Best and Worst Diet Plans for Weight Loss, Heart Health, and More | Everyday Health
There’s no perfect diet for everyone. So before you pick a plan, be sure to do your research on what it can and can’t do for your health.
“How can I lose weight?” Over time, millions of Americans have asked themselves that question. But with an overwhelming number of diet programs available, finding the answer can prove challenging. After all, there’s no one-size-fits-all plan that’s perfect for everyone.
How to Pick the Best Diet Plan for You
Before choosing a health or weight loss approach, it’s important to do some self-evaluation by asking yourself some questions.
What Can You Live With in the Long Term?
“There are many diet plans on the market today that promote good health,” says Emily Kyle, RDN, who is in private practice in Rochester, New York. “The key is finding one that does not cause you stress or agony.” Ask yourself questions such as: Would the diet guidelines make you happy? Anxious? Stressed? Are you able to follow them long term? “Factors such as enjoyment, flexibility, and longevity should be strongly considered,” adds Kyle.
If the diet is a quick fix rather than one that promotes lasting lifestyle changes, this could pose a problem. In particular, extreme diets that promise big weight loss up front aren’t always sustainable — and you may end up overeating or even binge eating if you feel deprived. “Consider if the diet’s habits are ones you can continue throughout your lifetime, not just 21 or 30 days,” says Angie Asche, RD, a sports dietitian in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Which Diet Program Is Best for Your Overall Health?
Some diet plans, such as the MIND diet and the DASH diet, are meant to focus on certain areas of health — and weight loss may be a bonus. Others are created with weight loss as a primary goal. “It is important to remember that we are all very unique individuals,” says Kyle. “We all have different states of health and different lifestyles, which could affect what diet plan is best for us. That means that you should not be considering what is working for your friends or family members — and instead should pay attention to what works for you individually.”
Many diet plans cut out entire food groups, which can create nutrient deficiencies as well as health problems. For instance, if the diet is very low in carbohydrates and you have type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes, it’s probably not a good fit. And if it’s too restrictive and you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, it’s not a good idea, either. Keep in mind that pregnancy is not a time for weight loss. Speak with your doctor before making any changes to your diet if you are pregnant or breast-feeding.
Is the Diet Approach Safe for You to Follow?
Make sure that the diet has been studied extensively for safety — and discuss any changes with your physician or registered dietitian before beginning a new diet. (If you don’t have a dietitian, find one in your area at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website.) And do a self-check to ensure the diet fits with your own values and preferences.
“Don’t like eating meat?” asks Ginger Hultin, RDN, a dietitian in private practice in Seattle and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Then don’t be paleo! Travel a lot and rely on eating out? The DASH diet may end in frustration for you.” The bottom line: The diet you choose needs to be safe and effective, while taking into account your lifestyle.
To lessen the confusion and get on the fast track to success, we got the skinny on some of the most popular diets out there today. So read on to see which plan might be best for you — and which diets to run away from at full speed!
Ketogenic Diet (Keto)
This high-fat, adequate-protein, low-carb fad diet sends the body into a state of ketosis, in which the body uses stored fat for energy. Research published in Clinical Cardiology suggests the ketogenic, or “keto,” diet can be an effective weight loss method, but to be successful, you must follow the plan consistently with no cheat days — otherwise, you’re just eating a high-fat diet that may be high in unhealthy fats for no reason. (A pro tip? If you’re planning on doing the diet, consider perusing this complete keto food list and reading up on the healthiest fats for keto diet followers.)
Although the keto diet is popular among people with type 2 diabetes, you should avoid this diet if you have type 1 diabetes or other specific metabolic disorders.
No matter what your current state of health, you should speak with your physician before beginning the ketogenic diet, according to recommendations in a paper published August 2017 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
One of this diet’s biggest hurdles? Saying goodbye to bread and other carbs. “It can be challenging to make sure to hit the low levels recommended for carbohydrates,” says Hultin. “This diet likely means a lot of planning ahead and bringing food with you to parties and events.”
You’ll also want to be prepared for some of the plan’s notable side effects, like keto-related diarrhea and constipation, fatigue, mood swings, headaches, and bad breath. These symptoms are a common part of the so-called keto flu, which happens as your body adjusts to burning fat rather than carbs for fuel, experts say.
“A lot of people think the foundation of a paleo diet is high-fat meat, but I suggest that it’s vegetables,” says Hultin. The concept is to eat only foods — including meat, fish, poultry, eggs, fruits, and vegetables — that would have been available to our Paleolithic ancestors. This means grains, dairy, legumes, added sugar, and salt are all no-no’s.
With this eating style, you’re looking at a lot of menu planning and preparation. A review published in August 2017 in Nutrients suggests the diet could lead to weight loss, but the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics warns the plan could also cause certain nutrient deficiencies, such as in calcium and vitamin D. And, therefore, according to an article published in the January–February 2016 issue of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, anyone at risk for osteoporosis should avoid it.
This low-carb, high-protein diet has been around for decades. In fact, some say the keto diet is the new Atkins, though these popular low-carb plans are markedly different.
According to the Atkins website, the plan works in phases, with a very low daily carb allowance of about 20 grams (g) in the first phase, meaning the diet would send you into ketosis. You’re allowed more carbs as the phases continue.
In one November 2014 review published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, researchers found that the Atkins diet yields modest long-term weight loss, similar to that of the Weight Watchers eating plan.
Because the diet is low in carbs, it may not be appropriate for someone with diabetes or on insulin — and because it’s high in protein, you’d want to avoid it if you have kidney disease, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“This is a great way of eating that I highly recommend to many clients, and I even model in my own life,” says Elizabeth Shaw, RDN, who is in private practice in San Diego and is the co-author of Fertility Foods Cookbook. “Since the premise of the diet is designed to help people who have high blood pressure, low-sodium foods are recommended. But considering that most Americans exceed their daily sodium levels anyway, it’s not surprising that dietitians recommend this style of eating for treating many different conditions, such as heart disease and obesity.”
The DASH diet, or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, is mainly focused on reducing sodium intake and increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
In one August 2017 study in Polish Heart Journal, people following the DASH diet saw an improvement in blood pressure, as well as in overall body fat. U.S. News & World Report has also consistently ranked the DASH diet as a top diet in its annual rankings.
r 2The MIND diet, or Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, is a sort of hybrid between the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet. It features foods meant to slow the progression or development of Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia and an incurable neurodegenerative condition that more than 5 million Americans are living with, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Some research backs up this notion, including a study published in Septembe016 in Alzheimer’s Dementia that found a link between following the MIND Diet and a reduced risk of the disease.
Emphasizing vegetables, berries, beans, whole grains, olive oil, fish, and wine, it also calls for a reduction in saturated fat, according to the Mayo Clinic. Because the diet focuses on cutting unhealthy fats and emphasizes eating whole, fresh foods, people who follow the MIND diet may lose weight as an added benefit.
Many diets, including Atkins and the keto diet, fit into this umbrella. A typical low-carb diet limits carbs to less than 60 g daily, but this can vary, according to the Mayo Clinic. (In a September 2015 review published in PLoS One, people following low-carb diets saw modest weight loss — although study authors note that long-term effects of the diet require further research.
Following this type of eating plan can result in certain nutritional deficiencies, and children, as well as pregnant or lactating women should avoid it. “The low-carb diet is best for individuals who truly enjoy savory diets that involve more animal-based products and less sweet, refined carbohydrates,” notes Kyle.
There are many ways to do intermittent fasting — ranging from fasting for a number of hours each day up to an entire 24-hour fasting period one or two times a week. “If you’re trying to kick a habit like eating late into the night, then stopping eating earlier in the evening and fasting overnight could be beneficial for you,” says Hultin. “There are many types of intermittent fasting, so ensuring you pick one that works for you and your lifestyle is important.”
The idea is that the fasting induces mild stress to the cells in your body, helping them become better at coping with such stress and possibly helping your body grow stronger. The verdict is still out regarding the diet’s long-term effectiveness with weight loss, according to a review of preliminary animal research published in January 2017 in Behavioral Sciences.
But data suggest the approach still presents potential problems, as its restrictive nature may lead to overeating or binge eating, suggests an article published in June 2013 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
“Intermittent fasting can be really challenging if you have an ever-changing schedule,” adds Hultin. “If you’re traveling and crossing time zones, it could be very difficult to follow. It might be best for people with more stability in their lives.” Intermittent fasting isn’t safe for people with type 2 diabetes, children, pregnant or lactating women, or anyone with a history of an eating disorder.
If you want to kick intermittent fasting up a notch, you may consider the Dubrow diet, popularized by the husband-and-wife duo Terry and Heather Dubrow. On this diet, you’ll fast for 16 hours and eat for 8, also called the 16:8 eating plan, a type of intermittent fasting. Over three phases, you will also limit calories, fat, and carbohydrates, which may aid weight loss, say registered dietitians.
A plus of this eating plan is that it takes a whole-foods approach, and calls for avoiding processed and packaged foods, along with sources of refined carbs and desserts in general. One minus is that the plan limits healthy complex carbs.
WW (Formerly Weight Watchers)
In September 2018 Weight Watchers International announced that it would be changing its name to WW, in what many outlets dubbed a rebranding effort. Their goal: to make the eating and lifestyle approach about wellness rather than only weight loss.
With Oprah as one of its most notable proponents, this eating plan has been around for years. Jean Nidetch founded the organization in the early 1960s, according to the Weight Watchers website.
More on Diets Similar to WW
It’s gone through many iterations, its previous most recent version being WW Freestyle, which was released in December 2017. You get a daily SmartPoints budget, and the new plan offers 200-plus zero-Points foods that don’t need to be measured or tracked, such as nonstarchy veggies, most fruits, tofu, beans, and skinless poultry.
The plan promotes long-lasting, sustainable changes, and undoubtedly a bounty of research backs this up. In fact, one December 2013 study in the American Journal of Medicine shows that people following Weight Watchers were close to nine times more likely to lose 10 percent of their body weight, compared to people following a self-help diet plan.
South Beach Diet
Created in 2003 by cardiologist Arthur Agatston, this low-carb diet features three phases. The first phase is the most restrictive, limiting carbs such as potatoes and rice. Each subsequent phase becomes more lenient, and the diet emphasizes lean protein, unsaturated fats, and low-glycemic carbs such as nonstarchy vegetables. South Beach promotes lasting lifestyle changes, according to the Mayo Clinic.
In one study published in the Journal of Nutrition and Disease, people who followed the first two phases of the diet noticed significant weight loss — but also experienced some shifts in satiety and hunger hormones, possibly leading to higher levels of hunger during the diet.
Like other low-carb diets, the South Beach Diet isn’t appropriate for pregnant or lactating women, or children.
Vegan and Vegetarian Diet
“A vegan or vegetarian diet is best for individuals who do not like to consume animal products, whether for health reasons, environmental reasons, or animal welfare reasons,” says Kyle. “There are many health benefits of consuming more plant-based foods, such as a reduction in chronic disease.”
There’s a large spectrum of where people can fall on a vegetarian diet: For example, vegans consume no animal products, whereas ovo-lacto vegetarians eat both dairy and eggs. The eating style may help with weight loss, suggests a review published in August 2017 in Nutrients, but some vegans and vegetarians may become deficient in specific nutrients, such as calcium, iron, zinc, and vitamin B12, according to an article published in December 2017 in Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases.
Raw Vegan Diet
The raw vegan diet is a more extreme version of the traditional vegan diet. In addition to eating no animal products (that means no cheese or dairy too), raw vegans do not eat any foods cooked above 118 degrees F, the idea being that nutrients may be lost during the normal cooking process, per an article published in the spring 2013 edition of The Permanente Journal. While this diet can be difficult to stick with because it’s so restrictive, it does offer the same health benefits of a vegan diet.
Pescatarians are vegetarians or vegans who also eat fish. Prioritizing fish as your main protein can provide a bounty of health benefits, such as a lower risk of stroke and heart disease, per a May 2018 advisory published in Circulation.
You can think of think of the Flexitarian Diet as a plan for part-time vegetarians. With this approach, plant proteins, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and fruits and veggies will be staples, with the occasional meat dish thrown in.
Because the diet isn’t as restrictive as a traditional vegan or vegetarian diet, it may be simpler to stick with — hence its No. 2 ranking in U.S. News & World Report’s Easiest Diets to Follow category. Because you’ll be eating meat some of the time, you may also be at a lower risk of the aforementioned nutrient deficiencies that vegetarians and vegans may face.
While there isn’t a wealth of research on this eating approach, U.S. News points out that, because of the focus on plants, those who follow the Flexitarian Diet tend to weigh 15 percent less than meat eaters — and they have a lower risk of certain conditions, such as heart disease.
“Diets such as the Mediterranean diet are sustainable, have been shown to improve health, and aren’t restrictive or short term,” says Asche.
The Mediterranean diet is meant to reflect the eating pattern of people living in the Mediterranean. So think plenty of vegetables, fruits, olive oil, fish, nuts, beans, legumes — and only a moderate amount of red wine and dairy.
The diet can be helpful for weight loss, as well as decreasing risk of developing conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease, according to an April 2013 study in the New England Journal of Medicine and the Mayo Clinic. It has been consistently ranked as a top diet in the U.S. News annual rankings.
This popular diet program is fairly restrictive — and for the first 30 days, dieters must cut out grains, legumes, most dairy, added sugar, and alcohol without any slip-ups, according to the Whole30 website. The aim is to “reset” your body and to adopt dietary habits resulting in weight loss. Cutting out added sugar and alcohol has merit, but all the restrictions prove challenging and could lead to nutrient deficiencies and disordered eating.
“The Whole30 diet does not allow for any whole grains or legumes, which are extremely beneficial to your health,” says Asche. “Whole grains are rich in fiber and micronutrients and are linked to helping to lower your risk of heart disease. The fact that the diet eliminates nutritious foods is a big red flag for me.”
Mayo Clinic Diet
This diet is a scientifically sound way to lose weight and lead a healthier lifestyle.
The Mayo Clinic created a healthy food pyramid to go along with the diet to help participants learn which foods to eat more of and which ones to limit. The pyramid emphasizes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, plus healthy fats in smaller amounts.
In the initial two-week “Lose It” phase, participants can drop 6 to 10 pounds (lb). In fact, in the diet’s pilot program, 53 obese Mayo Clinic employees lost an average of 8 lb during the initial phase.
Though not always followed for weight loss per se, an anti-inflammatory diet is rich in whole foods (including fresh fruits and veggies), and low in packaged, processed ones (like french fries and pastries), so there is a chance you will still shed pounds with this approach. But usually, folks follow this diet to help prevent or treat chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, depression, Alzheimer’s, and cancer. And that’s smart, considering there’s a bounty of research to support this notion, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Adopting this diet is relatively simple. It isn’t focused on counting calories or carbs, or following any sort of specific protocol. Instead of constantly thinking about the quantity of food you are eating, an anti-inflammatory is all about prioritizing the quality of what is on your plate.
Designed for people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), the low-FODMAP diet limits certain types of carbohydrates called fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols, or FODMAPs for short. These are essentially short-chain carbs that the gut has a hard time absorbing, thereby stimulating IBS symptoms, according to Monash University, which conducted the research on the low-FODMAP diet.
Unlike commercial diet plans, intuitive eating doesn’t require you to buy packaged food from a specific brand. And unlike fad diets, it doesn’t ask you to count macronutrients or calories. Instead, this approach asks you to eat what you want but check in regularly with your body, so you know when you’re full and need to stop eating. It sounds simple, but it can be a sustainable way to approach healthy eating, for weight loss or otherwise, say Evelyn Tribole, RDN, a private practitioner in Newport Beach, California, and Elyse Resch, RD, who coined the term “intuitive eating” in 1995. Tribole and Resch coauthored the groundbreaking book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works and their more recent book, The Intuitive Eating Workbook: Ten Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship With Food.
Similar to intuitive eating, the satiating diet isn’t strict — the main thing it calls for is eating whole foods, like apples, oatmeal, hot peppers, and salad. The idea is these fiber-, protein, and fat-rich foods promote a feeling of fullness, so you’re less likely to overeat. There’s legit science behind prioritizing these foods over packaged ones. For instance, in a randomized controlled trial published in November 2017 in the British Journal of Nutrition, obese men assigned to follow the satiating diet instead of a higher-carb diet lost more fat and weight, and had more success sticking to the eating plan.
The veteran nutrition researcher Barbara J. Rolls, PhD, created Volumetrics, an eating approach that closely resembles the satiating diet. Rolls, who is currently the director of the Laboratory of Human Ingestive Behavior at Penn State University in University Park, Pennsylvania, argues that prioritizing whole, energy-dense foods including beans, whole grains, lean meats, and fresh fruits and veggies, can help with weight management. There’s research to back up this notion. For instance, a review published in April 2016 in Nutrients suggested that considering foods’ energy density could aid in weight management.
This diet claims you can lose up to 10 lb in one week, a loss that can be dangerously fast.
The fad military diet consists of low-calorie, odd food pairings such as bun-less hot dogs with banana, carrots, and broccoli. “Any diet like the military diet that severely limits the amount of calories you consume or eliminates one or more entire food groups puts any individual at risk for nutrient deficiencies,” says Kyle. “This can be more harmful than holding onto those 10 extra lb you’re trying to lose.”
Although potentially less harmful than some of the other fad diets out there, this type of eating plan may promote binge eating or other forms of disordered eating patterns.
Apple Cider Vinegar Diet
Proponents of this increasingly popular diet approach believe that consuming apple cider vinegar — essentially fermented apple cider — will help with both weight loss and blood sugar control.
“Although there are studies showing benefits of adding apple cider vinegar to your diet, there’s not enough evidence to show that consuming it on a daily basis promotes weight loss,” says Asche. “It is also highly acidic, which could cause irritation in some people, especially if consumed without being diluted or in large amounts.”
Take note that while apple cider vinegar has many possible uses, it also poses side effects, such as tooth erosion. It’s also no replacement for blood pressure or diabetes medications — or for any traditional treatment, for that matter, notes the University of Chicago.
Cabbage Soup Diet
This diet has no research to support its benefits, and revolves around eating plain cabbage soup three times daily, plus other foods on certain days of the diet. For instance, on the first day you can eat fruit except for bananas, and on the second day you can have nonstarchy vegetables but no fruit. The claim? You’ll lose 10 lb in just seven days, proponents say.
While it’s true you might be successful in losing weight, it likely won’t last. Once you return to your normal eating habits, you’ll likely put the weight back on — and then some.
French doctor Pierre Dukan, MD, conceived this high-protein diet, whose proponents boast that it can lead you to lose 10 lb within the first week of the plan.
The Dukan diet consists of four phases, each with a rigid set of rules. The first phase, the “Attack Phase,” for instance, allows you to eat nothing but protein sources such as beef, chicken, eggs, and liver.
Once you reach the last phase, you’re supposed to eat three tablespoons of oat bran daily and consume pure protein one day a week, the Dukan diet website notes.
The diet may present nutritional deficiencies — and it should be avoided by anyone with kidney problems because it’s high in protein.
HCG, or Human Chorionic Gonadotropin, is a hormone produced during pregnancy by the placenta after implantation, and doctors sometimes prescribe it for fertility issues. But this hormone has also gained popularity as a weight-loss supplement — and using it as such can be dangerous. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns against purchasing over-the-counter hCG, as these supplement products are illegal.
Consequently, researchers have widely discredited the hCG diet, which involves using hCG injections, pellets, sprays, or drops, and consuming as few as 500 calories daily. The diet is problematic not only because there’s a lack of research on hCG supplements, but also because the calorie requirement is dangerously low, potentially leading to nutrient deficiencies, fatigue, hormone imbalances, blood clots, and other issues. Thus, most experts agree the hCG diet is not safe for anyone, the Mayo Clinic notes.
Cleanses and Detoxes
Ranging from just-juice to just-tea cleanses, these typically short-term plans can be dangerous. “Detoxes and cleanses are usually low in calories, protein, and fiber, all nutrients that our bodies need to function,” says Alissa Rumsey, RD, who is in private practice in New York City. “These plans leave you feeling hungry and cranky, causing a rebound food binge once you stop the detox.”
Plus, a healthy body does a fantastic job of detoxing itself. Bottom line? Eat a healthy diet that provides enough energy (aka calories) for you to get through the day.
The idea of this diet is to help control the pH of the body through the foods you eat — encouraging dieters to cut back on acid-forming foods such as red meat and wheat-containing products, according to U.S. News & World Report.
Although eating more fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods promotes good health, the human body does a good job of regulating its pH on its own. Eating alkaline foods cannot sway that.
“The alkaline diet often has a focus on eating lots of fresh produce and unprocessed foods, which could be a good thing,” says Hultin. “However, keep in mind that this is not an evidence-based therapeutic diet. When people take it too far — for instance, drinking baking soda — or become too restrictive or obsessive over food choices, it can definitely turn negative.”
The diet may be low in certain nutrients, including calcium and potassium, and it is not appropriate for anyone who has kidney disease or a heart condition.
Blood Type Diet
It’s no surprise that this diet, also called the Eat Right 4 Your Type diet, focuses on an eating style based on your blood type.
For instance, if you’re type O, you’d eat high-protein diet focusing on poultry, fish, and other lean meats. The diet claims better digestion and absorption of foods, although there’s no scientific evidence to back this up.
Type B? You’re supposed to cut out corn, buckwheat, wheat, lentils, tomatoes, peanuts, and sesame seeds.
The diet doesn’t take chronic health conditions into consideration — and you might develop nutritional deficiencies based on its restrictive nature.
One benefit: “The blood type diet gets people to dump processed junky food,” says Robin Foroutan, RDN, an integrative dietitian in New York City and a spokesperson for the AND.
The CICO — short for calories in, calories out — diet has made waves on social media for its straightforward model: Take in fewer calories than you burn, and you’ll lose weight. While research shows that’s true, there’s a lack of research on this specific diet.
And because it doesn’t specify which foods you should be eating and avoiding, it may lead to nutrition deficiencies, experts warn.
Be sure to consult your doctor before trying the CICO diet.
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