Best Diets? DASH, TLC, Mediterranean Are Tops, Experts Say

Panel Rates Popular Weight Loss Diets for Nutrition and Safety

From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 4, 2011 -- Just in time for anyone stressing over upcoming holiday weight gain, a new list of ''best diets" is out. But this list focused not just on diets that help you lose weight, but diets that help you stay healthy while shedding pounds.

Five diets earned a ''best'' rating for healthy eating from an expert panel convened by U.S. News & World Report. They include the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Diet, the TLC (Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes), the Mediterranean Diet, the Mayo Clinic Diet, and the Volumetrics Diet.

Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, and Nutrisystem, among others, also got high marks but fell short of the ''best'' rating for healthy eating.

At the bottom of the list, getting much lower marks, are the Paleo Diet, Raw Food Diet, and Atkins.

A panel of 22 experts in nutrition was assembled by U.S. News & World Report to rate the diets.

"The whole point of this ranking is to help dieters lose weight in a healthful way," says Andrea Giancoli, RD, MPH, a Los Angeles dietitian and panel member. "The ones toward the bottom of the list are less nutritionally complete."

List of Best Diets for Healthy Eating

Experts rated 20 popular diets on a scale of 1 to 5 -- 5 being best. For the ranking, they focused on nutrition and safety, Giancoli tells WebMD. Previous rankings have considered weight loss, heart health benefits, and ease of compliance.

Here, the scores of the top five and why these diets earned a best rating:

  • DASH Diet, 4.8. Endorsed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, DASH is meant to prevent high blood pressure. It's heavy on produce and low in saturated fat and salt.
  • TLC Diet, 4.7. The National Institutes of Health developed this plan. It's high in fiber and calcium and low in saturated fat.
  • Mediterranean Diet, 4.6. This eating plan includes lots of whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, salmon, and ''heart-healthy'' fats such as olive oil. Red wine in moderation is encouraged.
  • Mayo Clinic Diet, 4.5. The plan developed by Mayo Clinic experts includes foods with low energy density, such as fruits and vegetables. It allows dieters to eat more while eating fewer calories.
  • Volumetrics Diet, 4.5. Another plan that's based on low energy-dense food, Volumetrics focuses on fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nonfat dairy, and lean meats.

Other diets and their scores:

  • Weight Watchers, 4.4. Under the newest Weight Watchers plan, dieters can eat fresh fruits and vegetables without using their daily Points Plus allowance. The focus is also on whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean protein.
  • Jenny Craig Diet, 4.3. Experts called this plan ''scientifically sound and safe." It focuses on fiber and calcium, with proper amounts of fat, protein, and carbs.
  • Ornish Diet, 4.1. Developed by Dean Ornish, MD, the focus of foods in groups 1-3 is on fish, plants, and whole grains. It was deemed sound. Experts warn dieters to limit the ''group 5" foods because of saturated fat.
  • Vegetarian Diet, 4. Experts caution that a vegetarian diet isn’t necessarily a healthy diet. They did find a vegetarian menu adapted from U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines that was nutritious and safe. The menu includes foods such as buckwheat pancakes and vegetable soup.
  • Nutrisystem Diet, 3.9. The plan has prepackaged meals and advises supplementing that with fresh produce, nonfat dairy, and protein foods. The panel calls it generally safe and nutritious. But they wonder about the sufficiency of potassium, vitamins B-12, and D.
  • Glycemic-Index Diet, 3.5. The plan ranks carbohydrate-containing foods based on how quickly they raise blood sugar. The theory is that low-glycemic-index foods are absorbed more slowly, keeping people fuller. The plan is called ''reasonably complete."
  • SlimFast Diet, 3.5. The diet has two shakes or bars, three snacks, and one homemade meal. It provides just 1,200 calories a day, a criticism by the panel. Because it does include one homemade meal daily, and the products are fortified, the panel called it ''mostly nutritious and safe."
  • Zone Diet, 3.5. Experts worried about a potential lack of carbohydrates, fiber, potassium, calcium, and vitamin D.
  • South Beach Diet, 3.3. Experts call this plan heavy on fat in phase 1, low on carbs in phases 1 and 2, and always low in potassium.
  • Eco-Atkins Diet, 3.1. This revised Atkins focuses more on protein from plant foods. Better than traditional Atkins, the panel says, but too heavy on fat and low in carbs.
  • Medifast Diet, 3.0. Experts gave this one a ''moderately" safe label, because of the 800 to 1,000 calories a day. That is too low for many, they say.
  • Vegan Diet, 3.0. Although vegans can eat healthy, it takes work, the panel says. Dieters must focus on key nutrients such as calcium, vitamins D and B-12, zinc, and iron.
  • Paleo Diet, 2.2. Entire food groups such as dairy and grains are excluded.
  • Raw Food Diet, 2.1. The plan can skimp on calories, calcium, and vitamins B-12 and D. The risk of food poisoning from raw foods is a concern.
  • Atkins Diet, 2.0. Too much fat, too few carbs, the experts say.


Tips for Choosing a Diet

Colette Heimowitz, MSc, vice president of nutrition and education for Atkins, the diet that got the lowest score, said in a statement that the program ''teaches individuals to find their personal ideal carb balance. The Atkins Diet does not overly restrict vegetables, fruits, or whole grains."

The plan does restrict high-sugar fruits at the beginning, but reintroduces them, she says. The fats in the diet plan are a balance of types, including heart-healthy ones.

As for all 20 of the diets on this list, "some are clearly better than others," says Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD, director of nutrition for WebMD, who reviewed the findings.

"It's a great list and I am a huge fan of the top six," she says.

However, she tells dieters: "You really need to find a plan that works for you. The most important thing is matching your lifestyle, your preferences."

Plans that include continuing education or maintenance are ideal, she says.

If none of the diets on the list appeals to you, consider your own healthy eating plan, Zelman says. "Eat more plant foods, less cookies and crackers, fewer sweets, and get regular exercise," she says.

Or, check out reviews of other diets at

"The top five are all emphasizing plant-based diets," Giancoli says. They are high not only in fruits and vegetables but also emphasize whole grains and legumes, she says.

Giancoli's final tip for choosing a diet: "The diets that allow a little room for fun are the ones people can stick with," she says.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on November 04, 2011



Andrea Giancoli, MPH, RD, dietitian; nutrition policy consultant, California Center for Public Health Advocacy; spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association.

Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD, director of nutrition, WebMD.

Colette Heimowitz, MSc, vice president of nutrition and education, Atkins Nutritionals.

U.S. News & World Report: "Best Diets for Healthy Eating," Nov. 1, 2011.

Atkins Nutritionals.

© 2011 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.


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