A typical New Year’s resolution is to be healthier. This concept could mean hitting the gym religiously, or it could mean changing your diet. It could also be a combination of both! With so many different options for diets out there, it can seem a little overwhelming when forced to make a decision. What if I told you I could help in the decision-making process? The two best diets out there, as ranked by U.S. News and World Report, are the Mediterranean and the DASH diets, respectively. What exactly makes these diet programs so successful? Both tend to be easy to follow and are incredibly flexible when it comes to food choices. The Mediterranean and DASH diets are proven to be healthy for you, centered on whole foods and heart-healthy fats.
Experts say that both diets have the ability to reduce heart disease, improve chronic conditions, and improve mental health. What really sets these diets above the rest is that they aren’t concerned about telling you what you can and cannot eat; instead, the diets simply get you to think differently about how you choose foods. The best way to tackle this subject is to take one diet at a time and explain the aspects of each so you can see just how easy it is to adhere to either menu.
1. The DASH Diet
Let us start simple: DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. The goal of the diet is to get followers to make lifestyle changes to treat or prevent hypertension, as the name suggests ultimately. The National Institute of Health created the diet in order to lower blood pressure without the use of medication. The diet encourages users to reduce their overall sodium intake while increasing the consumption of foods rich in potassium, calcium, and magnesium.
This diet works fast, with results in two weeks! You will notice a difference in your blood pressure in this short amount of time. You will see the most significant difference in the top number of your blood pressure, which is called systolic pressure: a reduction of eight to fourteen points can be obtained in these two weeks. Do not be fooled by this discussion; lower blood pressure is not the only health benefit the DASH diet has to offer. It also helps to prevent osteoporosis, cancer, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. If you want noticeable results in a short amount of time, the DASH diet is precisely what you are looking for this year.
The DASH diet is nothing new when it comes to what foods you should and shouldn’t eat; most of it is common sense and advice you have probably heard before, which, in a sense, should make it easy to follow. You should be able to think right off the top of your head what you can and cannot eat. Let us spell it out for you here: foods to focus on include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy, which are all high in potassium, calcium, protein, and fiber, all essential nutrients in reducing blood pressure.
Now let us spend a minute on the foods to avoid: foods high in saturated fat, which include fatty meats, full-fat dairy foods, and tropical oils, sugar-sweetened beverages, and sweets, should be avoided at all costs. The biggest thing to watch with this diet is the amount of sodium you are ingesting: the menu caps your total sodium intake at 2,300 milligrams per day and eventually drops down to a cap of 1,500 milligrams per day. Another reason this diet should be followed in 2020: the DASH diet is a balanced diet and can quickly be followed long term.
While this diet does not ship you exceptional food to eat, it does contain within it weekly and daily nutritional goals for followers to achieve. The ultimate goal is to reach about 2,000 calories per day. Let us take a look at the foods and portions one should be following in a day in order to achieve this goal. For grains, try to keep daily servings between six and eight. Meats, poultry, and fish should be eaten less than grains, with six servings or less in a day. Fruits and vegetables are tied at 4 to five servings every day. Lastly, low-fat dairy products, fats, and oils should both be limited to two to three servings per day.
As stated above, there are both daily and weekly goals for the DASH diet. Now that we have examined daily serving sizes let us take a look at a few of the weekly goals surrounding serving sizes. Nuts, seeds, dry beans, peas, and sweets should all be consumed at a rate of five servings or less in a week. When thinking about food choices, remember to choose foods low in trans fats.
It may help to put things in perspective if you understand the statistics behind the creation of this diet. High blood pressure (also known as hypertension) affects roughly a billion people around the world, and that number is, sadly, on the rise. The number of people affected by hypertension has doubled over the last forty years! High blood pressure in itself may not seem like a huge deal, but if left untreated, it can cause other serious health problems, including heart disease, kidney failure, and stroke. Since diet has been linked to the development of high blood pressure, it is no wonder that a healthy diet was created in order to curb this serious issue.
The original author of the diet, Marla Heller, published her first report on the diet in 1998. At this time, it seems like no one was interested in her work. Even today, people are not adhering to the rules laid out by the DASH diet. This notion is surprising, considering it is a natural diet to follow that allows you to forego medication. The need for the diet is evident, considering 2,000 people each and every day die from heart disease.
It cannot be stated enough that the Dash diet can help improve heart health. Studies show that both men and women under the age of 75 who followed the diet had a lower risk of developing heart failure compared to individuals who chose not to follow the diet. As of 2019, 5.7 million adults in the United States alone suffer from heart failure; about half of that number will die within five years of receiving the diagnosis. What is impressive is how many people the DASH diet can help even those with borderline high blood pressure can benefit from this diet in particular.
Another study surrounding the DASH diet was undertaken; this time, the number of sodium participants received was manipulated. Individuals were randomly assigned to receive either 3,000, 2,300, or 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day. Results showed that those in the lowest sodium group (1,500 milligrams) lowered their blood pressure as effectively as if they were taking medication. This is significant, considering that 103 million adults in the United States have high blood pressure. This diet is an easy way to lower your blood pressure without having to rely on medication.
As noted earlier, sodium is crucial to heart health. Too much of it will cause your blood pressure to rise slowly. This may be why the DASH diet also offers a lower sodium intake option, for those who are genuinely dealing with heart failure and are desperate to reduce their blood pressure. Stated earlier, the standard DASH diet encourages users to take in up to 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. With the low sodium option, dieters will be required to take in only 1,500 milligrams of sodium each day.
Both versions of the diet aim to reduce your overall consumption of sodium, which can reach levels as high as 3,400 milligrams per day for some individuals. If you are worried that the difference in sodium intake is drastic, do not be swayed: recommendations from several astute institutions are within the parameters set out by the DASH diet. In fact, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that all United States adults should keep their sodium consumption at less than 2,300 milligrams per day while the American Heart Association recommends 1,500 milligrams as an upper limit for adults.
In the introduction, it was mentioned that one of the reasons to choose to follow the DASH diet is that it is a highly ranked diet by multiple governing bodies. The DASH diet has received ratings other than being one of the best diets on the market at this time. While it may not seem like a high ranking, it is still worth mentioning: the DASH diet comes in twenty-third place overall when it comes to being a fast-weight loss diet. Again, the goal of this diet may not so much be about losing weight as being more focused on heart health. Due to this, it is no wonder that the diet is ranked tenth overall for the best weight loss diet.
Now let us focus on some of the better ratings. Due to the nature of the diet, it is no wonder that DASH ranked third overall in the best heart-healthy diet category. It also ranks second overall as best diabetes diets on the market. The DASH diet came in sixth place when it comes to the ease of following and adhering to the rules of the diet. Another first-place ranking, this time for the best diet for healthy eating, concludes all of the rankings that have been given to the diet thus far.
While this subject has been broadly discussed, I would like to take the time to delve a little deeper into the matter. Four studies were undertaken to look at the overall health benefits provided by the DASH diet. All four studies examined the difference between a typical American diet and variations of the DASH diet. The conclusion should not shock you: every study pointed to the fact that the DASH diet helps to lower blood pressure and LDL cholesterol (LDL is often termed the bad cholesterol because too much of it leads to a buildup of the arteries).
Another common finding among all studies is that the DASH diet is the most effective at reducing high blood pressure compared to other diets. It not only reduces blood pressure by more points, but it does so quickly, usually producing results in two weeks. One study, in particular, the Optimal Macronutrient Intake Trial for Heart Health, showed that the DASH diet improved lipid levels for those who participated. There is a caveat to this finding, though; the DASH diet had to be modified either by substituting 10% of daily carbohydrates for protein or substituting 10% of daily carbohydrates with unsaturated fats.
As we round out the DASH diet section of this article, it may be beneficial to discuss some tips for making your diet experience successful. One of the easiest and least painful things you could do to kick start the diet is to start adding a serving of vegetables at lunch and dinner. This will help you (unconsciously) reach your daily goal of four to five servings per day (we all have to start somewhere). You could do the same thing with fruits: start adding a serving to every meal or even add an extra helping on as a snack.
Another great tip is to use half of the recommended (or your usual serving) of butter, margarine, or salad dressing. Also, try switching to low-fat or fat-free condiments. Try drinking/using low-fat or skim dairy products in place of full-fat or cream dairy options. Keep meat portions low, taking in only six ounces of meat each day. It may be helpful to turn some meals into vegetarian options. Mix in a good dose of dry beans to your diet alongside those vegetables. And always be conscious of labels by choosing snack options that are low in sodium.
Are you looking for another heart-healthy diet? If the DASH diet does not seem to be your cup of tea, the Mediterranean diet might just be your next best bet. This diet fuses together the basics of healthy living with the cooking styles and the traditional flavors found in the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean diet is older than the DASH diet, having made its debut in the 1960s. What grabbed the attention of researchers was that people from this area, particularly in countries such as Greece and Italy, suffered fewer deaths associated with coronary heart disease, as compared to countries in northern Europe and the United States.
After this revelation, studies began being conducted: what they revealed was that the Mediterranean diet is associated with fewer risk factors for cardiovascular disease. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans hold this diet in high esteem, claiming the diet can prevent chronic diseases. Two other governing bodies recognize this diet as being one of the healthiest foods to follow: both the World Health Organization and the United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural organization feel the diet is healthy and sustainable.
While some benefits remain the same between the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet, some unique differences are worth mentioning. Countless studies have proven that the Mediterranean diet can promote weight loss, which the DASH diet ranked quite low on, as discussed previously. If you are looking not only to reduce the risk of future cardiovascular disease but also to shed a few pounds, this diet would be more beneficial to you than the Dash diet would be. While both diets can improve heart health, the Mediterranean diet, in particular, can help to prevent heart attacks from occurring.
Like the DASH diet, the Mediterranean diet is also an excellent preventative measure against strokes. Type 2 diabetes can also be helped by adhering to the rules of this particular diet. Premature death due to chronic illnesses is also preventable with the Mediterranean diet. What is important to note here is that there is no one way to follow this diet: there are many different countries to choose from that offer a healthy eating alternative. This flexibility is one of the reasons the diet has gained so much popularity in the past few years.
The focus foods are almost the same as it is for the DASH diet; the main focus here is fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. What is a little bit different here is that you will want to limit your dairy intake with this diet as well as limit the amount of meat consumed. What you will be eating in abundance: fresh produce, whole grains, legumes, fats, and fish. The general guidelines are as follows: eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, eat healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, and olive oil, eat moderate amounts of dairy and fish, eat very little white or red meat, eat few eggs and consume red wine in moderation.
Now, you may be concerned with the amount of fat that is allowed in the Mediterranean diet. Even the American Heart Association notes that the diet contains a high percentage of calories from fat. So if you are not in the best state of health for taking in a large amount of fat, it may be wise to stick to the DASH diet. The good news is that the type of fat being consumed is mostly monounsaturated fats, which are considered to be a healthy form of fat.
Do not think that the Mediterranean diet was left out of the judging; it actually fared better across more categories than the DASH diet. It ranked number one in multiple categories, including best diet overall, best plant-based diet, best diabetes diet, the best diet for healthy eating, and the easiest menu to follow. It would seem that the Mediterranean diet is better but in its own way. Obviously, if you are a die-hard meat lover, this diet will be complicated for you to follow.
It is not all sunshine and rainbows for this diet, however. It ranked twenty-seventh in fast weight loss diets. Yes, this diet will help you lose weight, but it is not like you will be shedding pounds left and right. The weight loss will be more gradual with the Mediterranean diet. It also ranked low in best weight-loss diets, coming in at number fifteen. This diet is not designed specifically for weight loss; it is more targeted at relieving chronic illnesses. Even if you do not currently deal with a chronic disease, but they run in your family, starting the diet early will help prevent them from developing.
As stated above, healthy fats are essential to the Mediterranean diet. Again, the menu focuses on monounsaturated fats, a more robust choice over saturated and trans fats, which are both known to cause heart disease. Olive oil is the primary source of fat found in the Mediterranean diet. The fat source found in olive oil is known to reduce total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. Nuts and seeds, which are also consumed in large amounts in this diet, are also high in the suitable type of fat.
Fish are also an essential source of fat in the Mediterranean diet. Fish you want to fall in love with are mackerel, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, salmon, and lake trout; they are all excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids. While this type of fat is slightly different (it is polyunsaturated fat and not a monounsaturated fat), it still has its own health benefits: omega-3 fatty acids tend to reduce inflammation throughout the body. This is not the only health benefit of omega-3 fatty acids: they also decrease triglycerides, reduce blood clotting, and decrease the risk of stroke and heart failure.
When participating in this diet, there are certain foods you will want to stay away from. Added sugar in the form of soda, candy, ice cream, and table sugar should all be avoided once on the Mediterranean diet. While whole grains are admissible, refined grains are not, which include white bread and pasta made with refined wheat. Though we just spent an entire section discussing healthy fats, this point is important enough to bring up again: bad fats are the only ones that need to be limited in this diet. Bad fats include trans fat, which can be found in items such as margarine.
While olive oil is a good source of fat, refined oils should not be used while adhering to the Mediterranean diet. Do not use soybean oil, canola oil, or cottonseed oil in your cooking during the duration of the diet. You will also want to avoid all processed meats such as processed sausages and hot dogs. Since you are to limit your red and white meat intake anyway, avoiding these foods should not pose much of a problem. Another food item to avoid is highly processed foods. This can include cereal, cheese, bread, and convenience food (most things you throw into the microwave).
Now that we have talked quite a bit about the diet, I think it would be beneficial to lay out what a day on a diet would look like. Let us start with the most important meal of the day: breakfast. Some options here include one pan-fried egg, a few pieces of whole-wheat toast, and a side of grilled tomatoes. If you want to increase your calorie count, try adding another egg or some avocado spread to your toast. Lunch is a meal often forgotten, but it is essential to remember to eat three meals a day on the Mediterranean diet.
Lunch could look something like this: two cups of mixed salad greens topped with cherry tomatoes and olives with a simple dressing of olive oil and vinegar. Nobody wants to eat just a salad for lunch; try adding a few pieces of pita bread and hummus to the mix. Do not skip out on dinner: after such a light breakfast and lunch, you’ll be starved by evening. Try making yourself a whole-grain pizza topped with tomato sauce, grilled vegetables, and low-fat cheese. Again, for extra calories, try adding shredded chicken, ham, tuna, or pine nuts to the pizza.
This topic has been brought up a few times within this article, so I figured it was time to tackle it head-on. While weight loss is not a goal of either the DASH or Mediterranean diets, it can still be the ultimate goal of your diet. This seems almost counter-intuitive since the Mediterranean diet is so high in fats, but remember, these are good fats you are ingesting. The amount of weight you lose depends on three things: which aspects of the Mediterranean diet you choose to follow, how different your new diet is from your regular diet, and your activity level.
It comes down to this: if you are taking in fewer calories with the new diet over your old habits or you choose to keep the same amount of calories but choose to work off some of them through exercise, then losing weight will not be an issue. Studies do support the assertion that the Mediterranean diet can help you lose weight: one study, in particular, showed that this diet is associated with lower levels of weight gain and less increase in waist circumference.
While we have spent an excruciating amount of time going over the food you can safely consume while sticking to this diet, we have not really touched upon what beverages are approved for ingestion. The most apparent acceptable drink is water. It is suitable for everyone and keeps you hydrated the best. What was previously mentioned was the fact that some amount of red wine is allowed but how much exactly? The recommended amount is one glass a day for women and two glasses a day for men unless there is some underlying health reason why you should not be consuming alcohol.
Other beverages that are safe to have while on the Mediterranean diet are coffee and tea. While high amounts of caffeine are never suitable for anyone, consuming moderate amounts of it causes little to no damage. Remember, you will want to stay away from any drinks that have been sweetened with sugar and also try to avoid fruit juices as they are usually full of sugar. This may seem almost impossible in today’s day and age, but there are plenty of sugar-free options on the shelves.
While exercise may not be a considerable component of the DASH diet, it is positively encouraged in the Mediterranean diet. Well, it is a significant component of the diet. Walking is an excellent place to start if you are not the most active person. In the Mediterranean area, people make walking a part of their everyday life. You will want to increase your activity level as your body sees fit gradually. As long as you are getting up, moving, and working up a sweat (albeit a small sweat), you are effectively burning calories and helping your body get healthy. Some examples of increased exercise activities include Jazzercise and Pilates.
Now that we know exercise is required to stay fit on the Mediterranean diet, it might be a good idea to discuss how much exercise you will need to engage. The end goal is to engage in moderate-intensity activity for two and a half hours each week. Some weeks may be more hectic than others, so try your best to reach this goal, even if you have to take baby steps. You will also want to participate in muscle-strengthening activities at least a few days out of the week. You will want to work out your major muscle groups, including your legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms.