What’s that Diet? Part 2

In an earlier blog post, we looked at a few popular diets: raw food and keto diets, and intermittent fasting. Today we’re taking a look at three other popular diets, which also happen to be some of the top-rated among experts. The DASH, Mediterranean, and flexitarian diets are the top three diets ranked by US News & World Report Health. Read on to find out why.

First, though, a heads up: We’re huge endorsers of healthy living and eating well, but we aren’t professional scientists or nutritionists. Always consult your doctor before starting a new diet or changing your lifestyle in any way. And whatever diet you do decide to explore, never underestimate the power of sleep and exercise!

What Is the DASH Diet?

The lowdown: Eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean protein. Avoid sweets, saturated and trans fats, and tropical oils such as coconut and palm. Limit sodium intake.

Ranked top of the diet charts by US News & World Report Health, the DASH diet stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. It is the diet promoted by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. The NHLBI explains that DASH “is a flexible and balanced eating plan that helps create a heart-healthy eating style for life. The DASH eating plan requires no special foods and instead provides daily and weekly nutritional goals.” You can see those goals at the NHLBI link; they include 4‒5 daily servings of vegetables, 4‒5 of fruits, 6‒8 of grains, and 6 or less of meats, poultry, and fish. DASH also encourages keeping sodium levels down, either to 2,300 milligrams a day on the standard DASH diet, or 1,500 milligrams a day on the lower-sodium version.

As US News & World Report Health puts it, DASH “emphasizes the foods you’ve already been told to eat.” There’s nothing shocking about DASH, nor is it likely to radically alter your lifestyle. Following it means following a heart-healthy food regimen, and studies have shown that DASH lowers blood pressure and LDL cholesterol. For tips on foods to eat, check out these guides:

Sample Menus for the DASH Diet (from the Mayo Clinic)

What Is the Mediterranean Diet?

The lowdown: Eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fatty foods (fish, olive oil, nuts).

Tied for first with DASH by US News & World Report Health is the Mediterranean diet, so-called because it’s modeled on the eating habits of people who live in Mediterranean countries. It’s commonly known that in that region, US News & World Report notes, people live longer and tend to suffer less from cancer and cardiovascular conditions than Americans.

Though the term is a bit of a generalization—of course, diets vary widely across the Mediterranean—the basic principles of the diet are consistent. The Mediterranean diet encourages consumption of fruits, vegetables, grains (primarily whole), healthy fats such as olive oil (instead of butter), legumes, and nuts. Swap out salt for herbs and spices when flavoring food, and eat fish and poultry at least two times a week. Keep red meat consumption minimal: no more than several times a month.

You can see a useful Mediterranean diet food pyramid here. Note the bottom level, meaning the one you should follow the most often: exercise and sharing meals. (Also note that toward the top is a glass of wine. The Mediterranean diet lets you enjoy wine in moderation, if preferred and okayed by your doctor!🍷)

The Mayo Clinic identifies the benefits of the Mediterranean diet:

  • Promotion of heart health
  • Reduction of the risk of heart disease, according to research
  • Association with lower LDL cholesterol
  • Association with reduced occurrence of cancer and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases

Which is better, DASH or Mediterranean? The choice comes down to preferences, goals, and what you like to eat, according to Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, who recommends both to patients. Diets are personal, and finding the right one is all about what works best for you, and what your doctor recommends.

What Is the Flexitarian Diet?

The lowdown: Mostly meatless, and eat more plant-based foods

Ranked third best diet overall by US News & World Report Health, the flexitarian diet has some similarities to both the DASH and Mediterranean diets. Namely: eat fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, and don’t go crazy with the meat. You don’t have to cut it out entirely, but do cut back on it significantly. “Flexitarian” is a mashup of “flexible” and “vegetarian” coined by dietician Dawn Jackson Blatner in her book The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease and Add Years to Your Life.

US News & World Report Health explains, “Becoming a flexitarian is about adding five food groups to your diet – not taking any away. These are: the ‘new meat’ (tofu, beans, lentils, peas, nuts and seeds, and eggs); fruits and veggies; whole grains; dairy; and sugar and spice (everything from dried herbs to salad dressing to agave nectar sweetener).” A flexitarian food regime focuses on plant proteins instead of animal proteins. According to Blatner, as described by WebMD, you are a beginner flexitarian if you have two meatless days a week, an advanced flexitarian if you have three to four meatless days a week, and an expert if you don’t eat meat five or more days of the week.

Why go flex? Blatner writes, “Eating a plant-based vegetarian diet is the hands-down, smartest thing we can do for our health. On average, vegetarians weigh less than their carnivorous counterparts; have fewer diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer; and live an average of 3.6 years longer!” She explains that a flexitarian diet offers “a win-win eating plan because you will enjoy the health benefits of vegetarianism without all of the rules and restrictions.” For those who seek healthfulness and enjoy food variety, the flex diet may be worth looking into.