I will start by answering this question very directly: the best diet to maintain weight and allow you to live a healthy lifestyle is one that allows for:
- Food to be consumed moderation
- A diet that you are able to follow in the long-term
Alright, that's it! Roll credits.
Ok, you twisted my arm. I will discuss this further.
This is probably the question I receive most often from patients.
Which diet is best?
I respond the same way:
We have to find which diet is best for you.
The diet advice you hear from health professionals, read about on the internet, and see celebrities touting, all appear contradictory. Some swear by low-carbohydrate/high protein, some high fiber/high protein, others, a high-fat/low carb diet… then there are the fasting diets, while others follow the Mediterranean and DASH diets, and the list goes on. If you try and pull up actual research–diet studies conducted on real people–you will find contradictory information there, too. Very frustrating, indeed!
As I always say, I want you to be able to expect accurate information from me. The best way for me to provide you with this is to base what I say off of well-designed research studies. Notice I specifically said “well-designed” research studies: not just one study and not just any study–those that are well-designed.
Too often, media headlines mention a recent study that discovered something that flies in the face of what we think we know about diet and health. But if we were to dig a little deeper, we may find that there are 100 other studies that show the opposite effect… Or, maybe the study was only performed in mice and not in humans… Or, maybe the researcher that performed the study was misquoted. I can’t tell you how many times I have been misquoted by the media! I’m ranting a bit… I promise I’ll stop crying now.
What I’m about to tell you is based on the results of many, many well-designed studies.
When it comes to which meal plans appear to be the healthiest, three are repeatedly push their way to the top:
- The Mediterranean Diet
- The DASH Diet
- A Vegetarian diet
If you think about it for a moment, they all have something very important in common:
They are all plant-based diets.
I’ll briefly explain each of those starting with:
The Mediterranean Diet
When I mention this diet to patients, their eyes light up. They say, “You mean, I can eat as much pizza and pasta I want on this diet?!”
Uh, not quite.
This pattern of eating recommends the daily consumption of:
- whole grains
- beans and legumes
- nuts and seeds
- olive oil
Poultry and red meat should be treated as garnishes as opposed to being the star of the plate. Fresh fruit is a typical daily dessert… not Oreos and ice cream.
The DASH Diet
The D.A.S.H. diet, which has nothing to do with Mrs. Dash-brand products/seasonings, actually stands for: Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. As its name suggests, this diet was originally promoted to those with hypertension (aka high blood pressure). But it has been found to be great for those that are hoping to eat more wholesome food.
Researchers have discovered that a nice side effect of following the DASH Diet is weight loss. So what’s this diet all about?
Like the Mediterranean Diet, this pattern of eating does not banish any food or nutrient, but encourages the consumption of most foods in moderation. It promotes the consumption of:
- whole grains
- lean proteins
It also limits the consumption of saturated & trans fats and sweets. Nuts, seeds, and beans are also recommended 4-5 times per week.
A Vegetarian Diet
Like I discussed in in my article about healthy fats, many variations of a vegetarian diet currently exist. Personally, I have met a lot of vegetarians that are actually just carb-a-tarians. These folks don’t like eating animal flesh, but they don’t like fruits and vegetables either. They just like breads, rice, and pastas. They end up eating lots of potatoes (including French fries), tortillas, chips, crackers, cereals… you get the idea. This is not the style of eating I’m talking about when I say vegetarian.
Instead, researchers studied those that consume:
- lots of fruits and vegetables
- whole grains
- few animal products
If we take a moment and think about what these diets have in common, they are basically:
- Encourage the consumption of whole foods
- Moderate portions
- Encourage consuming meat sparingly
The key is to find an eating pattern that suits you and your lifestyle. Researchers have found that once folks make the switch and begin following these meal plans, they’re not as challenging to follow. They become part of the person’s lifestyle. There’s not as much emphasis on banishing foods, or avoiding foods for hours or days at a time. You can eat whatever you want, but just be sure that most of the time, you’re consuming the foods above.
Why don’t the Ketogenic diet, or Paleo, or South Beach, or The Zone or Intermittent Fasting diets top the “most healthy” list? It’s because these are difficult for people to maintain over a lifetime. People are pretty good about following these diets when they’re part of a formal study and are being fed or getting paid for their time; however, once the study is over (which usually happens within 6 months), folks stop following the diet and regain their weight back. Because people have difficulty following these diets over the long-term, we can’t study how these diets will affect their health when they’re in their twilight years. We can only guess. In fact, I had the pleasure of meeting Marlia Braun, a leading Ketogenic Diet researcher. She was presenting some of her studies on the Ketogenic Diet and body weight at a national conference. Afterwards, I asked her:
“So, the majority of the data you presented was from studies that were done in the short-term (6 months or less). What happens when people follow a Ketogenic Diet for more than 6 months?”
Her reply: “We don’t know.”
For me, I feel uncomfortable recommending a diet to someone when I don’t know what it may do to their body if they were to follow it for more than 6 months.