Jan. 4, 2021 -- If you're struggling to shed weight gained during the pandemic or just want to eat healthier, there's a diet plan for you. Just out is U.S. News & World Report's annual ranking of diet plans. The publication ranked 39 plans this year, the 11th time for the report.
For the fourth consecutive year, the popular Mediterranean diet ranks first in the overall category and also scored well in many other categories. It's followed by the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and the flexitarian diet (mostly plant-based), which tied for second place overall.
While dieting is always a popular New Year's resolution topic, the weight and the weight gain blamed on its stay-at-home restrictions may make it even more pressing. The pandemic, with its isolation and changes in habits, means people are looking for different things in diet plans, says Angela Haupt, managing editor of health at U.S. News.
"I think now more than ever, we need support, we need connection," Haupt says. "This year, more than ever, people will be interested in those diets that offer built-in support." Two good examples, she says, are Noom, an app-based plan that includes coaches, and WW, formerly known as Weight Watchers, which emphasizes support from fellow members and offers coaching.
The 39 plans are divided into nine categories. Besides best overall, the categories are:
- Best commercial diets
- Best weight loss diets
- Best diets for fast weight loss
- Best diets for healthy eating
- Easiest diets to follow
- Best diets if you have diabetes
- Best diets if you have heart disease
- Best plant-based diets
To evaluate the plans, U.S. News gathered an expert panel of top nutritionists and specialists in diabetes, heart health, and weight loss. The 24 panel members scored the 39 diets in seven areas: ease of compliance, likelihood of short- and long-term weight loss, effectiveness against cardiovascular disease and diabetes, nutritional completeness, and safety.
Winners for 2021
Best overall: After the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and olive oil:
- The flexitarian (mostly plant-based) and DASH diets tied for second.
- WW got fourth place once again. It assigns point values to foods, with the more nutritious choices having fewer points.
Best commercial: WW got first place there, followed by:
- Mayo Clinic Diet (emphasizes fruits, vegetables, and movement)
- Jenny Craig and Noom tying for third place. (Jenny Craig offers prepackaged low-calorie meals, plus support and consultation.)
Best weight loss diets: Flexitarian and WW tied for first, followed by a tie for third place with:
- Volumetrics (emphasis on low-calorie but filling foods)
Best fast weight loss diets: HMR Diet got first. It's based on meal replacement shakes, plus fruits and vegetables. Second place was a tie between:
- Atkins (low-carb) and WW.
Best diets for healthy eating: DASH and Mediterranean tied for first, followed by:
- TLC diet (Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes, to cut cholesterol)
Easiest diets to follow: Mediterranean took first place, followed by:
- MIND diet (combines DASH and Mediterranean to boost brain health)
Best diets for diabetes: Flexitarian and Mediterranean tied for first, followed by a three-way tie among:
- Mayo Clinic Diet
- Vegan diet
Best heart-healthy diets: First place was a tie among DASH, Mediterranean, and Ornish (vegetarian) diets. Fourth place was a tie among:
- TLC diet
- Vegan diet
Best plant-based diets: Mediterranean took first, followed by:
- Nordic diet (fish, vegetables, whole grains), with Ornish and Vegetarian tying for third place.
"Every single year, the same diets land on the top of our list," Haupt says. "It's because they are sensible. They say to eat the foods you know you should eat. That's why those diets always perform well."
Low on the List
The Dukan Diet landed at the bottom of the overall list, at No. 39. Dukan, which was 35th last year, limits carbs and emphasizes protein. Just ahead of Dukan, tied for 37th place, are the ketogenic diet -- which focuses on high fat, adequate protein, and low carbs -- and the GAPS (gut and psychology syndrome) diet, new to the list this year, which aims to improve gut health.
Response From Diet Plans
WebMD reached out to the Dukan Diet for comment, but no immediate response was received.
We also reached out to the GAPS diet followers. It focuses on bone broth, along with homemade fermented foods such as sauerkraut. Grains are not allowed, at least at first. "I would tend to agree it's not for everyone," says Lindsea Willon, a nutritional therapy practitioner with Biodynamic Wellness in Solana Beach, CA, which offers the diet.
She acknowledges that “it is difficult to follow, and it can be restrictive. As a diet for the general public, I fully agree it shouldn't be high on the list. It isn't meant for everyone."
But, she says, the diet's premise is to give the digestive system a break, and people with digestive issues such as ulcerative colitis report that it works for them.
A Registered Dietitian Weighs In
Connie Diekman, a registered dietitian, food and nutrition consultant in St. Louis, and former president of the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, reviewed this year's report.
“No surprise that the Mediterranean diet is once again number 1," says Diekman, whose books include the Everything Mediterranean Diet Book.
"The Mediterranean diet is truly a lifestyle, not a true diet; it is a plan that focuses on more plant foods and less animal foods without 'mandatory' aspects.” Those who follow the plan, she finds, say they enjoy it while it gives them health benefits and variety. Those are all important parts of a lifelong eating plan, she says.
Diekman reminds people that healthy eating itself is a lifestyle -- “a diet that fits into the routine of most people.”