The way we think about diets is undergoing an important shift.
When we think of “diets,” it’s less about rapid weight loss and more about creating lifestyle changes that stick.
To help people sift through the noise and find science-backed plans that work for years rather than weeks, US News & World Report ranked 38 eating plans.
The rankings considered different criteria including how easy the diet is to follow, its effects on weight loss (both short and long term), how nutritional and safe the diet is, and how well it helps prevent diabetes and heart disease.
For the seventh time in a row, they named the DASH diet as their number one choice.
DASH stands for “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension,” or high blood pressure. While the diet focuses on a meal plan that helps lower or prevent high blood pressure, it is a diet for everyone.
In fact, the United States Department of Agriculture considers it one of the best examples of a healthy eating pattern.
“The DASH diet is really a safe plan for everyone,” Angela Haupt, assistant managing editor of health at US News & World Report, told Business Insider in 2016. “There’s nothing exciting about it, and that’s what makes it a good plan. It’s not some fad diet making outlandish claims that you can’t rely on.”
And for people with abnormally high blood pressure, the DASH diet may, over time, help drop that blood pressure by as many as seven to 12 points.
How to DASH your diet
The main distinguishing factor with the DASH diet is that it limits how much sodium you eat.
Since many frozen and pre-packaged foods contain high doses of salt, DASH dieters stick to fresh produce and lean proteins, like fish and poultry.
It also includes a lot of whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and legumes.
The typical day on a 2,000-calorie DASH diet looks like this:
- No more than 2,300 milligrams of salt, eventually working down to no more than 1,500 mg (For reference, a single slice of pizza contains about 640 milligrams of sodium)
- 6-8 servings of grains
- 4-5 servings each of veggies and fruits
- 2-3 servings of fat-free or low-fat dairy (plain dairy is much lower in sugar than flavored)
- 6 or fewer servings (equal to about one ounce) of lean meat, poultry and fish
- 4-5 (*per week) of servings of nuts, seeds, and legumes
- 2-3 servings of fats and oils
- No more than 1-2 alcoholic drinks (a serving is equal to 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1 1/2 ounces of liquor)
- 5 or fewer (*per week) of sweets
So, for example, you could have an omelet with veggies and reduced-fat cheese for breakfast, minestrone soup for lunch, low-fat yogurt as a snack, and spaghetti squash with meat sauce for dinner.
With all the fibre-packed fruits and veggies in the DASH diet, you won’t go hungry.
But, diet isn’t everything
Generally if you want to shed some excess pounds — even on one of the best science-backed diets — you’ll likely need to incorporate exercise into your regular routine. That’s a component, along with price, that doesn’t get factored into US News & World Report’s rankings.
In one 2010 study, researchers assigned 144 overweight adults to one of three diets: the DASH diet, the DASH diet plus exercise, and a control diet where the participant maintained his or her typical eating habits.
At the end of four months, those on the DASH plus exercise diet lost on average 19 pounds. The other two groups lost little-to-no weight.
Despite its benefits — healthy eating, controlling hypertension, and weight-loss to name a few — DASH can be difficult to adopt at first, which is why the US News & World Report says it’s OK to ease into the diet.
“It does take will power to stick to that [diet] and cut out things you like,” Haupt told us. “Red meat, sugar, salt, these are big parts of most people’s diets, and if you’ve been accustomed to eat those things for so long then making the changes and sticking to them will definitely take will power.”
Another potential downside to the diet is the time it takes to prepare fresh food for meals.
“Maybe if you’re really crunched for time and you’re not into cooking, at all, then maybe this diet isn’t the right diet for you,” Haupt said.
She added that a couple of the other top 10 diets in this year’s report, like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, either have pre-made foods you can pick up at the store or have delivered to your door step, which might accommodate people who want a diet-on-the-go.
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