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Mediterranean, DASH Highlight U.S. News Diet Rankings for 2021

Mediterranean diet foods

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Key Takeaways

  • Each year, a panel of health experts ranks the best diets for U.S News & World Report.
  • At the top of the list for the fourth year running is the Mediterranean diet, closely followed by the DASH diet.
  • The right diet for you depends on your health, taking into account any conditions or food intolerances.

It’s that time again—U.S. News & World Report has released its annual ranking of the best diets, judged by a panel of nationally recognized health experts. This year, the top finisher is no surprise. For the fourth year running, the Mediterranean diet comes in first in overall best diets. Tied for second place are the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet and the Flexitarian diet. Meanwhile, popular fads like the paleo and keto diets ranked in the 30s among the 39 diets reviewed.

Here’s a recap of the ever-popular Mediterranean diet, and an introduction to the DASH diet, which isn’t yet a household name—but may be soon, since it ranked as the best diet for healthy eating.

What Is the Mediterranean Diet??

It’s actually a bit of a misnomer, because there’s not a single Mediterranean diet. Mediterranean countries include Croatia, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, Israel, Italy and Spain. Generally, the Mediterranean diet is based on the dietary patterns of some of these countries, particularly Greece and Italy, says Summer Yule, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian based in Avon, Connecticut. “It’s rich in whole plant foods, including fruits, vegetables and whole grains,” Yule says. “It also includes seafood, dairy products, lean proteins, and olive oil.”

Although the Mediterranean diet is low in red meat, sugar, and saturated fat, no foods are completely off limits. This may make it easier to follow than diets that restrict particular food types, Yule says.

Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet?

Because the focus of the Mediterranean diet is plants and healthy fats, it’s full of naturally anti-inflammatory foods. “This makes it ideal for anyone with chronic inflammation or joint pain,” says Trista Best, RDN, a Georgia-based registered dietitian at Balance One Supplements.

The Mediterranean diet is also naturally void of gluten, Best adds, which makes it good for those with a gluten intolerance or celiac disease (where the small intestine is hypersensitive to gluten, causing digestive issues). This diet also is linked to a reduced risk of heart disease and is rich in fiber, essential fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals, as well as various phytonutrients.

"It improves gut and cardiovascular health simultaneously," Best says. "The high fiber nature of the foods feeds the healthy gut bacteria while also removing bad cholesterol from the body thereby improving heart health as well. The healthy fats that replace saturated fats work to reduce cholesterol and triglycerides."

Trista Best, MS, RDN

The Mediterranean diet is ideal for anyone with chronic inflammation or joint pain.

— Trista Best, MS, RDN

Getting Started on the Mediterranean Diet

This one is pretty simple. “The next time you make your grocery list, simply include more fruits, vegetables, and seafood,” Yule says. For Mediterranean-inspired recipe ideas, Oldways is a good resource.

Best recommends taking it slowly if this diet is a huge change from your previous way of eating. "The combination of high fiber, cruciferous vegetables, and fats could wreak havoc on the gut initially, leading to nausea and diarrhea," she warns.

And as with any diet, moderation is important. "The foods recommended on the Mediterranean diet are not shown to be unhealthy for your heart," Best says. "However, you should make sure you're still staying within your calorie limits, especially with fat content, to avoid any negative side effects."

Trista Best, MS, RDN

The foods recommended on the Mediterranean diet are not shown to be unhealthy for your heart. However, you should make sure you're still staying within your calorie limits, especially with fat content, to avoid any negative side effects.

— Trista Best, MS, RDN

What Is the DASH Diet??

The DASH Diet, which is supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, is designed to stop or prevent hypertension (high blood pressure). And it’s actually quite similar to the Mediterranean diet, in that it emphasizes fruits, veggies, whole grains, dairy, and lean protein, which are high in nutrients like potassium, calcium, protein, and fiber. “In short, the DASH diet is an evidence-based diet to help people obtain healthier blood pressure,” Yule says.

Like the Mediterranean diet, DASH discourages foods that are high in saturated fat, such as fatty meats, as well as sugar-sweetened beverages and sweets. Portion control is important, and sodium intake should be closely monitored—initially, the limit is 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, with the aim of eventually reducing this to about 1,500 milligrams per day.

"It's best to get started on this diet with the help and direction of your healthcare provider," Best says. "For the purposes of using the DASH diet as a medical approach, you'll want to make all the changes together, rather than making gradual changes."

Summer Yule, MS, RD

In short, the DASH diet is an evidence-based diet to help people obtain healthier blood pressure.

— Summer Yule, MS, RD

Benefits of the DASH Diet

The primary benefit and overall purpose of the DASH diet is to reduce blood pressure for those with a hypertension or prehypertension diagnosis. "This diet can be beneficial for weight loss and overall health, as well, due to the focus on balanced portions and food groups," Best adds.

If you have high blood pressure, Yule recommends checking in with your physician (and potentially a dietitian) before starting this diet. "When you have a medical condition like hypertension, it's much better to get personal medical advice versus generalized advice online," she explains. "They may very well recommend a DASH-type diet for you."

So far, there are no known drawbacks of the DASH diet, Best says, but she points out that it can be challenging for those with a high fat, high sodium diet. "This is especially true for those that depend on processed convenience foods and ready-to-eat frozen meals, which are high in sodium," she says.

Some people find getting the correct number of servings of the various food types on the DASH diet to be challenging, Yule adds, but there are forms available online to help you track how you are doing.

Summer Yule, MS, RDN

In general, I recommend dietary patterns rich in nutrient-dense whole foods that fit the individual's medical needs, personal preferences, budget, and lifestyle. The diet doesn't need to have a specific title like 'Mediterranean' to be healthy for them.

— Summer Yule, MS, RDN

Mediterranean Diet vs DASH Diet: What One Is Right for You?

It really depends on your health. "The Mediterranean diet is ideal for just about the entire population," Best says. "The benefits are staggering and it is easy and sustainable, unlike fad diets. Those with chronic conditions or inflammatory diseases can benefit from the Mediterranean diet most of all."

On the other hand, the DASH diet—while being a healthy balanced diet—is best suited to those who need to reduce their blood pressure. However, Yule says it's still a good choice for anyone in good health who is trying to adopt healthier eating habits.

"In general, I recommend dietary patterns rich in nutrient-dense whole foods that fit the individual's medical needs, personal preferences, budget, and lifestyle," she says. "The diet doesn't need to have a specific title like 'Mediterranean' to be healthy for them."

What This Means For You

The huge number of diets out there can be overwhelming. The U.S. News & World Report rankings can help you figure out what eating plan might work best for you. But as always, it's a great idea to check in with a dietitian for advice and help.

Remember, if you're on a specific medical nutrition therapy, that should be your priority, and general nutrition advice (including the Mediterranean diet) may not be suitable for you.

 

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