The latest rankings, which feature everything from the Mediterranean diet to the popular keto diet, can help you find the top plan for you.
It’s the beginning of January, aka diet season, and the rankings are in: U.S. News & World Report just released its top diets for 2021. The winner? (Drumroll, please.) Out of more than 40 diets, the Mediterranean diet is No. 1 for the third year in a row. Meanwhile, other popular diets, including the ketogenic diet (“keto”), modified keto, and the Dukan diet landed toward the bottom of the “Best Diets Overall” list, at Nos. 35, 37, and 39, respectively.
How the Best Diets of 2021 List Compares With 2020’s List
As in the two previous years, in 2021 the Mediterranean diet beat out the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet on the overall list. (In 2018, the two tied for the top slot.) Here’s why the panel of nutritionists, dietary consultants, and physicians awarded the Mediterranean diet highest honors: It gets points (a score of 4.2 out of 5) for its health benefits. Indeed, the Mediterranean diet also won in other categories, including “Best Plant-Based Diets,” “Best Diabetes Diets” (tied with The Flexitarian Diet) “Best Diets for Healthy Eating” (tied with DASH Diet), and “Easiest Diets to Follow.”
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, olive oil, and some lean meat and fish. Similarly, the second-place DASH diet is a plan designed to lower blood pressure and incorporates vegetables, fruits, and low-fat dairy along with whole grains, lean meats, and nuts. It also sticks to sodium guidelines in an effort to reduce hypertension (high blood pressure), though you can certainly still benefit from the eating style if you have normal blood pressure.
As in 2020, DASH was tied with the flexitarian diet, another plant-based eating plan that’s often called “semi-vegetarian.” Whatever plan you choose to follow, one thing is clear: Focusing on plant-based foods is one of the best things you can do for your health. According to an article published in May 2017 in the Journal of Geriatric Cardiology, eating a plant-based diet is associated with a lower risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. A study published in August 2019 in the Journal of the American Heart Association also concluded that people who closely adhered to plant-based diets had up to a 25 percent lower risk of dying from any cause compared with those who didn’t follow the eating pattern.
That said, the overall rankings haven’t shifted that much from 2020. The top three diets remain in the top three spots, with the only shift coming with the flexitarian diet’s jump from No. 3 best overall in 2020 to tie with the DASH diet for the No. 2 spot in 2021. “The diets that are rated highest for best overall diet, best weight loss diet, best diet for diabetes, and best heart-healthy diets — mainly Mediterranean, flexitarian, and DASH — all prioritize fruits and vegetables, and other healthy items such as whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats,” says Kelly Kennedy, RD, the staff nutritionist at Everyday Health. “What I love to see is that the same group of diets were also rated the easiest to follow, meaning that they’re easier than most other diet choices, and you have the best health benefits to gain by choosing one of these options,” she says.
Mediterranean Diet, DASH Diet, and Flexitarian Diets Remain the Best Diets of 2021
All three diets are also highly recommended by doctors because of their known health benefits. “The Mediterranean eating plan doesn’t have a set calorie range or portion guidelines, which is why it can fit almost anyone’s needs. Eating in this way may promote weight loss, but the main goal of this eating style is the health benefits it can offer, such as improvements in cardiovascular health,” says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDCES, the author of Belly Fat Diet for Dummies.
For instance, the Mediterranean diet beat low-fat diets for weight loss after one year and improved measures of heart health, according to a study published in April 2016 in the American Journal of Medicine. Switching from an omnivore diet to a plant-based diet was found to help the majority of people lose weight, possibly because of the boost in fiber intake, as well as trading animal proteins for more plant proteins, per a systematic review from September 2020 in Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity: Targets and Therapy.
In a study published in December 2018 in JAMA Network Open on nearly 26,000 women, those who followed the Mediterranean diet closely had up to a 28 percent lower risk of heart disease compared with those who didn’t follow the diet, likely because the diet helped lower inflammation, improve insulin function, and reduce body mass index (BMI). A large-scale review published in February 2019 in the journal Circulation Research called the evidence for the Mediterranean diet’s ability to decrease risk of heart disease and stroke “large, strong, and consistent.”
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) funded three studies examining the health benefits of DASH, and found that it can lower blood pressure and LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol levels, as well as help people lose weight, when compared with diets such as the standard American diet (SAD). The SAD is high in salt, added sugar, and saturated fat, the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion notes. What’s more, a study published in September 2018 in the journal Medicine analyzed 12 studies of more than a half million participants. Researchers concluded that people who followed the DASH diet closely had a 12 percent lower risk of developing a stroke compared with those who were more lax in their diet.
As for the flexitarian diet, in a review of 25 studies, the eating style was shown to help with weight loss, improve blood pressure, and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, according to a study published online in January 2017 in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition. Its presence at No. 3 is well deserved, says Kennedy. “The flexitarian diet is an easy way for anyone to cut back on the amount of calories and saturated fat in their diet without having to do a complete diet overhaul. This flexibility makes this diet more easily maintainable in the long term. It also increases the number of servings of fruits and vegetables you’ll be eating, which is really key for a healthy diet,” she says.
The Diets That U.S. News Says Are the Best for Weight Loss
If you’re looking to lose weight, WW (formerly called Weight Watchers) or the flexitarian diet may be a better bet. Both were tied at No. 1 among weight loss diets, followed by the vegan diet. “I have personally seen [WW] help quite a few people to lose weight in a healthy way. Again, the focus is on lots of fruits and veggies, as it is with all the top diets,” Kennedy says. She adds that this is a diet where even desserts aren’t off-limits. “This flexibility makes it easier to follow long term without feeling deprived.” What’s more, by making fruits and vegetables “free” on the points system, this may help people transition to a more plant-based style of eating, she notes.
The vegan diet came in at No. 3, followed by Volumetrics and Jenny Craig. The vegan diet eliminates all animal foods, including meat and dairy, and represents a move toward more plant-based eating. It won accolades for being filling from the high-fiber foods that are recommended on a vegan diet, such as vegetables and whole grains. Because of that, it also tends to contain fewer calories, helping people lose weight.
One newcomer in the rankings is Noom, which ranked at No. 12 in Best Diets Overall and, despite primarily being a weight loss diet, ranks at just No. 11 on Best Weight Loss Diets. “Noom focuses on behavior change along with nutrition education, which in my opinion is an effective combination on bringing about lasting change,” says Palinski-Wade. She notes that the community support, positive reinforcement, and accountability in the app can set the stage for long-term results.
Which Fad Diets Ranked Low on the 2021 U.S. News List?
That said, some of the most popular diets today didn’t fare as well. Near the bottom? The paleo diet (No. 31); the raw food diet, of which a raw vegan diet is one type (No. 32); Atkins diet (No. 33), a low-carb diet similar to keto; Whole30 (No. 35), keto (No. 37), and Dukan (No. 39). Newcomer “modified keto” was tied with Whole30 for the No. 35 spot. Rather than focusing on lifestyle changes that can stick for the long haul, these plans present “a quick fix that’s not maintainable,” says Kennedy. “Those trendy diets that eliminate whole food groups or call for extreme changes or deprivation will not rank well with wellness professionals, and this is represented in these rankings,” she says.
Modified keto is a looser version of keto that people who do not have epilepsy follow, notes Kennedy. On the modified version, you consume 82 percent of your calories from fat, while it’s 90 percent from fat on a classic keto diet, perU.S. News & World Report. Still, outside of a medical need for the diet, such as for epilepsy, this high-fat plan can backfire. “These diets are incredibly high in fat and very low in carbohydrates. As a result, they encourage limiting or eliminating healthy foods such as whole grains, legumes, dairy, and many types of fruit. To me, this is a red flag,” she says.
Palinski-Wade agrees. “I’m not surprised to see some of the most popular diet trends rank near the bottom of the list.” These diets have made a name for themselves by being restrictive and cutting out entire food groups. “Although there is some positive research on the health benefits of following a ketogenic diet on improving insulin resistance and helping to manage diabetes, the diet itself is very restrictive and hard to maintain long term,” she says, adding that the Whole30 also features strict rules that are tough to follow.
Two more diets are new on the list: autoimmune protocol diet (AIP diet) and the gut-and-psychology syndrome diet (GAPS diet), which rank at No. 33 (tied with Atkins) and No. 37 (tied with keto), respectively, on the overall best list. That’s obviously at the bottom of the list and not a great showing. The AIP diet has been designed for people with autoimmune diseases to eliminate triggers for inflammation that might make symptoms worse. GAPS is designed for people who have neurological conditions. “While the theories behind these diets are admirable, the research supporting their health benefits is limited,” says Kennedy. Also keep in mind that the diets are designed for a specific subgroup of people with certain conditions — they’re not designed to be for general weight loss.
Ultimately, for a diet to successfully help you improve your health, it needs to be sustainable for the long haul — as in, for life. “Fad diets and ultra-restrictive plans may promote fast weight loss initially, but for improved health and disease prevention, weight loss is not a race,” says Palinski-Wade. “Choose the approach that you can foresee yourself sticking with effortlessly for years to come, and that is what will bring you success,” she says.
A Broad Look at the Best Diets Overall in 2021
See the full list at U.S. News & World Report, but here’s a broad glance at the results.
Best Diets Overall
- Mediterranean diet
- DASH diet and Flexitarian diet (tie)
- WW (Weight Watchers)
- Mayo Clinic diet and MIND diet (tie)
Best Commercial Diets
Best Weight Loss Diets
Best Fast Weight Loss Diets
Best Diets for Healthy Eating
- DASH diet and Mediterranean diet (tie)
- Flexitarian diet
- TLC diet
- MIND diet, Nordic diet, Volumetrics, and WW (tie)
Easiest Diets to Follow
- Mediterranean diet
- Flexitarian diet
- MIND diet
- DASH diet and fertility diet (tie)
Best Diets for Diabetes
- Flexitarian diet and Mediterranean diet (tie)
- DASH diet, Mayo Clinic diet, and vegan diet (tie)
Best Heart-Healthy Diets
- DASH diet, Mediterranean diet, and Ornish diet (tie)
- Flexitarian diet, TLC diet, and vegan diet (tie)