Looking to lose weight and still searching for the best diet for you? Jenna Bell, PhD, RD, Senior VP, Director of Food & Wellness at Pollock Communications in New York City, cautions against diets that seem too good to be true. "If a diet promises fast, nearly overnight results and cuts out most every food group, think twice before starting such a plan," she says. "Crash diets may or may not help you lose weight, but are almost guaranteed to leave you feeling run down thanks to missing nutrients. And at the end of the day, once you stop your crash diet, the weight is likely to return." So which diets actually work and which ones should be avoided? Read on to see our list of ten of the top diets, based on recent rankings from U.S. News and World Report, as well as anecdotal reports compiled from dieters around the United States. We provide a glimpse into these popular diets and offers pros and cons for each one.
1. Intermittent Fasting
There have been a lot of popular books published on intermittent fasting over the past year, including David Zinczenko's "The 8 Hour Diet," Dr. Michael Mosley's "The Fast Diet" and Dr. Caroline Apovian's "The Overnight Diet." Intermittent fasting (IF) is basically a pattern of eating that varies greatly from the typical breakfast-lunch-dinner pattern and requires periods of completely avoiding food. Which means that there's a set time for eating, followed by an extended period of fasting. In the 5:2 method of intermittent fasting, you eat normally 5 days per week and then fast (only consuming 500-600 calories) for 2 days of the week. In the 16:8 Lean Gains style, there is an eight-hour feeding period -- during which you can eat anything you want -- followed by a 16-hour fast.
PROs of Intermittent Fasting
Advocates of this diet suggest it works because when you fast, you reduce your exposure to fluctuations in hormones such as insulin, which rises after you eat and in a sense helps the body to store fat. And if your normal behavior is to eat and snack constantly throughout the day, any type of fasting would require you to obviously reduce your total calorie intake and, therefore, weight loss naturally follows.
CONs of Intermittent Fasting
While fasting, you are likely to be hungry and this hunger can increase mood swings and cause crankiness. Have you heard of the term "hangry"? It's when hungriness makes someone moody and angry. These issues can make long-term compliance to this type of regimen difficult for some people.
2. Vegan Diet
If you're ready to make a complete diet overhaul, the vegan diet, which is devoid of all animal products -- from milk chocolate to honey to hamburgers -- can be a great choice. The vegan diet is comprised of grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and vegetable oils. When well-designed and balanced, the vegan diet is one of the cleanest, greenest diets out there.
Related: 16 Famous Vegans and Vegetarians
PROs of the Vegan Diet
Thanks to a heavy dose of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes the vegan diet is high in antioxidants, potassium, and satiating fiber. It's also lower in nutrients we should all be cutting back on anyway: sodium, saturated fat, and often empty calories. Rich in nutrients, vegan diets offers a myriad of health benefits and -- since you'll be replacing summer sausage, cheese and crackers with quinoa and broccoli -- you're likely to see your waistline shrink. This plant-based diet can supply all of the essential and nonessential nutrients required by active individuals if a variety of foods, such as vegetables, whole grains and legumes are consumed over the course of the day. To decrease the risk for protein deficiency, vegan athletes should be sure to vary their sources of protein. In general, a modest 10 percent increase of protein intake over the acceptable macronutrient distribution range of 10 to 35 percent may be beneficial to vegan athletes.
CONs of the Vegan Diet
If not well-balanced and varied, vegan diets may be lacking in essential nutrients (such as calcium, iron, and vitamins B12 and D) and protein. Vegan athletes are at risk for deficiencies in these micronutrients since animal products are the most potent sources of these vital nutrients. The protein needs of athletes are higher than those of most other people thanks to exercise-induced muscle breakdown and the resulting need for rebuilding. With this added need for protein, vegan athletes need to pay close attention to their protein choices and serving sizes. Vegans may want to supplement with protein powders made from a variety of protein sources (including pea protein, hemp protein, brown rice protein and more), and check the labels to ensure they have a complete amino acid profile.
3. The DASH Diet
There's nothing flashy about the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), which was developed with the goal of helping patients manage their high blood pressure. It's a low-sodium, low-fat diet, commonly prescribed by cardiologists and health professionals. Dr. Bell notes "DASH may not be an automatic 'you will lose weight diet,' but you are likely to see some improvements in your waist circumference as you eliminate high fat, high sugar, and high sodium junk foods and replace these items with the prescribed fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy." Next, we'll address the pros and cons of the DASH Diet.
Related: Health Benefits of the DASH Diet
PROs of the DASH Diet
Thanks to a heavy dose of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy this diet is high in calcium, potassium and satiating fiber. It's also lower in two items we should all be cutting back on: sodium and saturated fat. The DASH diet also offers a myriad of health benefits and has been clinically shown to lower blood pressure, risk of heart disease and stroke and improve blood cholesterol levels.
Related: 9 Delicious DASH Diet Recipes
CONs of the DASH Diet
This healthy diet doesn't promise overnight results and requires a lifestyle change to work. It can be difficult for some dieters to follow, but an appointment with a registered dietitian can easily set you on the path towards success. The DASH Diet also requires you to cut out junk foods, so if you're in the market for an "every food fits" type of diet, this isn't for you.
Related: Sample DASH Diet Meal Plan
4. The TLC Diet
Created by the National Institute of Health's National Cholesterol Education Program and endorsed by the American Heart Association, the TLC diet (Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes) requires dieters to drastically cut back on fat, especially heart-clogging saturated fat. Next, we'll address the pros and cons of the TLC Diet.
PROs of the TLC Diet
This diet (claims to) lower your cholesterol by 8-10 percent in 6 short weeks. It's a diet the entire family can follow because while it offers calorie limits for adults (2500 calories for men and 1800 calories for women, 1600 calories for men looking to lose weight and 1200 calories for women looking to lose weight), there is a greater focus on eating less saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol. This is a well-balanced diet with optimal amounts of carb, protein, and fat. It is also high in satiating fiber, which means you're likely to be eating as much as 25 grams of fiber a day.
CONs of the TLC Diet
You'll need to consume less than 7 percent of your total calories from saturated fat and less than 200mg cholesterol a day. These values can be difficult to determine let alone follow. And if your cholesterol still won't budge, you'll need to add in 2g of plant stanols/sterols as well as 10-25g of soluble fiber. Without the guidance of a health professional or some research, this diet may be too complex for some. As you boost your fiber intake, be sure to drink more fluids in order to prevent constipation.
Related: More Info on the TLC Diet
5. The Mayo Clinic Diet
This diet promises results, but is not a quick fix. The Mayo Clinic Diet requires lifelong lifestyle changes including no more eating in front of the TV and curbing mindless eating. It does claim to offer weight loss (as much as 6-10 pounds shed in 2 weeks).
PROs of the Mayo Clinic Diet
This diet teaches lifestyle changes and encourages exercise, which is refreshing to hear since losing weight is not 100% about monitoring which foods are eaten. Split into two phases, once a dieter enters the second phase of the diet, no food group is off-limits which can make this diet easier to follow for long-term dieters.
CONs of the Mayo Clinic Diet
This two-part diet starts with the restrictive Lose It! phase which requires some deprivation and restricts sugar, snacks (unless fruits/vegetables), full fat dairy, and even dining out. The second part -- Live It! -- calls for calorie counting, but the focus is mainly on counting the number of servings per day. Proper portioning of food (i.e. breaking out the measuring cups) is needed to be successful.
6. Low-Carb Diets
A number of popular diets fall under the umbrella of carbohydrate-restricted diets and while the "Atkins Diet craze" isn't as widespread as it once was, it's still alive and well. Low-carb diets include The Zone® diet, the South Beach diet®, Carbohydrate Addict's Diet®, and probably the most famous, the Atkins Diet® all advocate low-carb eating, with generous portions of protein and fat.
PROs of Low-Carb Diets
Proponents claim that by eliminating or restricting sugars and carbohydrates, weight loss will naturally follow. This makes sense; a high carb diet does cause the body to store more fluid (after all, they are call carbohydrates for a reason). Naturally, when you cut carbs, you retain less fluid and these diets don't allow for a lot of white bread, crackers, or pastries, so it's likely that your calorie intake will be slashed as well. Some dieters report improved blood sugar control while following these diets, which may be linked to either the quick weight loss or the fact that refined carbs are slashed when following these diets. Short-term, these diets appear to be safe, but there are lingering concerns about long-term safety. However, research has yet to determine the impact of such diets on the development of chronic diseases like osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease and kidney disease.
CONs of Low-Carb Diets
Because these diets let you indulge more in fats and protein, you may find yourself going overboard on foods that were previously off-limits such as butter, eggs and bacon. Thanks to the high saturated fat and cholesterol content of these foods, don't be surprised if you see your cholesterol levels skyrocket. In addition, because you eliminate many food groups when you go low-carb, you can develop nutrient deficiencies of certain vitamins and minerals. You also might find yourself suffering from headaches and constipation, which are common complaints among people following low-carb diets.
7. The Paleo Diet
In recent years, the paleo diet (which only allows foods that can be hunted, gathered or fished) has become more popular. It's based on the theory that our bodies are designed to eat like our caveman ancestors -- they're not designed to digest the processed foods that are the basis of most modern diets.
Related: Should You Go Paleo?
PROs of the Paleo Diet
This diet eliminates processed and junk foods, which are often linked to inflammation and chronic diseases -- from heart disease to diabetes and joint pain. The allowed foods such as grass-fed meats, wild fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, fruits and vegetables tend to be nutrient-dense and high in protein and fiber. Also, heart healthy fats (olive oil, fish oil, avocado) are recommended while dairy, grain, legumes, starches, alcohol, processed foods, sugars and sugar substitutes are no-nos. You may feel better overall and lose some inches around the waist as you cut out empty calories from processed foods.
CONs of the Paleo Diet
With the elimination of grains, this diet can be lower in carbohydrates. You may feel a bit deprived as you cut out junk, calories and some of the favorites from your daily diet. Because this diet is restrictive and eliminates many food groups, you may need to supplement certain vitamins or minerals (check with your physician). Also, this diet is far from the mainstream lifestyle many people currently follow so it may be challenging to eat like a caveman long-term for some people.
Related: 2-Minute Paleo Pumpkin Muffins
8. The Mediterranean Diet
This balanced, heart-healthy diet is well-researched and advocates an active lifestyle, a healthy weight, and less sugar, red meat and saturated fat and more fruits, vegetables and nuts. There isn't a set Mediterranean diet, but common trends include increasing your intake of the good stuff such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, legumes, olive oil (there's a no-brainer) and seafood.
PROs of the Mediterranean Diet
If your goal is heart health rather than weight loss, this diet is for you. It's also fairly easy to follow as it simply promotes more of the good stuff -- foods you know you should be eating anyway -- and fewer unhealthy, saturated fat-rich and artery-clogging junk foods you should be limiting anyway. This diet can be followed whether you are dining out or eating at home, and there are many cookbooks available that have Mediterranean diet-compliant dishes. When following this diet, you can even celebrate your stride towards better health with a glass of red wine (optional).
CONs of the Mediterranean Diet
If your sole goal when shopping around for a diet is to lose weight, this diet is not guaranteed to help. The Mediterranean diet calls for a reduction in some foods that you may be used to dining on daily, foods such as less red meat and poultry, as well as limited dairy and sweets. So you'll need to tweak your shopping and dining patterns if you're not accustomed to dining on seafood a few times a week.
9. The Flexitarian Diet
This diet, developed by Registered Dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner, is essentially a marriage of the terms "flexible" and "vegetarian." In other words, followers of this diet aim to be vegetarians "most of the time." This diet focuses not so much on restricting foods but on replacing your usual intake of butcher's favorites with non-meat protein sources such as tofu, legumes, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds.
PROs of the Flexitarian Diet
Research has found that vegetarians tend to weigh less than their carnivorous colleagues. What's more, vegetarian diets are generally heart healthy thanks to lower intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol and more fiber and plant proteins. And by stocking your grocery cart with legumes, nuts and eggs rather than filet and steaks, you could be saving money while improving your health.
CONs of the Flexitarian Diet
This diet is easy to follow. Some of its followers simply skip beef, poultry and pork most of the time. That being said, this diet may be too flexible for some dieters accustomed to set calorie levels and food journaling. For more direction, dieters could purchase Blatner's book, which includes recipes, and meal plans too.
10. Detox Diets and Cleanses
Not necessarily new -- but certainly popular -- detox diets change eating patterns with the goal of ridding the body of the buildup of toxins. There are a wide variety of these diets, and they range in length from 3-day juice fasts to 21-day detoxes, during which time dieters are instructed to eliminate certain food groups or to drink "cleansing" beverages on a daily basis.
Related: Should You Try a Juice Cleanse?
PROs of Detox Diets
Detox diets often promise quick weight loss, healing, cleansing and a renewed sense of better health. The idea behind these diets is that by removing certain food groups, some of the toxins linked with those foods – like caffeine or alcohol-- are eliminated, and the detox purportedly gives the body a break from foods that are considered hard to digest and absorb, like meat, cheese and processed foods. In theory, as a result of avoiding these food items, the body uses less energy to digest food and fight off toxins, and frees up energy to heal. While not all detox diets are solely focused on weight loss, the eating can be restrictive, which often results in weight loss.
CONs of Detox Diets
Dr. Jenna Bell, PhD, RD, Senior VP, Director of Food & Wellness at Pollock Communications in New York City suggests that, generally speaking, it's best to avoid these kinds of diets. While you may lose weight in the short-term, these diets don't nurture the kind of lifestyle change and nutrition improvement that are essential to losing weight, and keeping it off in the long term. Plus, you won't have the energy you need to exercise, which is critical to sustainable weight loss. Most importantly, there are some serious negative, consequences that can come from detox diets. Short term, you might suffer from drug–nutrient interactions or potentially toxic components in cleansing products.
Related: The 5 Stages of a Juice Fast