It seems like every day there’s a new diet popping up in the wellness scene (Pegan? Okinawa diet? Ketotarian?) that’s supposed to be the end-all, be-all of healthy eating—making easy to get confused and downright frustrated when you just can’t figure out what you’re “supposed” to be eating.
Here’s the thing: There’s no one “right” way to eat well (despite what Instagram influencers might have you believe). “With every diet, there’s no one size fits all—everything is individual,” says Brigitte Zeitlin, MPH, RD, CDN, an NYC-based registered dietitian. “If you’re doing something that works for you and it feels long-term, that’s what matters.” So whether you’re a Keto enthusiast or a Med diet lover, as long as your health is in check, you’re good to go.
Of course, that makes sifting through all of the many (many) eating plans out there a bit more complicated. We spoke with Zeitlin to give you an at-a-glance version of some of the best healthy diets out there (only the legit ones, none of this “military diet” nonsense), including insight as to which health needs they’re best suited for. Snack on this for future reference.
Best for: People who want something easy to follow
Overview: The Mediterranean diet is a mostly non-restrictive eating plan primarily focused on plant-based foods, says Zeitlin. (And it was rated the healthiest diet of 2019 by U.S. News and World Report.) The protein typically comes from fish, since the diet is based off living by the Mediterranean Sea, but poultry is also common. The Med diet has some serious health benefits too; research has shown that following this eating plan reduces the amount of LDL cholesterol in your blood. It’s also associated with longevity, better brain health, and reduced risk of disease. And those benefits are backed by a wide body of research.
What’s on the menu: Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, protein that comes from fish or poultry, and healthy fats like avocados and olive oil.
Any restrictions? There are technically no “restricted” foods. However, adherants are advised to limit how much red meat, refined sugars, and processed foods they eat.
What the experts say: “The Mediterranean diet makes sure you get all the good foods in, without really being restrictive and feeling like you’re on a specific diet,” says Zeitlin. “It’s inclusive of all the food groups; you can take this lifestyle plan with you wherever you go.”
Best for: Heart health
Overview: The DASH diet stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (AKA high blood pressure). The DASH eating plan is similar to the Mediterranean-style diet, focusing on mostly plant-based foods and lean proteins. However, there is a bigger emphasis on eating less sodium and fewer saturated fats. Studies show that the DASH diet improves blood pressure, lowers LDL cholesterol, and can control lipid levels.
What’s on the menu: Fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, as well as lean cuts of meat, poultry and fish.
Any restrictions? Foods high in sodium and saturated fat (like fatty meats, coconut oil, and full-fat dairy) and refined sugar.
What the expert says: “This is a healthy, long-term lifestyle plan that people can adapt to easily and it will help them maintain their health goals for longer,” says Zeitlin. “It’s fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean cuts of meat…all A-pluses!”
Best for: Very specific health applications
Overview: The eating plan has exploded in popularity over the last year and a half, but it’s actually been around for decades. Zeitlin says the ketogenic diet was originally created for children with epilepsy whose seizures were not responding to medication. However, people have recently turned to it for its potential fat-burning, metabolism-boosting properties. The high-fat, low-carb eating plan kicks the body into ketosis, forcing it to burn fat instead of carbs for energy. However, there is limited research on the ketogenic diet’s benefits (most has been done on mice, and the human clinical trials have had mixed results).
What’s on the menu: It’s a restrictive plan—75 percent of your calories come from fat, 20 percent come from protein, and only 5 percent come from carbohydrates. But you choose your fat and protein sources, whether that’s lean meat and avocados, or bacon and butter. (Although most experts don’t recommend the latter.)
Any restrictions? Most carbohydrates and sugar, and sometimes even starchier vegetables and fruits. It’s all about meeting those very specific macros.
What the expert says: Zeitlin is…not a fan of keto. “This diet is restrictive,” she says, and she doesn’t consider it healthy for everyone. “Regardless of weight-loss and the potential for long-term heart health, if only 5 percent of your calories are coming from carbohydrates—your grains, fruits, and vegetables—that’s where all the fiber comes from,” she says. It’s generally only recommended for short-term periods of time, and only under the supervision of a doctor or other health expert. People trying it should also be aware of some of its more gnarly side effects, like keto breath.
Best for: The environment
Overview: The vegan diet takes plant-based eating to the next level. Many of the benefits of eating a vegan diet are environmental—by not buying or eating animal products, you’re creating a smaller carbon footprint. And generally, eating a diet high in plants and low in animal products has been associated with longevity and other health benefits.
What’s on the menu: Anything that doesn’t come from an animal. Protein comes from plant-based sources like soy, chickpeas, legumes, and vegan protein powders and vitamins and minerals from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Any restrictions? Anything with animal products (like meat, fish, poultry, dairy, eggs, and even honey in some cases). Vegans generally also avoid using any products that come from animals, like leather or animal-tested beauty products.
What the expert says: “It’s definitely a sustainable way of living, in terms of the environment,” says Zeitlin. “There’s no real downside [to veganism] as long as you’re incorporating plant-based proteins and a variety of fruits and vegetables.” However, some people might find it hard to stick with because it’s so restrictive. It also can be harder to get certain vitamins and minerals like B-12, omega-3s, and calcium (commonly only found in animal products), so talk to your doctor about potential supplementation if you’re interested in trying the eating plan.
Best for: Inflammation
Overview: The concept of Paleo is to eat like our ancestors, Zeitlin explains. It’s a gluten- and dairy-free diet with a heavy focus on animal protein, vegetables, and fruit. Paleo enthusiasts claim that our bodies are wired to adapt to the diet because of our hunter-gatherer roots.
What’s on the menu: Animal proteins (all meats, fish, and poultry), high-fiber fruits, veggies, and grains. There’s a particular focus on eating organic, grass-fed, sustainable foods wherever possible.
Any restrictions? Grains, dairy, legumes (read: no peanuts or peanut butter), and foods high in sodium or refined sugar. Some people also choose to cut out alcohol and coffee, although that’s not mandatory.
What the expert says: “[Paleo] is not inherently unhealthy—it depends on the food that you’re filling the plan with,” says Zeitlin. “It’s not overly restrictive either. It’s about what are you willing to give up and how do you feel when you’re on it?” It is often recommended for people with chronic illnesses since it cuts out a lot of potentially inflammatory food sources, which can help better manage symptoms.
Best for: A short-term reset
Overview: Whole30 is a restrictive diet meant to last only 30 days; it should not be thought of as a long-term plan. The purpose, according to Zeitlin, is to re-evaluate one’s relationship with food. By cutting out food groups that often lead to health issues and discomfort (like sugar, dairy, gluten), the thinking is that a person can “reset” their system. It has a lot in common with Paleo…but with a few more restrictions.
What’s on the menu: Meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, some fruit, certain fats and oils, herbs, spices, and seasonings.
Any restrictions? Added sugar (natural or artificial), alcohol, grains, legumes (including soy and peanuts), dairy, MSG, sulfites, carrageenan, and baked goods. It’s a long list—the Whole30 website has the full deal.
What the expert says: “The upside is to re-calibrate ones relationship to sugar and sources of sugar,” says Zeitlin. “At the end of the 30 days, your threshold for sweetness will be a lot lower, closer to when we’re born.” The downside, Zeitlin says, is that it can put a damper on your social life because of all the restrictions…and the whole “no alcohol” part. The rules may make it tough to stick to for a month—especially because if a person slips up and eats a restricted food, they have to start over.
Best for: GI distress
Overview: The Low FODMAP (which stands for Fermentable Oligo-, Di, Monosaccharides, And Polyols) diet reduces sources of fermented carbohydrates that can cause unpleasant GI issues like burping, bloating, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, and gas in some people. To follow the diet, you first restrict all high FODMAP foods (outlined below) for around four to six weeks. Then, you systematically reintroduce high FODMAP foods one by one for three days each, to see which ones you tolerate and which ones cause discomfort. The last stage incorporates the high FODMAP foods your body responded well to.
What’s on the menu: Meat, fish, poultry, eggs, hard cheese, some fruits and veggies, rice, oats, quinoa, soy, non-dairy milks and yogurts, small servings of nuts.
Any restrictions?: High FODMAP foods like wheat, rye, legumes, onions, garlic, milk, yogurt, soft cheese, mangoes, figs, honey, agave nectar, blackberries, lychee, some low-calorie sweeteners, and more.
What the expert says: “It’s restrictive initially, but the goal is to re-introduce one food at a time to see what triggers you and what doesn’t trigger you,” says Zeitlin. “It’s not meant to be restrictive forever. It’s kind of an experiment. If your goal is that you have so many GI issues that you need to figure out, yeah, I would suggest this diet.”
Find out what happened when a Well+Good writer cut out processed foods for a month to kick her “healthy” eating habits. And if you have more food questions, these RDs and nutrition experts have answers.