What’s the healthiest diet to follow if you’re not a vegetarian?
Here's what top nutrition researchers found.
What does a healthy diet look like? You probably still find it confusing, despite (or maybe because of) all the diet books, food pyramids, and “expert” advice out there.
US News recently convened a panel of health experts who reviewed 38 diets. Their choice for the healthiest one: the DASH diet.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has developed and tested three flexible variations of the DASH diet called the OmniHeart diet.
The diets were remarkably effective at lowering blood pressure, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and triglycerides.
The Omniheart diet lowered systolic blood pressure by 13 to 16 points in people with hypertension (systolic blood pressure —the higher number—over 140). Blood pressure fell by 8 points in people who had pre-hypertension (systolic pressure between 120 and 139).
“The diets lower blood pressure more than most drugs,” says Frank Sacks, a cardiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health and one of OmniHeart’s principal investigators.
The Omniheart diet lowered LDL (“bad”) cholesterol by 20 to 24 points in people with high cholesterol. LDL fell by 5 points in people whose levels weren’t high when the study started (they had LDL below 130). That’s not quite what you’d get from a prescription statin drug like Lipitor (a drop of 50 to 100 points), but it’s no small potatoes. The Omniheart diet also lowered damaging triglycerides by 9 to 16 points.
What makes the OmniHeart diet so potent?
It wasn’t just the low levels of saturated and trans fat (7 percent of calories), sodium (2,300 milligrams a day), and added sugar (2 to 5 teaspoons a day). It was also the high levels of potassium (4,700 mg a day), magnesium (500 mg), calcium (1,200 mg), and fiber (30 grams) in the diets.
Here’s a snapshot of what’s in the OmniHeart diet and examples of what makes a serving. If it seems skimpy, relax. The diet is designed for someone who eats 2,000 calories a day. If you eat more, just up the servings proportionately.
What about the pizza, tiramisu, gourmet ice cream, and other foods that aren’t here? Okay, so maybe you won’t follow the diet every single meal. Think of it as an ideal.
And what if you don’t want to measure out each portion of every food you eat? If you just get used to filling at least half of your plate with fruits and vegetables, that alone would be a success.
Omniheart Diet Guide Chart
A Day’s Worth of Food
Here’s a hybrid of the two OmniHeart diets, combining one higher in protein and one higher in unsaturated fat. We used the Wild Card for protein (the salmon), but you can use it for more oil or carbs if you prefer.
This version is for someone who needs only 2,100 calories a day. We added a few extra servings of fruits and vegetables. Extra salad greens can’t hurt!
Source: JAMA 294: 2455, 2005.
This post was originally published in 2013 and is updated regularly.
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