Whether you are looking to slim down for your wedding day or just want to kick-start a healthy lifestyle, there are endless eating plans available to help you reach your goals.
Here, we provide an overview of some of the most popular plans and share insights from nutrition experts about the pros and cons, along with what to consider when choosing an eating plan.
It is important to note that before you begin a new eating plan or incorporate new supplements (no matter how “natural”), you should always speak with your doctor or healthcare provider first. And, if possible, seek guidance from a registered dietitian or trained nutritionist as you embark on an unfamiliar dietary path.
The Anti-Inflammatory Diet
The name commonly used for this eating plan can be misleading since there isn’t one official “anti-inflammatory diet.” The aim is simply to make sure you are eating plenty of nutritious foods that can potentially reduce or fend off inflammation and fewer foods that may promote it. Doing this could reduce your risk for cancer, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity and Alzheimer’s.
Fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants, which can help prevent inflammation, and are highly recommended for this style of eating, as are whole grains and other plant-based foods, like lentils. You are also encouraged to eat fatty fish with health-boosting omega-3 fatty acids, select lean protein and low-fat or fat-free dairy, and opt for monounsaturated fats (nuts, olive oil). Additionally, the plan’s principles suggest replacing coffee with tea and give indulging in dark chocolate and red wine the green light.
Be sure to bring balance to this eating approach, though. “A lot of times when people think anti-inflammatory, they look at what I call the ‘cool kids on the block’—things like probiotics—but what they tend to not look at are the foods that are actually high in inflammation as well. So, you don’t just need to add those anti-inflammatory foods but also subtract those that may [trigger] inflammation,” says certified integrative nutritionist Crystal Hadnott, MS, CNS, Ph.D. of Synergy Total Holistic Health & Wellness. That list includes greasy and highly processed foods and added sugars.
Much like Dr. Hadnott, registered dietitian and founder of 360Girls&Women, Sue-Ellen Anderson-Haynes, MS, RDN, CDCES, LDN, CPT, is a fan of this style of eating but says you may want to work with a registered dietitian if you struggle with issues like finding a healthier dessert option or choosing the right oil when you’re in the mood for something fried, so you don’t end up feeling restricted.
High blood pressure (hypertension) continues to be an issue for the Black community, and DASH, aka Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, is one way to combat that.
The plan can reduce or prevent high blood pressure and comes in two versions. On the standard version, you should have no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium daily, and on the lower-sodium version, no more than 1,500 milligrams.
Though the goals are to encourage long-term nutritious choices and not limit how much food you consume (most serving recommendations fit a daily intake of 2,000 calories, however), followers may experience weight loss since DASH advises them to eat fewer foods/products high in saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, sugar and fat in general. Instead, you should reach for fruits and vegetables, whole grains and beans, low-fat or fat-free dairy, fish and poultry, and nuts, seeds and vegetable oils.
Promoted by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, DASH may also lower your risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, cancer and osteoporosis. “What’s great about the DASH diet is that it not only has the research and support behind it but a lot of dietitians, nurses and physicians are familiar with it, and you can speak to all these people and get information on it,” says registered dietitian Nijya Saffo, MS, RDN, LD and owner of NK Fitness and Nutrition.
As Anderson-Haynes points out, fasting is a long-standing cultural and religious practice, but recently it has become a trendy way to lose or manage weight. Though how people go about intermittent fasting varies, one common premise is that you only eat during the window of time you set for yourself. A popular choice is a daily 16/8 window, which consists of a 16-hour fast and an eight-hour eating window. However, some fasting windows can be as short as 12 hours or as long as an entire day.
Some people choose to set their eating window according to times that best suit their schedule, while others believe the metabolism works optimally during certain times of the day, explains Anderson-Haynes.
Though you are not keeping track of what you eat or how much you eat, intermittent fasting can help people lose weight because you may eat less during a shorter or regulated eating window. And while Dr. Hadnott says intermittent fasting can be a useful tool to learn more about your hunger cues, she stresses the importance of making sure you are getting enough calories during your eating window.
Some research has shown that intermittent fasting can be beneficial for the digestive system and improve insulin resistance in people who are diabetic or prediabetic, says Anderson-Haynes. It may also improve obesity, high blood pressure, inflammation and dyslipidemia. A downside, she says, is that intermittent fasting could make timing prescriptions more cumbersome.
She also notes that women who are pregnant and breastfeeding tend to need to eat more often, and she wouldn’t recommend intermittent fasting for them. It may also not be a fit for people who struggle with eating disorders or have advanced-stage illnesses, she explains. Monitoring your mindset is important if you adopt this eating style. “Saying ‘I’m not going to eat today because I ate 3,000 calories yesterday, and I’m going to intermittent fast this week,’ I think is an unhealthy way of thinking,” Anderson-Haynes says.
Historically used in healthcare settings to treat epilepsy, keto has become one of the most popular eating plans for weight loss out there. It works by forcing your body to switch from carbohydrates as its main energy source and burn fat instead. This creates ketones that your body then use as fuel, which Anderson-Haynes says is a less efficient fuel source, especially for your brain and red blood cells.
Nutrition experts agree that a high amount of restriction tends to be a sign of a fad diet, and keto is very restrictive.
To achieve ketosis, you must drastically limit your daily carbohydrate intake, usually below 50 grams. For reference, a banana often has 27 grams of carbohydrates. This means whole grains and legumes—good sources of fiber, which can help protect against heart disease, cancer and other health issues—are typically off-limits. An upside though is that a lot of processed foods with refined carbohydrates are also not on the menu. However, because fruits and vegetables also have carbohydrates and some have a higher amount than others, you may end up with a limited selection to choose from if you are trying to keep your carbohydrate count low.
Anderson-Haynes says that this way of eating also encourages getting about 75% of your calories from fat, which is not considered a balanced way of eating. She explains that, typically, about 25%–35% of calories come from fat and that the types of fat that make up a diet or eating style matter. When dietary fat comes from sources like nuts, seeds and avocado, it is healthy for the entire body. On the other hand, meats and cheese can be high in cholesterol and saturated fat, which can both be detrimental to your health.
Overall, if you are looking to lose weight quickly, Anderson-Haynes says that short-term studies (three to six months or less) have shown that keto can help people accomplish that and can even help some people get off certain prescriptions, like diabetes medication, but the level of restriction can make it difficult to maintain and more research is needed on its long-term effects.
The Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet has nabbed the No. 1 spot on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Diets Overall list for four years in a row and with good reason. This American Heart Association-approved way of eating is based on the nutrition habits of people who live in countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. It doesn’t exclude specific food groups but rather limits them. It encourages you to consume less red meat and focus more on minimally processed plant-based foods.
On the menu:
- Beans and grains
- Nuts and seeds
- Olive oil as your main fat source
- Low to moderate amounts of dairy, eggs, fish, poultry and wine
Aside from its health benefits, another great thing about the Mediterranean diet, Saffo says, is the variety of foods you can choose from, including those we “tend to run from” on most eating plans, like bread, pasta and rice, which she says makes it more sustainable.
Though it is embraced by many nutrition experts, Anderson-Haynes notes that a con to this way of eating is that it can be hard to incorporate cultural foods or ways of cooking. Saffo adds, “It promotes having fish twice a week, and some people can’t afford to do that depending on where they live.”
The Sirtfood Diet
Popularized by singer Adele’s dramatic weight loss, the Sirtfood diet can certainly yield results. But that shrunken waistline comes at quite a cost. This way of eating encourages you to eat “sirtfoods,” which are foods that contain high amounts of certain polyphenols (micronutrients in plants) that can trigger your body’s sirtuin genes and supposedly help you lose weight while retaining muscle. Some examples of the diet’s 20 core foods are buckwheat, strawberries, kale and walnuts. You can have red wine, dark chocolate and coffee, too.
The major downsides to this eating plan are that it can be extremely calorie and food restrictive. It is broken into two phases—the first lasts seven days and the second lasts 14. You consume a meager 1,000 calories during the first three days of the first phase via one meal heavy in sirtfoods and three sirtfood green juices. You bump up to two meals a day and 1,500 calories on days four to seven and have two sirtfood green juices.
During phase two, you have one sirtfood green juice and eat three balanced sirtfood-heavy meals daily. This phase is designed to help you keep losing weight, but you can repeat phases one and two as often as you like. After phase two, you can make the Sirtfood diet a lifestyle by finding ways to incorporate more sirtfoods into your meals and drinking a daily sirtfood green juice.
Aside from the lack of evidence-based studies to back up this way of eating, Anderson-Haynes says, “It is dangerous that you’re lowering your calories so quickly and you’re restricting so much.” This diet is also a prime example of why it is important to speak with your healthcare provider before trying something new. Dr. Hadnott says, “If you have issues with diabetes or diabetes in your family or you’re prone to being prediabetic, the Sirtfood diet isn’t a good choice.”
Religion, culture, health, animal activism—there are a number of reasons why you may want to embrace a vegetarian way of eating. First, it is important to think about the kind of vegetarian you want to be. A vegetarian’s diet is made up of grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, but it can also include animal products depending on the type you are.
- A lacto-vegetarian includes dairy.
- An ovo-vegetarian includes eggs.
- A lacto-ovo-vegetarian includes dairy and eggs.
- A flexitarian occasionally incorporates animal products and fish or eats small amounts of them.
- A pescatarian includes fish.
- A vegan removes all animal products and fish from their diet.
No matter what type of vegetarian you decide to be, it is vital to limit store-bought items, like veggie burgers and potato chips, which can be high in sodium. Anderson-Haynes advises choosing more whole, unprocessed or minimally processed, and homemade foods instead.
This will give you plenty of antioxidants and other nutrients like fiber, and Saffo says, “Research has shown reducing meat helps with weight loss, lowers your blood pressure and reduces your blood sugar levels.” Anderson-Haynes adds that there is well-documented research that shows that a more plant-based way of eating can prevent, manage or even reverse numerous chronic diseases.
Though a vegetarian diet is sustainable and safe for all ages, Anderson-Haynes and Dr. Hadnott urge followers to make sure they get enough calcium, zinc, vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron and protein.
WW (Weight Watchers reimagined)
WW works similarly to counting calories. The program assigns foods a SmartPoints value based on their calories, saturated fat, sugar and protein content. Each person is given a daily number of SmartPoints to stay within and added weekly points to use. The number you get depends on your age, height, weight, gender, goals and which plan you choose.
The program offers three plans—green, blue and purple. Each plan has a certain number of ZeroPoint foods associated with it that you can eat without subtracting from your daily SmartPoints value. The green plan gives followers the most SmartPoints and the smallest amount of ZeroPoint foods (fruits and vegetables), while the purple plan gives you the smallest amount of daily SmartPoints but the largest selection of ZeroPoint foods, including whole grains. The blue plan is somewhere in between.
The point system is designed to encourage you to choose healthier foods, which usually have lower or no points. It also means every type of food is on the menu, though you may end up blowing your daily points budget on one meal, says Anderson-Haynes. You can also accumulate FitPoints, which you get for being physically active, and trade them for SmartPoints.
Though the specifics of WW’s program have changed since its inception in the early 1960s, today, U.S. News & World Report experts give it high marks for its nutritional soundness and ease.
There are some potential downsides, though. If numbers cause you to become obsessive, this may not be the right eating plan for you, according to Anderson-Haynes. She adds that it can also be cost-prohibitive. Dr. Hadnott points out that a pro for this and other eating plans is that it gives you structure, which some people find beneficial.
The Right Choice for You
At the end of the day, there is a lot to consider when changing your eating habits.
Dr. Hadnott says it is OK to embrace a new way of eating as a short-term diet to lose weight and not a long-term lifestyle change if that is what you are after. However, it is vital that you are gentle with yourself when it comes to adopting the principles. “If you’ve been eating burgers for 40 years, it’s really difficult to become a vegetarian at 45,” she says. Saffo also stresses the importance of maintaining a positive mindset and making sure your mental and physical health are not being jeopardized.
If you are looking to make a long-term change, Anderson-Haynes advises that before you select an eating style, ask if you could see yourself eating this way for the rest of your life and will you be genuinely happy. “You don’t want to be hungry. You don’t want to have cravings and think, ‘Oh my gosh, I gotta cheat.’ That’s not the mentality you want, and that also creates eating disorders and behaviors that are not healthy,” she says.
Once you do make your choice, one of Dr. Hadnott’s favorite methods for adopting a new eating style is to first make sure you’re getting enough water, then change one meal at a time. “Whichever dietary theory you decide to do, whether it’s keto, DASH, whatever, just say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna do my breakfast based on the rules and regulations of that dietary theory.’ And then move to lunch and then move to dinner,” she says.
Finally, Anderson-Haynes says to keep tabs on how your new way of eating makes you feel. And remember, you can always choose to keep what works and kick what doesn’t to the curb.