The Two Best Diets for Your Overall Health, According to Nutrition Experts
- US News & World Report ranked the DASH and Mediterranean diets as the top picks for diets to try in 2018.
- The diets differ a bit in their approaches to healthy eating, but both emphasize fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
- Here are the steps to take to try each diet.
Finding a healthy diet and sticking to it is no small feat, especially since some plans require food groups to be entirely cut out.
But nutritionists recommend some eating plans above the rest.
For its annual list of the best diets, US News & World Report ranked 40 eating plans based on 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.
In the end, two diets tied at the top of the ranking:
- The DASH diet, an abbreviation for "dietary approaches to stop hypertension," involves lowering your sodium intake to no more than 2,300 milligrams a day and eating vegetables, fruits, and whole grains like whole wheat and brown rice. Hypertension, otherwise known as abnormally high blood pressure, is a common condition in the US.
- The Mediterranean diet is modeled on foods commonly eaten in countries along the Mediterranean Sea. Like the DASH diet, it's high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, along with healthy fats found in fish, olive oil, and nuts. Studies have linked the diet with a number of health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease and breast cancer. Some research has suggested the diet could also have potential memory-related benefits.
Here's how to incorporate the diets into your life.
How to DASH your diet
The DASH diet isn't just for those who are trying to lower or prevent high blood pressure.
"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."
The distinguishing factor for the DASH diet is that it limits how much sodium you eat. Since many frozen and prepackaged foods contain large amounts of salt, DASH dieters stick to fresh produce and lean proteins like fish and poultry.
Here's what a typical day on a 2,000-calorie DASH diet looks like:
- No more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium, eventually working down to no more than 1,500 milligrams (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 products are much lower in sugar than flavored)
- 6 or fewer servings (equal to about one ounce) of lean meat, poultry, and fish
- 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)
- Per week, DASH dieters must have less than 5 servings of sweets, and 4-5 servings of nuts, seeds, and legumes
In a typical day, 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 fiber-packed fruits and veggies in the DASH diet, you won't go hungry.
For people with abnormally high blood pressure, the DASH diet may over time help drop that blood pressure by as many as eight to 14 points.
How to eat like you live on the Mediterranean
The Mediterranean diet is packed with vegetables, spices, beans, and even wine.
Here's what a typical day should include:
- 2.5 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruits, or about 6-7 servings (leafy greens should be emphasized)
- 1 serving of beans
- 5-6 servings of whole grains
- 1-2 servings of fish per week, limiting meat/poultry to once a week
- Use olive or canola oil instead of margarine, butter, and other oils
- A handful of nuts
- A very small amount of dairy if any, and ideally a low-fat variety
- One glass of red wine
A sample dinner might include a glass of red, a salad with arugula and spinach topped with Parmesan cheese, followed by salmon served with couscous, asparagus, and zucchini.
Diet isn't everything
Generally, if you want to shed pounds, you'll likely need to incorporate exercise into your regular routine, even if you're on one of the best science-backed diets. That component of a lifestyle change isn't factored into US News & World Report's rankings, nor is the price of these eating plans.
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 in which the participant maintained their typical eating habits.
At the end of four months, those on the DASH plus exercise diet lost an average of 19 pounds. The other two groups lost little to no weight.
Similarly, exercise was an integral part of some of the studies conducted to assess the benefits of the Mediterranean diet. US News & World Report recommended walking and doing other active things you enjoy.
Jessica Orwig contributed reporting.