U.S. News & World Report recently came out with its annual ranking of the top 35 diets. Not surprisingly, the nutrition blogosphere has been atwitter (and on Twitter) about it. This is, after all, like the Oscars of nutrition plans, only without the couture and overblown, 4-hour presentation. (Although, I’d love to see Dr. Dean Ornish in a backless Vera Wang ensemble.)
One odd thing about this coverage is the gospel-like nature with which the rankings of the best diets were accepted. Even hippy-friendly NPR seemed to feel the “expert” panel’s findings of DASH and Mediterranean=good vs. Paleo and Raw Foods=bad were the final word. But if you peel a few layers of the organic, locally-grown onion, you see that while this is indeed a useful guide, it should hardly be considered definitive.
First off, there’s the expert panel. Indeed, it’s chockfull o’ M.S.s, M.D.s, Ph.D.s, R.D.s and other sundry V.I.P.s, but it’s completely lacking in holistic experts and journalists, both of whom could have offered important perspectives. By relying primarily on the medical community, they built a panel that has a horse in the race. These folks rarely go against convention—and when it comes to nutrition, conventional thinking can be extremely slow to evolve. For example, the two highest-ranking “Heart-Healthy” diets, the Ornish and TLC diets, are low-fat. While these are both okay ways to eat, current research shows dietary fat may play an important role in cardiovascular health and that they should not be avoided when looking after one’s ticker.
Personally, I would have put the Mediterranean Diet, with its abundance of olive oil and Omega-3-rich seafood much higher on the “Heart-Healthy” list. (It’s currently 4th.)
And with all due respect to the medical doctors on the panel, having that particular degree is no indicator of nutritional knowledge. Just because you understand the human heart doesn’t mean you how to put together the right foods to make it tick. I would have much rather seen a few qualified food writers, like Marion Nestle or Michael Pollan, who might be able to take a step back and offer a more objective opinion not just from a nutritional or sociological point of view, but also with a better understand of western society’s dietary zeitgeist.
Moving on to the lists themselves, the criteria for some of the choices was flat-out bizarre. For example, in the review of the Flexitarian Diet, the cons include “emphasis on home cooking” and “might be tough if you don’t like fruits and veggies.”
I wasn’t aware that these diet suggestions were intended to pander to the palettes of 6-year-olds. There’s not a healthy diet in existence that doesn’t promote the benefits of fresh produce. If you want to eat healthy, you’re stuck with fruits and veggies. Period. And it’s well-established that too much restaurant food and processed food is a primary factor in the obesity epidemic, so that’s a silly criticism too. Don’t like cooking? So what? Man up and learn how to make your own damn sandwich.
Another odd thing about the rankings is that there are some chalk-and-cheese comparisons. How do you compare the Mediterranean Diet, which is an overarching, philosophical lifetime lifestyle change with the Slim-Fast Diet, which is a monotonous, short-term weight loss plan that requires you to eat the same Jetsons-style food every day? To make it even more confusing, it’s entirely possible to use the Slim-Fast system while eating Mediterranean Diet, so how does that factor in?
It also seems that these experts based many of their their findings on decade-old diet trends. In the rankings, low-carb eating was broken down into several diets, including Atkins, South Beach, and Dukan. On the other hand, Paleo eating is all lumped into, well Paleo eating, ignoring the fact that the whole primal/grain-free movement has fragmented in an assortment of very unique diets. If you need proof, have a look at Amazon’s current top-ten diet books. Five of them are variations on the primal/grain-free theme—and they’re all very different.
Finally, there’s the concept of biochemical individuality to be considered. Everyone reacts differently to different styles of eating. Paleo, raw, and vegan eating are niche, but they’re also incredibly effective for some people. It doesn’t do them justice to lump them on this list as ineffective and impractical for everyone.
So what good are these rankings? They actually okay, but only if you replace the word “ranking” with “list.” If you’re looking for a new way of eating, this isn’t a bad list at all, even if the reviews are somewhat subjective and, apparently from the perspective of a third grader in the early 2000s. So separate yourself from the opinions, read through the descriptions, and use this is an introduction to a few popular diets. When you find one that interests you, go forth and do your own research. Or better still, just give it a try.