Mind & Body

The World’s 3 Healthiest Diets in 2024 Have One Crucial Thing In Common

Healthy eating and weight loss aren’t synonymous.

Mediterranean food: woman dressing fresh Caprese salad on a toasted bread
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Every January, we reliably see a surplus of resolutions revolving around dieting and weight loss. But this idea of striving for the smallest weight possible undermines what a diet really is: whatever you choose to eat. Thus, a healthy diet shouldn’t really have anything to do with weight. In fact, what some experts have deemed the healthiest diets in 2024 have nothing to do with weight loss at all.

Today, for the fourteenth year, the U.S. News and World Reports published rankings of the best diets based on the opinions of 43 experts, including medical doctors, registered dietitians, and epidemiologists. Experts based these rankings on nutritional completeness, health risks and benefits, long-term sustainability, and evidence-based effectiveness.

And that’s telling of what a healthy diet is really meant to do after all: Provide nutritionally balanced and satisfying meals that sustain our bodies.

No. 1: The Mediterranean Diet

For the seventh consecutive year, this regimen associated with a dream vacation takes the top slot as the best overall diet. A Mediterranean diet focuses on whole grains, plentiful fruits and vegetables, healthy fats such as nuts and olive oil, and few processed foods. Crucially, eating this way maximizes all the nutrients we need as well as taking pleasure in eating.

The new report also lands the Mediterranean diet in the lead for best diets for diabetes, best heart-healthy diets, easiest diets to follow, best diets for bone and joint health, best family-friendly diets, and best diets for healthy eating.

Numerous studies done over the years looking at the effects of following the Mediterranean diet have shown it improves our health. A 2019 review in the journal Nutrients found that when strictly followed, the Mediterranean diet is associated with a 30 percent lower chance of developing colorectal cancer for men and a 45 percent lower chance for women. The same review found that groups who most strictly followed a Mediterranean diet had a 34 percent lower risk of developing bladder cancer and a 78 percent lower risk of developing prostate cancer.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also emphasizes that this lifestyle reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke because it limits sodium and saturated fat intake, both of which can damage your cardiovascular system in the long term. Since it prioritizes fresh produce over processed meals, the Mediterranean diet is also a solid option for managing diabetes because it helps reduce insulin resistance and keeps your blood sugar lower. A 2015 meta-analysis in the British Medical Journal concluded that the Mediterranean diet promotes lower-fat foods, resulting in lower cholesterol levels and better heart health. Another study published in 2020 in the journal Nutrients found that olive oil — the Mediterranean diet’s preferred cooking fat — shows anti-hypertensive properties in people with and without heart disease.

A crux of the Mediterranean diet is its flexibility and ease of use. A May 2022 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition compared the Mediterranean diet to a high-fat, high-protein, no-carb keto diet in 40 participants with either prediabetes or type 2 diabetes by having them trial both diets for 12 weeks each. The study found that three months after the study’s end, participants' eating patterns more closely followed those of the Mediterranean diet than the keto diet.

Crucially, what the Mediterranean diet is lacking is strict rules or calorie counting. While it limits some processed and high-fat food groups, this way of eating doesn’t call for an acetic life. The eater is free to enjoy veggies roasted or cooked in olive oil, along with whole-grain bread, juicy fish, and poultry. And this diet, first and foremost, promotes holistic health rather than weight loss.

No. 2: The DASH Diet

For the DASH diet, which stands for dietary approaches to stop hypertension, the goal is in the name: Prevent high blood pressure. The diet itself is, unsurprisingly, not all that different from the Mediterranean diet. It focuses on lean protein, lots of produce, and whole grains, and it limits added sugar and saturated fat. What makes it unique, though, is that it limits the amount of sodium consumed each day to 2300 mg, which is what the Food and Drug Administration recommends, though many Americans go over that limit.

Does it work? When you limit salt intake, studies show that this seems to have a positive benefit on your blood pressure. A meta-analysis published in 2020 in the journal Advances in Nutrition found that a DASH diet lowered blood pressure significantly in participants with and without hypertension. That same 2020 study in Nutrition concludes that olive oil fits neatly into the DASH diet because of how well it helps keep blood pressure lower. Another study looking at sodium intake shows that moving from a high-sodium intake to an intermediate one and then to a low-sodium intake consistently slashed hypertension. And, a 2018 study comparing the typical DASH diet to a high-fat version found that while both lowered blood pressure to the same extent, the former was associated with much lower levels of low-density lipoprotein, or bad cholesterol. All this is to say that so far, evidence shows the DASH diet contributes to stopping hypertension and keeping your heart healthy.

Blood pressure is also a key indicator of health and longevity. High blood pressure could indicate that your blood vessels are partially blocked or hardened with plaque, which restricts blood flow. This means your heart must work harder to pump the same amount of blood throughout your body. A forthcoming study in the Journal of Hypertension also underscores blood pressure as a key indicator for frailty later in life, showing that this single health factor is a key to many others. Maintaining a healthy blood pressure, then, is at least as important as maintaining a healthy weight.

No. 3: The MIND Diet

This diet, which stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, is a mashup of the two previously ranked diets, this time targeting neurocognitive decline.

While studies show that both the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet improve our overall health, the evidence on whether this combo diet slows cognitive decline or staves off dementia requires further investigation. It’s possible that the conflation of lifestyle factors — the likelihood that someone who would partake in this diet also exercises regularly and refrains from smoking, for example — contributes to cognitive health. In other words, researchers still aren’t certain that health benefits come exclusively from food.

It’s easy to forget that there’s more to health than weight. Other people can’t see our cholesterol or blood pressure and are quick to make assumptions about how appearance correlates with overall health. These diets have a lot in common, not least of all that they prioritize a sustainable way to feed yourself.

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