For the first time ever, serial ranker U.S. News and World Report has evaluated and ranked 20 popular diet plans. The winner? The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), beating better-known plans such as Weight Watchers, South Beach, and Atkins. So, what exactly is this diet "you've never heard of," and why did it come out on top? Here, a brief guide:
What is the DASH diet?
Intended to prevent (and lower) high blood pressure, or hypertension, DASH uses a series of simple nutritional principles — less sodium and more potassium, calcium, and fiber — to guide eating habits. The diet is quite straightforward: "Just emphasize the foods you've always been told to eat," says U.S. News, "while shunning the ones you've grown to love."
So, what can you eat?
DASH encourages the consumption of more fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy. Off the table? "Calorie- and fat-laden sweets and red meat," says U.S. News. DASH dieters ease in by introducing one vegetable and one fruit serving to a meal each day. Then they try going vegetarian two or three meals per week. To help curb sodium intake, dieters should reach into the pantry for herbs and spices. "They'll make you forget the salt's not on the table."
How much weight can you lose on DASH?
One study of overweight and obese adults with hypertension found that those who combine DASH with more exercise lost an average of 19 pounds after four months. It can also help prevent future weight gain. Teen girls who followed the plan had "a lesser tendency to gain an excess amount of weight in their early adulthood," says the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.
What's the methodology behind these rankings?
The U.S. News team spent months "mining medical journals, government reports, and other sources" to research each diet it ranked, says Angela Haupt at U.S. News. A panel of 22 experts also reviewed the plans and ranked them on weight loss, how easy they are to follow, nutritional completeness, and other factors.
Is DASH right for me?
It's certainly safe. According to U.S. News, there are no health risks to the DASH diet, and, in helping to lower blood pressure, it can help prevent heart disease, heart failure, and stroke. The diet also "echoes dietary advice touted by the American Diabetes Association," which means it may work to fend off that disease, too. Still, the best diet for you, says Amie Ninh at TIME, is the one you can reasonably follow. "Regardless of its rating, a diet won't work if you can't stick with it."