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Today's best diet rankings sure to renew controversy over best eating practices

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture

In today's top health story from the US News and World Report, a ranking of the most popular diets placed the relatively obscure DASH Diet at the top of the list, closely followed by the Mediterranean Diet. The rankings are further broken down to targeted health concerns, such as Best Diabetes Diet, Best Weight Loss Diet and Best Heart Healthy Diets, making them a practical reference point for those who suffer from specific health conditions.

A panel of 22 health experts including nutritionists and specialists in diabetes, heart health, human behavior, and weight loss, reviewed detailed assessments prepared by U.S. News of 20 diets. The experts rated each diet in seven categories, including short- and long-term weight loss, ease of compliance, safety, and nutrition.

Although not as well known as some of the more aggressively marketed diets, the DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), developed by the National Institutes of Health, is a plan advocating the consumption of plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Low or nonfat dairy foods should be limited to no more than 2 to 4 servings while lean meats ought to comprise no more than 2.5 servings. The diet also calls for no more than 3 to 6 servings a week for nuts, seeds and legumes, making the diet somewhat unique, as most health-conscious eating plans advocate a more liberal consumption of this food group, particularly legumes (beans, lentils, peanuts, peas, and soybeans). In many ways, the DASH Diet resembles the traditional FDA Food Pyramid, with a generous allowance for the consumption of healthy grains, followed by fruits and vegetables, and a more restrictive consumption of meats, dairy, nuts and oils.

The DASH Diet guidelines, in many ways unsurprising in its recommendations (who has not heard the call to eat more whole grains, veggies and fruits, and less red meat?), come into direct conflict with those of the other top-ranked diets such as the Ornish or Mediterranean Diets. While the DASH eschews the consumption of legumes, for examples, the Ornish, ranked best for heart-healthy, advocates them liberally, going so far as to promote eating them as much as you like, until you are full. It also forbids the consumption of any kind of meat, including white lean meat and fish, as well as avocadoes and olives, a mainstay of traditional Mediterranean diets where people have been downing olive oil, nuts and fatty goat cheese and yogurt for millennia and enjoying long lives.

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So while the diet rankings are exciting news today, they invariably lead to a renewed debate and controversy, as each diet plan’s proponents defend their positions with their own oft-quoted study results. The consumer is left as confused as ever. Should we eat to our fill as long as long as we are eating grains and legumes, or should we practice portion control while enjoying meats and oils? Should we go all out vegetarian or will the consumption of lean meat and fish be better for our waitline? Who knows?

It is remarkable to what extent each type of research is able to find supporting evidence for its claims. Scientists and researchers can often make opposite claims in relation to the same issue. Take diabetes, for example. While proponents of the no-carbs Atkins Diet proclaim it the best hands-down approach to the management of Type II Diabetes, another well-esteemed researcher, Dr. Neal Barnard, says quite the opposite: eat as much as you like of a fat-free, plant-based diet. Ironically, both sides cite traditional diets as anecdotal evidence that their claims are true and correct. The question arises, then, what IS a “traditional” diet and did the people who practiced it enjoy health and longevity?

The truth is that there are innumerable “traditional” diets whose practitioners lived healthy and long lives. Some traditional diets were almost entirely meat and oil based, such as were practiced by the Inuit living above the Arctic Circle. They appear to have enjoyed robust health and virtually no incidence of obesity, heart disease and Type II Diabetes, until the introduction of processed Western food. Other traditional diets which relied heavily on meat, even (gasp) red meat and full fat dairy were those of the Sub-Saharan Africa, where precious few plant foods could be grown. Still others enjoyed more variety in combining some meat consumption with calorie rich olives and olive oil, such as in the Mediterranean region. One of the longest-lived peoples on Earth, the inhabitants of the Caucasus region, rely on animal fat and yogurt as dietary mainstays. The other longevity athletes of the world, the residents of Okinawa, in Japan, enjoy a much leaner, less meat-intensive diet.

In light of these contradictory diets with their uniform health outcomes, is it relevant to ask which one is best? All of them are best – yet NONE of them are best for us. We live an unprecedentedly leisurely and food-abundant lifestyle in the developed world, the likes of which human evolution has not yet seen. Unlike the traditional peoples of the world, we are extraordinarily sedentary and we are free to eat to our capacity while not utilizing the calories we consume. Under such circumstances, no traditional diet will prove its mettle – not a non-fat diet and not a no-carb diet, not a no-meat diet and not a no-bean diet. The problem, perhaps, is not with the diets, but in the very way we go about living our daily lives.

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