The way we think about diets is undergoing an important shift.
We think less about diets as being for rapid weight loss and more about for 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 in the 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, it named the DASH diet its No. 1 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 US 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 eight to 14 points.
How to DASH your diet
The distinguishing factor of 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.
The diet 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 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
- 4-5 servings (per week) 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 servings (per week) of sweets
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.
But diet isn’t everything
Generally, if you want to shed some excess 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’s a component, along with price, that isn’t 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 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.
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 willpower to stick to that [diet] and cut out things you like,” Haupt said. “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 willpower.”
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 include premade foods you can pick up at the store or have delivered to you, which might better accommodate people who want to diet on the go.