Diet fads are a dime a dozen and there’s always a hot new one around the corner with promises of trim waistlines and a cure for whatever ails you. Yet the reality is that there are so many diet plans out there because, well, most of them don’t work. Some offer quick fixes and dramatic weight loss, sure, but often lack sustainability — or worse, might come with health risks.
There are a handful of diets, however, that do live up to the hype. And they remain on top because they’ve passed scientific scrutiny with proven results. But which one to choose? Unfortunately there’s no one-size-fits-all plan, and deciphering your best match is no easy feat.
“It’s important to consider your goals and health issues when it comes to diet,” says Lisa Moskovitz, RD, CDN, and CEO of The NY Nutrition Group. For example, she would recommend a low-FODMAP diet for someone concerned with gastrointestinal issues. But it wouldn’t be the right fit for someone looking to lose weight, who would be better off with the DASH diet or Volumetrics, she explains.
Factors such as personal likes, dislikes and lifestyle also matter when choosing a diet — because the best diet plan is the one you actually stick with.
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Your Guide to the Top Diet Plans
The DASH Diet
Who it’s best for: DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, so people with high blood pressure should theoretically benefit the most.
How it works: The DASH diet plan prevents and controls high blood pressure with whole foods that are low in sodium. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) helped develop the DASH diet, so it’s no surprise it’s the number one diet for a healthy heart. It also tops the U.S. News World Report’s annual best diets list year after year.
What to eat: Foods high in potassium, calcium, protein and fiber. Think fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean fish, poultry, beans, nuts and low-fat dairy.
What to avoid: Salt. Daily sodium intake should hover around 1,500 mg and never more than 2,300. The diet also reduces sugars, fats and red meat.
Level of difficulty: Giving up fatty, sugary and salty treats is never easy, but the DASH diet doesn’t restrict entire food groups, making it more likely you’ll stay with the plan. Plus, the lean protein and fiber filled meals ensure you won’t be battling hunger pangs either. It requires no specialty foods or recipes and you’re not counting calories or points, just daily servings from various food groups.
Food for thought: Though it’s not designed for weight loss, many DASHers shed pounds on the diet because it emphasizes eating foods that are naturally low in fats and sugars. Plus, it teaches proper portion control. It won’t be quick or extreme though, but the best weight loss programs generally aren’t. The smartest way to ease into the DASH diet is by experimenting with spices and herbs to help you forget that salt’s not on the table. Check out the NHLBI’s DASH Diet Guide, which will help you outline your eating plan with recommended daily servings and meal examples.
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Who it’s best for: Those looking to lose weight and prevent type-2 diabetes and heart disease.
How it works: On the paleo diet we eat like our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestors did — the way we were genetically designed to eat — by eliminating disease causing grains, dairy and processed foods. Paleo requires that 40 percent of daily calories come from protein, 40 percent from fat and 20 percent from carbohydrates.
What to eat: Meat, fish, poultry, fruits and vegetables.
What to avoid: Processed foods, refined sugar, dairy, legumes and grains.
Level of difficulty: This diet is highly restrictive and requires cooking your own food most of the time, but its popularity has spawned hundreds of food blogs and cookbooks so there is no shortage of recipes.
Food for thought: While it’s debatable that this diet is comprised of foods even remotely similar to what our ancestors ate, cutting sugar and processed foods is never a bad thing, experts agree. However, some experts criticize the diet for being nutritionally incomplete by unnecessarily eliminating dairy, legumes and whole grains, which provide essential nutrients.
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Who it’s best for: “An anti-inflammatory diet is good for just about everyone,” says Moskovitz, “especially those dealing with chronic conditions such as pain, skin issues, hormonal balances, etc.”
How it works: The Whole30 diet plan resets your body by eliminating inflammatory food groups for 30 days. The theory is that something you eat is to blame for your medical condition. After a month, your body heals and you can reintroduce foods back one at a time and your body’s reaction will tell you if it should stay or be eliminated completely from your diet.
What to eat: Meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, natural fats and some fruits.
What to avoid: Sugar (including artificial), alcohol, grains, legumes and dairy.
Level of difficulty: The program is only 30 days, but it’s a very restrictive 30 days with zero room for error. If you cheat, you go back to day one. You’ll also need to cook most of your own meals and eating out is near impossible. Good news is you don’t need to track calories.
Food for thought: Pinpointing what ails you in 30 days could be worth it. Even if you’re not targeting a specific condition, many Whole30 dieters report higher energy levels, better sleep, improved athletic ability, better mental focus and general happiness. But if weight loss is what you’re after, Whole30 might not be the best way to do it.
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Who it’s best for: People with fat to lose.
How it works: The ketogenic diet is low carb and high fat. The reduction in carbs and protein puts your body into a metabolic state called ketosis, in which it becomes efficient at burning fat for energy. The diet generally aims for 80 percent fat,15 percent protein and five percent carbs.
What to eat: Meat, fatty fish, eggs, butter, cream, cheese, nuts, healthy oils, avocados, low-carb vegetables and berries.
What to avoid: Bread, grains, fruits (except berries), dairy, beans, legumes, alcohol, rice, pasta, potatoes, beer and sugary foods.
Level of difficulty: The ketogenic diet is highly restrictive. Plus, the transition period is rough as the body goes through what is referred to as “keto flu,” which makes you tired, groggy and grumpy.
Food for thought: Most people on the ketogenic diet plan have a high success rate of weight loss, but the diet isn’t sustainable for the majority of people, so that weight is likely to be gained back.
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Who it’s best for: Everyone.
How it works: People living along the Mediterranean Sea have been proven to live longer, suffer fewer cardiovascular ailments and stave off cancer through a diet low in red meat, sugar and saturated fat. It emphasizes fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and nuts for optimal health.
What to eat: Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, legumes, olive oil, fish and wine.
What to avoid: Red meat and sweets, with poultry, eggs and dairy in moderation.
Level of difficulty: This plan is quite possibly the easiest to stick to since it’s more of a lifestyle adjustment and not a structured diet.
Food for thought: Extreme weight loss isn’t the point of the Mediterranean diet, but sensible and gradual weight loss may be inevitable when you’re eating healthy, whole foods. What’s more important is how the diet affects your health and longevity, says Moskovitz.
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5:2 Diet and Intermittent Fasting
Who it’s best for: People who can tolerate hunger but find it difficult to stick to conventional calorie-restriction diets.
How it works: The 5:2 diet plan involves eating normally for five days a week, then restricting your calorie intake to 500–600 calories on the other two days. During fasting days, your metabolism supposedly speeds up and the calorie deficit can add up to 3,000 calories per week.
What to eat: On fasting days, eat vegetables, soups, eggs, fish, and other high-fiber, high-protein foods. On normal days, stick to the Mediterranean diet.
What to avoid: Nothing is forbidden, but try to reduce red meat, sugar and processed foods.
Level of difficulty: Intense hunger is very real with this diet, making it difficult to maintain. Plus, fasting days can throw a curveball to your social life, not to mention your workout schedule.
Food for thought: The 5:2 diet may be right for you if you can handle hunger one day without bingeing the next. It requires a great deal of self-control and commitment and won’t benefit you if you’re a yo-yo dieter. Moskovitz typically tries to steer people away from intermittent fasting because of its unsustainable nature.
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Raw Food Diet
Who it’s best for: People seeking optimal health and weight loss or detoxification.
How it works: By eating foods that haven’t been processed, cooked, genetically engineered or exposed to herbicides, your body will be at its healthiest because you’re optimizing your intake of nutrients and natural enzymes. The claim is that cooking kills most nutrients and enzymes in food, although there is scant scientific evidence that backs this up. The raw food diet can also be effective for weight loss since fruits and vegetables are low in calories.
What to eat: Fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds in their whole, natural state. Raw fish, meat, milk and cheese are OK, as are virgin coconut oil and cold-pressed olive oil.
What to avoid: Anything pasteurized or processed, refined sugars, flours, table salt, caffeine and any foods cooked above 115°F.
Level of difficulty: This diet requires a lot of prep work and eating out is all but impossible. You will spend a good chunk of your days thinking about what to eat.
Food for thought: Weight loss is nearly guaranteed, but the diet requires tedious meal prep and its restrictions significantly limit the foods you can eat, making it challenging to meet your nutritional needs. The many restrictions also increase the likelihood of quitting.
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Who it’s best for: People who are curious about vegetarianism and its health and environmental benefits, but don’t want to give up meat completely.
How it works: The flexitarian diet plan follows a vegetarian diet most of the time, but you don’t need to eliminate meat completely. Cutting back on meats and adding more fruits and vegetables can reduce your risk for heart disease, cancer and diabetes. It might also help you lose weight.
What to eat: Plant-based proteins (tofu, beans, lentils, peas, nuts and seeds), eggs, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy.
What to avoid: Meat, most of the time.
Level of difficulty: This diet is easy to follow because no food groups are completely off-limits, and there’s nothing to count, weight or track.
Food for thought: Start cutting back on meat with Meatless Mondays and gradually reduce carnivorous meals from there.
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Who it’s best for: People with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) who have ruled out celiac disease through medical testing.
How it works: The acronym FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. These are all different carbohydrates that if poorly absorbed can pass through the small intestine and into the colon. Bacteria in the colon then feed on the FODMAPs, producing gas, bloating and pain. A low-FODMAP diet eliminates FODMAP foods for six to eight weeks. After that, small amounts of FODMAP foods are gradually re-introduced to find your personal level of tolerance.
What to eat: Meat, whole grains, select vegetables, select fruits, nuts, seeds, coconut oil, olive oil, tea, coffee and berries.
What to avoid: Wheat, barley, rye, nuts, legumes, lactose (dairy), fructose (fruit), garlic, onions, sweeteners and some vegetables.
Level of difficulty: A low-FODMAP diet is hard during the initial elimination period because of all the restrictions. But it should get easier as you reintroduce foods back into your diet.
Food for thought: It can be a challenge to follow at times, but the the benefits might be worth it if you suffer from gastrointestinal problems.
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Forks Over Knives (Vegan) Diet
Who it’s best for: People who want to take vegetarianism one step further by eliminating dairy, eggs and any other animal byproducts. Most vegans choose a vegan diet for ethical or environmental reasons, but veganism also lowers the risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
How it works: Vegans avoid any animal foods, including ingredients derived from animals. Weight loss is achieved by the diet’s very low fat and high fiber content. Plant-based diets are also known to keep blood sugar in check.
What to eat: Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, tofu, tempeh, seitan, nutritional yeast, plant milks, nuts and seeds.
What to avoid: Meat, poultry, fish, seafood, dairy, eggs, honey, bee pollen, whey, casein, lactose, gelatin and fish oil.
Level of difficulty: Meal planning is imperative to ensure you’re getting all the nutrients you need. And because the diet is quite restrictive, the chances of backsliding are high, especially if you’re doing it just for weight loss. Moral grounds are often the best motivators for staying vegan.
Food for thought: In some cases, a diet based exclusively on plant foods may increase the risk of nutrient deficiencies. Because of this, vegans should eat fortified foods and/or supplements to get enough calcium, vitamin D, zinc, iodine, iron and vitamin B12. When done right with whole-plant foods and limited processed foods, a vegan diet can be healthy and result in weight loss.
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IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) Diet
Who it’s best for: Those who want variety in their meals but don’t mind obsessively tracking numbers.
How it works: The IIFYM diet lets you eat anything you want and you’ll lose weight as long as you meet your prescribed daily set of macronutrients (carbs, proteins and fats). Calculate your personal macros by figuring out your total daily expenditure, then how many calories you should eat per day to lose weight. From there, you’ll divide the calories into the percentage of calories that should come from fat (20 percent), protein (40 percent) and carbohydrates (40 percent).
What to eat: Anything — as long as you hit your macros. Though, ideally, you’ll make healthful choices most of the time.
What to avoid: There are no restrictions but if you’re aiming for 20 percent fat intake, you won’t be eating many high-fat foods.
Level of difficulty: Semi-easy because you can eat foods traditionally considered diet taboos, and still have a social life. However, you need to be a little obsessive with tracking, weighing and measuring everything you put in your mouth. Tip: You’re going to want an app for that.
Food for thought: Weight loss isn’t as simple as calories in and calories out. By bringing macronutrients into play, IIFYM makes sure you’re not just eating cookies and calling it a day. Still, some critics say the diet leaves plenty of room for junk food since you’re allowed to “eat whatever you want.” You also run the risk of depriving your body of the micronutrients it needs. The IIFYM diet plan could be right for you if you’re smart about it and eat quality, whole foods and avoid the junk, at least most of the time.
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Who it’s best for: People who want to lose weight without feeling deprived.
How it works: Eat the same amount of food you normally would but replace calorie-dense foods with low-density foods, which have fewer calories per gram. You’ll feel full while also dropping pounds.
What to eat: Non-starchy fruits and vegetables, broth-based soups, whole grains, lean proteins and legumes.
What to avoid: Meat, cheese, bread, nuts, butter, oil, sweets and fried foods.
Level of difficulty: Easy because satiety is guaranteed so you won’t go hangry. The rules are pretty lax, the diet just teaches you to make smarter swaps so you get the most mileage out of what you eat.
Food for thought: Moskovitz considers Volumetrics one of the best options for weight loss. The diet plan teaches you the caloric value of foods without the need to track everything you eat. It’s not disruptive to your lifestyle either. Simply choose low-calorie foods that fill you up. Volumetrics is also a great option for weight maintenance, she says.
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