The Best Diets for Good Health and Weight Loss
If you’ve considered changing your eating habits, you’ve likely wondered: What is the healthiest diet? It seems like every day you hear about a new one. Some of them are easy to write off as an unhealthy fad diet (hello, cabbage soup diet and carnivore diet!). Others seem like they might be helpful for your health or even promote weight loss.
But how can you tell the difference? And, what is the healthiest diet? Here we share the pros and cons — and the research — behind common diets and eating plans. The goal is to help you answer the question “what is the healthiest diet to follow?” for your own lifestyle and goals.
If your goal is sustainable, long-term change for health or weight loss, slow and steady is the way to go.
“Typically, the quicker you lose weight, the quicker you could potentially gain it back, says Samantha Coogan, MS, RD, the director of the didactic program in nutrition and dietetics at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. “Many fad diets are meant to be quick fixes with little longevity or sustainability.”
With that advice in mind, let’s look at the best diets for health — and for weight loss.
What Is The Best Diet For Good Health?
When it comes to the best diet for good health, a couple of them come out on top time and again. “Consistently, the DASH diet and Mediterranean diet have been found to be an effective way to lose weight and improve health,” says Natalie Allen, MS, RD, an instructor of biomedical sciences at Missouri State University.
In addition, Coogan likes diabetes-friendly diet plans — even for those without the condition. “This diet — which is much more of a lifestyle than a diet — really does focus on whole foods versus food products,” she explains. She also likes the flexitarian diet for that reason.
“We aren’t meant to do the same exact thing every day,” Coogan says. “This one [flexitarian] tends to be more sustainable as well because people don’t feel so restricted and have more freedom when it comes to just feeling off on any given day or on a special occasion. The DASH, Mediterranean, and Nordic diets follow similar principles.”
What Is The Best Diet To Lose Weight?
So, what is the healthiest diet to lose weight? The answer isn’t as simple. The best diets for your health can also support weight loss — again, DASH and Mediterranean are popular weight-loss plans — but you need to find one that works for your life and your tastes.
“Different diet plans work for different people,” says Allen. “Find what makes sense for you and stick with it. Often, the key to weight loss is planning ahead and prioritizing good health.”
The Healthiest Diets
Ready to find the best diet or eating plan for you? Here’s a rundown of the most common ones.
1. The Flexitarian Diet
The Flexitarian diet is a primarily vegetarian diet, with some meat or fish. Flexitarian diets include plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and plant-based proteins. They emphasize whole foods over processed ones, but there are no specific calorie restrictions or rules.
What the research shows: Diets higher in plants are consistently shown to support better health and weight loss, but you don’t need to be fully plant-based to reap the benefits.
- As the name implies, the flexitarian diet is flexible, making it easy to follow.
- The diet focuses on adding more plants to your meals and snacks, so you can reduce your meat intake at your own pace.
- Flexitarian diets are similar to top-rated DASH and Mediterranean diets, with an emphasis on plants over animal products.
- If you’re a big meat eater, finding nutritionally comparable swaps might be a challenge at first.
2. The DASH Diet
The DASH diet is based on research studies sponsored by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the National Institutes of Health. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (high blood pressure). It focuses on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein, low-fat dairy products, and healthy fats (nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils), while limiting sodium, saturated fat, and sugary beverages.
What the research shows: The DASH diet was developed based on extensive research and is endorsed by groups like the American Heart Association and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
- The DASH diet has been shown to help lower blood pressure in people with or without hypertension.
- An NHLBI-funded study found that following the DASH diet lowered blood pressure and led to weight loss.
- A 2015 review linked DASH to lower prevalence of certain types of cancer.
- Research supports the DASH diet for those with diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and heart disease.
- It can be difficult to break you salt habit and reduce your processed food intake. (But you can do it!)
3. The MIND Diet
The MIND diet is a research-based diet that blends the Mediterranean and DASH diets. MIND stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. It encourages you to eat brain-healthy foods, like vegetables, berries, beans, nuts, fish, and whole grains.
What the research shows: The MIND diet is based on two large population studies that linked this style of eating is believed to be neuroprotective, and may benefit brain health.
- It works in real life: While the MIND diet urges followers to avoid fried food, pastries and sweets, butter and margarine, red meat, and cheese (as they are high in saturated fat and low in nutrition), they are permitted sparingly.
- The diet focuses on whole, unprocessed foods and does not eliminate any food groups.
- Though the MIND diet was developed with brain health in mind, eating more whole foods — including more plants — has been shown to support weight loss.
- As with any new habit, adjusting to a new style of eating can take time.
4. The Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet eating plan mirrors the traditional diets of populations around the Mediterranean Sea in the late 1950s and 1960s, a challenging economic time for the region. The diet limited meat (due to finances) and focused on vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes, nuts, whole grains, fish, olive oil, herbs and spices. Today’s it’s lauded as one of the healthiest ways to eat.
What the research shows: Considered to be one of the best diets in the world, the Mediterranean diet has decades of research behind it: Research suggest that this type of lifestyle eating may be linked to cardiovascular health, weight loss, and healthy management of blood sugar.
- The Mediterranean diet pyramid is easy to follow and breaks down what you should eat at every meal, daily, weekly, and in moderation.
- Food is about more than calories in, calories out, and the Mediterranean diet includes social and culture aspects — activity and rest, socialization and cooking, and eating in moderation and with the seasons.
- The diet limits most processed foods; if you currently rely on them for convenience, it might take time to get used to preparing whole-food versions of your favorite meals.
5. The Plant-Based Diet
In general, a plant-based diet focuses on foods that primarily come from plants. The diet doesn’t totally exclude meat, dairy, and eggs, but rather the bulk of the diet is coming from plants like whole grains, beans, legumes, vegetables, and fruits. Vegan and vegetarian diets are both types of a plant-based diet.
What the research shows: A plant-based diet may help you lose weight, and, according to one analysis of a dozen studies, “vegetarian diets and vegan diets in particular,” when followed correctly, can result in healthy weight loss. And, plant based diets are believed to potentially reduce the risk of certain cancers and may benefit heart health.
- The diet focuses on whole, unprocessed foods.
- Plant-based diets tend to be higher in fiber and lower in saturated fat than the Standard American Diet.
- If you’re accustomed to getting your protein from meat, eating enough of this macronutrient on a plant-based diet may be a challenge at first.
- Plant-based eaters who consume a limited diet, like those following a vegan diet, which strictly omit any animal products, as well as vegetarian diets that rely mostly on plants, may increase the risk of certain vitamin deficiencies.
6. The Nordic Diet
The Mediterranean region isn’t the only area of the world known for healthy eating habits. The Nordic diet embraces the traditional foods of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland. It focuses on sustainable, locally sourced whole foods (so it’s meant to be good for the planet as well as your health). It’s primarily a plant-based diet, with plenty of fish and small amounts of eggs, meat, and dairy.
What the research shows: The Nordic diet has been shown to help reduce cholesterol levels and blood pressure as well as support weight loss.
- The Nordic diet includes plenty of health-promoting traditional whole foods like fish, cabbage, rye bread, oatmeal, apples, pears, and root vegetables.
- It allows for small amounts of other foods like meat, dairy, and eggs.
- The diet might be a major shift for those who are not accustomed to eating foods native to the Nordic region.
7. The Anti-Inflammatory Diet
There’s a lot of overlap between the Anti-inflammatory diet and the Mediterranean, MIND, and DASH diets. They’re all rich in plant foods (including vegetables, fruit, and legumes), fatty fish, and healthy oils which are considered to be anti-inflammatory.
What the research shows: Eating an anti-inflammatory diet supports heart health, eases arthritis, helps reduce the risk of certain cancers from developing and/or spreading, and may potentially promote faster recovery from workouts. Inflammation is also linked to type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
- The diet is easy to customize.
- It’s closely linked to other “best” diets like DASH, Mediterranean, and MIND.
- An anti-inflammatory diet is compatible with dietary restrictions like gluten-free or vegan diets.
- The diet may not be suitable for those who want strict parameters and guidelines.
8. The CICO Diet
CICO stands for “calories in, calories out.” The basic premise is that if you burn more calories than you eat, then you will lose weight.
What the research shows: Reducing your calorie intake has been proven effective for weight loss.
- You can follow CICO while supporting any dietary restriction or preference, including vegan, gluten-free, or low-carb.
- It doesn’t focus on short-term weight loss.
- No foods are off-limits, so it supports a healthy relationship with food.
- You have to count calories, which might not be practical for your lifestyle or appropriate for anyone with a history of disordered eating habits.
- CICO in general assumes all calories are created equal and doesn’t focus on macronutrient balance or a balanced diet.
9. Flexible Dieting
Made popular in bodybuilding circles, If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) is a diet strategy that allows you to eat what you want as long as you track your intake to ensure it “meets your macros” (carbs, protein, and fat).
What the research shows: IIFYM can help athletes and active people focus on their individual nutritional ratios needed to reach their fitness goals.
- You can eat anything you want. No food or food group is off-limits, and you don’t have to follow a strict, repetitive meal plan. (That’s why IIFYM is also called “flexible dieting.”)
- You don’t have to count every calorie.
- IIFYM can help you reach specific health or fitness goals.
- It can help you shed the good/bad food mentality.
- You have to calculate your macronutrient ratios and track your food daily.
- Tracking your macros may feel too restrictive for some people.
- You need to have a solid understanding about nutrition, so it’s not for beginners.
10. The Zone Diet
Popular in the ’90s, the Zone Diet recommends a balance of 40 percent carbs, 30 percent protein, and 30 percent fat. It’s also rather low in calories (1,200 a day for women and about 1,500 for men, divided into three meals and two snacks). The Zone Diet claims to lower inflammation and prevent blood sugar spikes.
What the research shows: A 2007 comparison to the Ornish, LEARN, and Atkins diets found that Zone dieters lost about 6 pounds after two months (similar to the LEARN and Ornish dieters; the Atkins dieters shed 9 ½ pounds). After a year, the Zone Diet group was down 3 ½ pounds — less than all other groups.
- You can eat almost anything on the Zone Diet, as long as you’re “in the zone.” Most of the off-limits foods are starchy, sugary, high-fat, and/or processed.
- Research supports the Zone Diet’s ability to support balanced blood sugar.
- Since you’re required to eat protein at every meal, the Zone Diet promotes satiety.
- The low-carb and restrictive nature of the Zone diet means it’s not appropriate for athletes, as well as children and pregnant women.
- The Zone Diet block method is quite involved and requires a Zone Diet calculator.
Ultimately, diets are not one size fits all. The diet that’s right for you is the one that works for you. It should be balanced and healthy, and it should be something you enjoy and can sustain for the long run.