All you have to do is check out the diet books on best-seller lists to know that “healthy eating” can take many different forms. But even a perfectly nutritious plan won't improve your health if it costs too much, lacks flavor or is hard to follow because the meals take too long to prepare.
Consumer Reports recently evaluated the pros and cons of five nutrition regimens.
The Plan: DASH
The promise: Fresh food with a limit on fat, sodium and sugar. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension plan – better known as the DASH diet – is so heart-healthy that you might expect it to be tasteless and even difficult to follow. But it's not, and it's OK to make changes gradually. The plan is heavy on vegetables, fruit, whole grains, low- or no-fat dairy and lean protein, and light on saturated fat, added sugars and salt and meets the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Pros: Studies have found that the DASH diet can lower blood pressure and decrease LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides, but not at the expense of satisfying your taste buds.
Cons: Portion sizes need to be carefully monitored, and keeping to the daily sodium recommendation – for some people less than 1,500 milligrams per day – can be a challenge.
The Plan: Mediterranean
The promise: Wholesome meals with family, friends and wine.
An easy way to know what is allowed on a Mediterranean-type meal plan is to ask whether your great-grandmother would recognize the food. If so, then chances are it's on this plan: fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, healthy fats, and fish and seafood. It also includes poultry, eggs, cheese and yogurt in moderation, and sweets and red meat no more than a few times a month.
Pros: Studies have found that the Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of certain cancers, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Cons: Because it's a way of eating as opposed to a structured diet, Consumer Reports notes that you're on your own to figure out how you'll shape your menu, not to mention what you'll do to stay active.
The Plan: Paleo
The promise: A meat-lover's dream come true.
If cave people didn't eat it, then you shouldn't either. That's the premise of the Paleo diet, although it has not been scientifically tested.
The regimen gives a thumbs-up to lean meat, fish, seafood, fruit and nonstarchy vegetables, and a thumbs-down to cereal grains, legumes, dairy products and processed foods.
Pros: The plan tends to be low in sodium and sugar, and the emphasis on fruit and vegetables makes it easy to meet goals for dietary fiber.
Cons: It is difficult to meet the recommended intake of many nutrients, so Consumer Reports recommends proceeding on this food plan with caution.
The Plan: Vegetarian
The promise: Plant-based.
“Vegetarian” has become a catchall for any eating plan that doesn't allow meat, chicken or seafood.
A well-planned vegetarian diet, however, has just as many health benefits as any other nutritionally sound plan.
Pros: Research, including a study of 73,000 men and women published in JAMA Internal Medicine in June, suggests that following a vegetarian diet can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels and the risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
Cons: You might end up bulking up on starches, and menu options are limited when dining out.
The Plan: Volumetrics
The promise: The staples of this plan – water-rich foods such as broth soups, fruit, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean meat and fish – not only help control hunger by filling you up, but they also do it with fewer calories.
Pros: This type of dietary pattern is associated with a decreased risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Meals are filling and nothing is off-limits.
Cons: Meal prep can be tedious for people who don't like to cook.