"DASH" stands for dietary approaches to stop hypertension. The eating plan emphasizes eating whole grains, fruits, and vegetables while limiting salt. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute developed it to help people lower high blood pressure.
U.S. News & World Report rated 38 different diet plans, with rankings based on reviews from an expert panel of doctors who specialize in diabetes, heart health, and weight loss, as well as nutritionists and dietary consultants.
They rated the plans in nine categories:
To help rank the diets, the experts considered several factors, including how easy it is to follow a specific diet, the likelihood of short- and long-term weight loss, and how well the diet protects against heart disease and diabetes.
After the DASH diet, the Mediterranean diet came in second overall, and the MIND diet took third place. The Mediterranean diet focuses on eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains while drinking alcohol in moderation. The MIND diet, a new addition last year, combines elements of the Mediterranean and DASH diets. It aims to boost brain health.
Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition for Washington University in St. Louis, says lifestyle changes are the common denominator of success with the diets.
"This year's list of diets reflects the long-standing body of evidence that shows weight loss, a true change in body fat levels, is achieved though changes in lifestyle behaviors including food choices, portions, and activity," says Diekman, a registered dietitian.
Best commercial diets: The Mayo Clinic diet, which focuses on lifelong healthy eating, tied for first with Weight Watchers. The latter focuses on healthy eating and assigns point values to foods, with a limit on daily points. Jenny Craig came in third. It offers packaged low-calorie food and support from a consultant.
Best weight-loss diets: Weight Watchers took first place. Jenny Craig and Volumetrics tied for second place. The Volumetrics plan focuses on low-density foods like fruits, vegetables, and legumes. These foods are high in volume but low in calories to keep you feeling full.
Best fast weight-loss diets: The top spot was a tie between Weight Watchers and HMR Program (Health Management Resources). HMR is a low-calorie plan with meal replacement shakes that encourages eating plenty of fruits and vegetables. Third place went to the Biggest Loser, which includes eating regular meals with lean protein, fruits and vegetables, keeping a food journal, controlling portions, and staying active.
Best diets for healthy eating: DASH, Mediterranean and MIND took first, second and third, in that order.
Easiest to follow: This was a four-way tie: the Fertility Diet, Mediterranean, MIND, Weight Watchers. The Fertility Diet emphasizes changes that can help anyone, such as limiting red meat and getting protein from vegetables and nuts.
Best for diabetes: DASH took first place. Tying for second were the Mediterranean and vegan diets.
Best for heart disease: A tie for first place went to DASH and the Ornish diet. The Ornish plan limits fat intake to 10% of calories and encourages exercise. The third-place winner was the TLC (Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes) diet, which focuses on lowering cholesterol through diet and other lifestyle changes.
Best plant-based diets: The Mediterranean grabbed the top spot, followed by the Flexitarian, which suggests avoiding meat most of the time. Ornish and vegetarian tied for third place.
Just as it did last year, the Whole30 diet, a monthlong program that prohibits legumes, grains, dairy, alcohol, processed food, and added sugars, earned the dead-last spot on the list.
"It's super, super restrictive," says Angela Haupt, assistant managing editor of health for U.S. News.
Other diets given poor marks include the Dukan and Paleo diets. Paleo emphasizes meats, fruits, and vegetables and cuts out processed foods, dairy, grains, and legumes. The Dukan Diet also includes lean protein and eliminates most carbs. They all earned poor marks for severely limiting what people can eat and being difficult to sustain long-term.
The experts emphasized well-balanced diets "that are not restrictive and remain sustainable over the long-term," the report says, ''teaching dieters lifelong positive eating habits."
Melissa Hartwig, who co-created Whole30, says the plan is a "short-term reset" based on eating whole, nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory foods. She says the "real foods" eaten on the Whole30 plans are healthier than the meal replacement shakes or processed foods eaten on other plans.
"Our program's efficacy speaks for itself, as evidenced by the countless medical doctors who successfully use our program with their patients, and the hundreds of thousands of life-changing testimonials we've received," Hartwig says.
Loren Cordain, PhD, founder of the Paleo Diet movement and professor emeritus at Colorado State University, says that the Paleo Diet suggests deleting two food groups -- dairy and grains, along with processed foods. He points out that the U.S. Department of Agriculture endorses and recommends vegetarian and vegan diets which also eliminate two entire food groups -- dairy and meats.
Most if not all of U.S. News and World Report's experts "agree that Americans should cut down on refined sugars, salt and high glycemic load refined grains. These are exactly the same dietary recommendations that contemporary Paleo diets endorse," he says.
Representatives of the Dukan Diet did not immediately respond to WebMD requests for comment.
How should you use the information?
"This list might not be the quick-fix answer so many people want, but it is a list of reputable, maintainable, and healthful eating plans that will help people achieve weight loss," says Diekman. "The top-rated eating plans will help people create a lifestyle eating plan to help them avoid the 'on-and-off' routine of most fad diets."
Haupt suggests looking at the details of a diet before trying it.
"People need to think about what the right diet is for them," she says. For instance, someone who loves to eat out may not do well on a plan that promotes making healthy meals at home. Be sure to figure out how much work a diet requires, she adds, and whether you would do that work.
The bottom-line question to ask before picking a diet, Haupt says, is: How does the diet fit with your personal preferences and lifestyle?
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