessment is based on seven categories: the ability to produce short-term and long-term weight loss, the ease of following the diet, the diet’s ability to prevent heart disease and diabetes, its nutritional value, and its safety.
The no. 1-ranked diet is the Mediterranean Diet. By now, most of us are familiar with this diet. It is a plant-based meal plan rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, fish, and olive oil. Red meat is eaten no more than once a week, and red wine is often enjoyed with meals. This diet is associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and diabetes than Western diets. It replaces saturated fat with monounsaturated fat found in olive oil and polyunsaturated fat found in nuts. It is likely the combination of foods in this diet that produces health benefits.
Pro: Allows a wide variety of foods
Con: Some of the dietary restrictions may be challenging.
The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet came in at no. 2. This meal plan originated in the 1990s when the National Institute of Health (NIH) funded research to determine if nutrition changes alone could lower blood pressure. Researchers found that dietary intervention reduced systolic blood pressure (top number) 6 to 11 points (1). The DASH diet is a well-balanced plan emphasizing fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and unsaturated fats. Meat is limited to 6 ounces a day, and salt is below 2300 mg per day. It even allows five servings of sweets each week. Alcohol is permitted in moderation, but remember, these beverages tend to be high in calories.
Pro: Well-balanced, so you’re less likely to cheat when your body is adequately nourished.
Con: The restriction in sodium, while very healthy, takes planning and adjustment since we are surrounded by high-salt convenience foods
The Flexitarian Diet, rounding out the top three, is a vegetarian diet that allows meat once in a while. The term “flexitarian” was coined by dietitian Dawn Blatner Jackson. On this diet, you get the health benefits of a vegetarian diet and the satisfaction of a steak when you are craving meat. In her book, Jackson outlines three stages of the diet that gradually decrease the amount of meat in your diet. The goal is to focus on eating more plant foods. Moderate alcohol intake is allowed (2).
Pro: You may save money on your grocery bill since you’re not eating less meat. You can also buy your fruits and vegetables at the local farmer’s market to save a buck.
Con: The diet could be low in iron.
All of these diets focus on lifestyle changes, which evolve gradually. It takes time. Fortunately, when we eat better, we feel better, giving us encouragement to carry on. Another thing these diets have in common is they all emphasize fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. A healthy diet is well-balanced and allows a variety of foods from all food groups.
Until next time, be healthy!
1. Challa, H, Ameer, M, Uppaluri, K. DASH diet to stop hypertension (2020 May 23). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482514/
2. Blatner, DJ. Flexitarian FAQ (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.dawnjacksonblatner.com/books/the-flexitarian-diet/flexitarian-faq
Leanne McCrate is an award-winning dietitian based in Missouri. Her mission is to educate the public on sound, evidence-based nutrition. Do you have a nutrition question? Email her at [email protected].