DASH Diet Crowned 'Best Diet' By <em>U.S. News</em>: What Is It?

The DASH diet took the first place spot in U.S. News' second-ever ranking of the best diet plans -- for the second year in a row. The undefeated DASH, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, actually wasn't developed with weight loss in mind; instead, it aims to lower blood pressure. But it earned high marks from a panel of experts for its safety, nutritional merit and usefulness for chronic disease sufferers.

The DASH diet was developed to help prevent and treat hypertension, but it was meant to work in conjunction with other healthful behaviors, such as getting at least 30 minutes of exercise each day and drinking alcohol in moderation. There's no secret trick to the DASH eating plan -- just an emphasis on low-salt, high-fiber fare, like eight to 10 daily servings of fruits and vegetables for a standard 2,000 calorie-per-day diet. It limits high-calorie sweets and meats that are high in saturated fat. Instead, in addition to fresh produce, the diet calls for fat-free or low-fat dairy, whole grains, fish, poultry, beans, seeds, and nuts. The DASH diet prescribes a lower sodium intake -- either the recommended 2,300 mg in the standard version or 1,500 mg for people who are more susceptible to, or already diagnosed with, hypertension, according to The Mayo Clinic.

Its simple, sensible recommendations -- developed in concert with The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) -- earned it an endorsement from the National Institutes of Health. That involvement makes it cheap and readily accessible: the NIH provides free guides for the DASH diet -- a 64-page version and a shorter, 6-page cheat sheet and there are no prepackaged foods to purchase.

The U.S. News diet rating system was developed by a panel of 22 weight loss and nutrition experts across the country. Each expert reviewed diets based on seven measures: short-term weight loss, long-term weight loss, easiness, nutrition, safety, ability to prevent or manage diabetes, and ability to prevent or manage heart disease. Each diet then received an overall composite score.

The DASH diet won best-overall and also ranked first in "best diets for healthy eating" and "best diabetes diets." Its lowest score was a ninth rank for "best weight-loss diet." Studies show that the diet can lead to weight loss, though research has focused on overweight and obese individuals who already suffer from high blood pressure (between 130 and 159 mm Hg). One 2010 study found that overweight and obese hypertension patients who followed the DASH diet in conjunction with exercise and weight loss classes lost more weight over four months (an average 9.5 pounds) than counterparts who simply followed DASH eating plans (8 pounds) -- and both did better than a control group of participants who continued their typical diet and received basic weight loss advice (an average of 3 pounds).

Does that mean it will work for you? It depends. The panel suggested that a DASH diet planned with a "calorie deficit" -- in which a dieter simply reduced their overall daily calories, but stuck to the diet guidelines -- could help improve weight loss. And given its high score for ease of use, it may be a good option for many. After all, an effective diet is one that a person can stick to.

The DASH diet's win is part of an overall trend among the ranking towards sensible eating plans that are free of gimmicks; the second best-rated diet, the Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) Diet was created by the NIH. The lowest ranking options that were reviewed, by contrast, used complex or restrictive eating plans to shed pounds. The bottom two? The Dukan Diet -- popularized by Kate Middleton, who reportedly used it for her pre-wedding weight loss -- and the Paleo Diet, which recommends returning to pre-agricultural revolution food sources and eating like a caveman.

Other top diets in various categories, in addition to the DASH diet and TLC, include Weight Watchers, The Ornish Diet and the Mediterranean Diet, reports the L.A. Times. For more, the full rankings are available here.