Earlier this month, U.S. News and World Report evaluated 41 of the most popular diets and published their 2019 edition of “best diets.”
Personally (and professionally), I was happy with the results. There is no one best diet, and this year, the top diets are not even considered “diets.” The winners for the best diets overall, and winners in several health categories went to: #1, the Mediterranean Diet, #2, the DASH Diet, and #3, The Flexitarian Diet. All three of these “diets” are more about healthy eating patterns than they are about restrictive diets. They fulfill the true definition of the word diet which is, “a way of eating.”
The Mediterranean Diet emphasizes eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, legumes, olive oil. This pattern of eating includes red meat, sugar and saturated fat, but in small amounts. It includes poultry, eggs, cheese and yogurt in moderation. It encourages seafood. Several studies on the Mediterranean Diet suggest it provides health benefits. Check out Oldways, (https://oldwayspt.org/) a non-profit organization that offers excellent information and recipes for Mediterranean eating.
The DASH Diet, (an acronym for dietary approaches to stop hypertension) is promoted by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) to stop (or prevent) hypertension. It emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy. DASH discourages foods that are high in saturated fat, full-fat dairy foods, tropical oils, sugar-sweetened beverages and sweets. Following DASH also means limiting high sodium foods. DASH is part of a healthy lifestyle—a way of eating. The NHLBI publishes a nice six-page guide on DASH (here).
Flexitarian is about flexible vegetarianism and comes from the 2009 book, The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease and Add Years to Your Life. (Flexitarian Diet Book) Flexitarian is about being a vegetarian most of the time and yet, have some flexibility to sometimes have meat when the urge hits. I love this concept because it is about decisions rather than restrictions. Becoming a flexitarian is about adding to one’s diet, rather than take away. It teaches people how to add more non-meat proteins to their diet and to increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables.
Although the three diet winners are about inclusion of a variety of foods, I hear more conversations about what we shouldn’t eat. “We shouldn’t eat carbs.” “Gluten is bad.” “Dairy is bad.” I hear these statements without nutritional or medical reason. I’ve even witnessed food discussions that turned into aggressive arguments. Really?
All foods contain different nutrient profiles and the more variety, the more likely our body will get all of the nutrients it needs. For those with a true intolerance or allergy, food avoidance is necessary and important. Rather than right or wrong, inclusive or restrictive, it makes the most sense in this age of personalization to work from one’s own health and happiness needs/goals and work with a healthcare professional (such as a RDN) you trust. Talk about your needs and figure out the food pattern for you to keep or improve health, allowing the enjoyment that food brings to life.
Here is one example where personalization and inclusion helped. Jack has type 2 diabetes and told me he was going on the Keto Diet (very low carbohydrate) to lose about 10 pounds and to lower his blood sugar because his friend said it worked great. Jack told me life would be awful if he couldn’t eat any carbs. When he told his friend the same thing, his friend called him a wuss. So, Jack took a deep breath and tried following the diet. The next day Jack called me to tell me that with so little carbs, his blood sugar went higher than before starting the diet. I explained to Jack why this can happen when carbs are restricted, and Jack agreed to add a moderate amount of carbs to each meal. Jack called me the next day and said he was so much more satisfied with his eating (not feeling so restrictive), and in just that one day his blood sugar was back close to normal. For this person, the inclusion of carbs helped!
As a RDN, here is my wish. First, be open-minded and inclusive of all foods (with the three diet patterns listed above as good options). Adapt what you eat based on your health and long-term lifestyle needs and goals. Whatever you chose for your dietary pattern, be respectful of all foods and be respectful of others for what they might be eating for their own health and happiness. Enjoy food. Be kind.