All you have to do is check out the diet books on bestseller lists to know that “healthy eating” can take many different forms.
“A healthy-eating plan is one that includes a wide variety of foods from each of the food groups,” says Tricia Psota of the National Institutes of Health. “Foods should provide a healthy balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat, as well as vitamins, minerals and fiber.”
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 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 okay to make changes gradually.
The plan is heavy on vegetables, fruit, whole grains, low-fat or no-fat dairy, and lean protein; it’s light on saturated fat, added sugars and salt; and it meets the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Studies by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute found that the plan lowers blood pressure. But you don’t have to be at risk of heart disease to benefit from eating this way.
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 — less than 1,500 milligrams per day for some people — can be a challenge.
The promise: Wholesome meals with family, friends and wine.
Researchers looking into what makes people who live in the regions along the Mediterranean Sea live long, healthy lives found that the answer goes beyond the food they eat; it also entails a way of life.
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 such as those found in canola and olive oil, and fish and seafood at least a couple of times a week. 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, you need to figure out your own Mediterranean menu, not to mention what you’ll do to stay active.
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 non-starchy 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: “Meeting the recommended intake of many nutrients is difficult,” Psota says. “Also, dieters following this diet long-term risk developing nutrient deficiencies, since entire food groups are eliminated.” So proceed on this food plan with caution.
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. In addition, unless you plan appropriately, meeting your recommended daily allowance of Vitamin B12, calcium, Vitamin D, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish) can be tricky, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The promise: This approach is based on the science of satiety — that feeling of fullness at the end of a meal — and how it affects hunger and eating behavior. 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; 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,” Psota says. In addition, meals are filling and nothing is off limits.
Cons: Meal prep can be tedious for people who don’t like to cook.
For further guidance, go to www.ConsumerReports.org/Health, where more detailed information, including CR’s ratings of prescription drugs, treatments, hospitals and healthy-living products, is available to subscribers.