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If losing weight was an easy process, the diet industry would not be worth billions of dollars (yes, billions). Whether your goal is to lose pounds, protect your heart, manage your cholesterol or simply feel better overall, you’ve no doubt felt bombarded by all the different diet options out there.
But which diets will actually help you feel better and accomplish your health goals in a safe, healthy way?
Forbes Health recently ranked some of the best diets out there, considering things like long-term weight loss, health risks, nutritional benefits and simplicity. And while there are a few more on the list, these top 5 options are great places to start.
The Mediterranean Diet
Deemed “the gold standard in preventive medicine,” by a 2018 review, the Mediterranean diet isn’t focused on restrictive eating plans or counting calories. Instead, it advises people to concentrate on eating whole foods like fresh produce, lean meat like fish, nuts, seeds, whole grains and healthy fats including olive oil. Individuals who stick with the Mediterranean diet may benefit from a lowered risk of chronic disease, as well as a higher life expectancy.
If it’s a healthier heart you’re after, this may be the diet for you—the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet is designed to lower blood pressure and LDL (or bad) cholesterol. Similar to the Mediterranean diet in that it doesn’t require strict calorie counting, this diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, poultry, fat-free or low-fat dairy, nuts and seeds, while discouraging fatty meats, full-fat dairy, sugary drinks and sweets, and puts limits on sodium intake.
Plant-based diets have become increasingly popular, and research supports the health benefits of a carefully-planned vegetarian diet. While there are several different iterations of the vegetarian diet out there, many varieties of this diet do not allow for meat or seafood. Meanwhile, some allow for dairy, while others do not. They all, though, emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts and seeds.
Another plant-based diet that made Forbes Health’s ranking is the pescatarian diet, which does not allow for meat, except for seafood. Melina Jampolis, M.D., a board-certified physician nutritionist and Forbes Health Advisory Board member told Forbes Health, “Studies consistently show that vegetarian diets are associated with a lower risk of diabetes, heart disease and less weight gain/lower weight than diets that include animal protein/meat, however, they can be restrictive, so a pescatarian diet that includes fish is less restrictive and can make a predominantly plant-based diet more livable.”
The MIND Diet
Closely related to the Mediterranean diet and DASH diet, the MIND diet, which stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, is often singled out as being helpful for those interested in eating for brain health. Prioritizing a plant-based eating style (and highlighting berries, nuts and whole grains), the diet recommends avoiding red meats, sweets, butter and cheese and eating other meats sparingly.
If you’re interested in trying one of the diets listed above, consider talking with your doctor or a licensed nutritionist, as they might have insights into which plan could be best for your specific health history.
Finding the Best Diet for You
With all the healthy options available, how can someone pick the right diet for them? Forbes Health spoke to Catherine Christie, Ph.D., a registered dietitian nutritionist and professor of nutrition and dietetics and associate dean of the Brooks College of Health at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Florida to get her take on choosing the right diet.
“Some people do well with an extreme change like following a vegan diet, but most people do better if they can make gradual changes and build on them,” says Christie, adding that changing our view of diets as a “temporary” eating plan to something we can enjoy long term is one big key to success.
The Importance of Sleep, Exercise and Resilience
When making lifestyle changes to improve your weight and well-being, it’s essential to remember two other important aspects of overall health: Sleep and exercise.
Not getting enough sleep has been linked to the development of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Similarly, the CDC also promotes regular physical exercise as one of the best ways to increase brain health, reduce the risk of chronic disease and help manage weight.
So, while following a diet is a great way to lose extra pounds and boost your overall health, combining it with physical activity and a prioritized sleep routine can greatly increase your chances of success.
And lastly, one of the most important aspects of starting a new diet is to practice self-forgiveness. If you end up spending a day eating foods that aren’t recommended, miss a workout or just generally get too busy to concentrate on following your diet—don’t punish yourself. What matters most is that you pick yourself up and get right back into your healthy routine.
Jessica DiGiacinto is an editor at Forbes Health