Choosing a new diet can feel like rocket science. Net carbs, nutrient density, acid-forming foods, inflammation-promoting hormones: What does it all mean? Weight loss or overall health: What’s most important? Celebrity endorser or nutrition expert: Who do you believe? Mediterranean, DASH , vegan, paleo, keto: Where do you begin?
Selecting a diet that works well for you is really important. You’re making a major commitment of time, effort, willpower and in some cases, money. Below, experts walk you through the process of picking the diet that best meets your unique goals and needs.
Your selection process involves the following steps, more or less in this order:
— Start with a self-inventory.
— Clarify your goals.
— Balance weight loss and health.
— Consider disease prevention and medical conditions.
— Evaluate your personal top picks.
— Make sure foods align with your preferences.
— Keep a sharp eye on red flags.
— Calculate diet costs.
— Take celebrity endorsements with a grain of salt.
— Look for evidence of lasting results.
— Be honest about potential personal barriers.
— Factor in exercise.
— Shore up support.
— Reach out to a dietitian for individual help.
First, do a self-inventory.
“Selecting the right diet starts with you,” says Valerie Agyeman, a women’s health dietitian and founder of Flourish Heights, a nutrition practice aimed at empowering women to thrive in health and have a better relationship with food and their body. “One of the first things to consider is to take a look at all the past diets you have tried, if any, and ask yourself what didn’t work along with reflecting how it made you feel, both physically and mentally.”
Take your present eating habits into account, says Maxine Smith, a registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition. Which positive habits do you already have and wish to continue? Which dietary changes are realistic to make with your available resources and lifestyle?
“The right diet for you will include a wide variety of foods, with an emphasis on whole or minimally processed foods, and fit into your schedule and lifestyle,” says Carrie Dennett, a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Nutrition by Carrie.
Clarify your goals.
Are you primarily interested in losing weight? Is eating healthier and maintaining your weigh t most important? Do you want to save money or make eco-friendly choices? Being clear about your goal “can help you align your values with a particular diet,” Smith says.
For instance, if you’re interest in food sustainability, the Nordic diet promotes concern for protecting the environment and producing less waste. However, Nordic food recommendations could strain your budget if saving money is a key objective.
“Consider which diet you can be most consistent with,” Smith says. “While aiming for perfection is a recipe for doom, consistency is very important for success.”
Balance weight loss and health.
“It’s always better to choose a diet that supports health and that you will also be happy following for the long term,” Dennett says. “That mean it suits your palate and your budget and helps you feel good on a daily basis. Any diet that is weight loss-focused is likely to be too restrictive to be sustainable for the long-term.”
“Although everyone wants to lose unwanted weight quickly, taking it slow — at a rate of no more than 0.5 to 2 pounds a week — is the healthy way to go,” Smith says. Weight loss is not always advisable, she adds: “In some cases, weight loss may be contraindicated, for example for those who are pregnant or have an eating disorder.”
Consider disease prevention and medical conditions.
“If reducing your risk of chronic disease is a concern — perhaps because you have a family history of diabetes or heart disease — then choosing a research-backed diet that supports cardiovascular and metabolic health would be an important part of an overall preventive health plan,” Dennett says.
For instance, a Flexitarian or Mediterranean diet is appropriate if diabetes prevention or management is a key goal. Similarly, the DASH diet, which stands for dietary approaches to stop hypertension, is a proven heart-healthy option.
That said, don’t expect any diet to serve as the ultimate solution for an existing health condition. “Even when there is a specific, research-backed diet for a certain health condition, the diet is generally used as part of an overall treatment plan, not as a substitute for medical care,” Dennett explains
Bottom line: If you’re considering an elimination diet like GAPS to improve a digestive disorder or the AIP diet to ease symptoms of an autoimmune condition, don’t expect a miracle cure. In addition, make sure a diet isn’t ill-advised for any medical condition you might have. For instance, the keto diet is not recommended for people with liver disease.
Evaluate your personal top picks.
Once you’ve narrowed down possible choices, really dig into what each diet offers. You’ll want to understand each diet’s premise — for instance, eating like a cavemen for the paleo diet — and variations. You need to know how a diet works, what you can and cannot eat, anticipated costs, evidence-based weight-loss results, health-related attributes or hazards, available supports and resources. Comb through diet evaluations from nutrition experts.
Make sure allowed foods align with your preferences.
It may seem obvious, but if you don’t like the food, the less likely you are to stick with any diet.
“With my past clients, being denied their favorite foods only triggered cravings and binges, which created unhealthy eating patterns,” Agyeman says. “Healthy eating should be simple. Add a variety of foods to your current eating routine. Add more vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains and lean protein. They are rich in essential nutrients that will have long-lasting positive effects on your health and well-being. Make sure to include your favorite foods, too.”
“A diet that doesn’t exclude entire food groups and isn’t extremely low-fat or low-carb is likely to be accommodating for preferences in terms of what tastes good and makes us feel good, as well as adaptable to a variety of traditional cultural food patterns,” Dennett says.
Keep a sharp eye out for red flags.
“Diets that eliminate major food groups are a red flag,” Agyeman says. “Diets that do that can be harmful, especially when you have not consulted with your health care provider. Very restrictive diets can lead to fatigue, nutrient deficiencies, significant weight changes and disordered eating patterns.”
Quick fixes are actually red flags, Smith says. “If it sounds too good to be true, be wary,” she advises. “For example, diets that promise more than a 1-to-2-pound weight loss per week may not be legitimate, sustainable or healthy.”
A list of required vitamins and supplements may also be a red flag. “In general, a healthy, well-balanced diet doesn’t require these,” Smith says.
Calculate whether diet costs fit into your budget.
If you can’t afford to follow a diet, it won’t work. “Diets that only allow organic food and include a number of trendy ‘superfoods’ can be expensive, as can diets with strict lists of ‘allowed’ foods that make it impossible to grocery shop based on what’s in season or on sale, or to choose frozen vegetables instead of fresh,” Dennett says. “Generally, the more varied a diet, the more options for putting together pleasing, nutritious meals on a budget.”
Dig into diet websites for sample menus, recipes and grocery lists, Smith advises: “Beware of those that call for complex dishes with many ingredients, expensive ingredients such as rare herbs and spices, brand-name or organic foods that don’t offer a more budget-friendly option (such as) dried herbs or generic brands.”
Take celebrity endorsements with a grain of salt.
When it comes to diets, try not to be too influenced by, well, influencers. “A good guiding principle is to avoid diets that have celebrity endorsements,” Dennett says. “I have never seen a celebrity endorse a time-tested, research-backed diet such as the Mediterranean diet or the DASH diet. Those diets offer nutritious, delicious, health-promoting ways to eat, but they aren’t bright and shiny and new. They’re not ‘sexy.'”
Celebrity claims that a new, trendy diet helped them lose weight or ‘transform’ their health should raise suspicion, Dennett adds. Many celebrities “also have support that most people don’t have, such as personal chefs, personal trainers and the money to afford frequent spa treatments,” she notes. “They also may be receiving financial compensation in exchange for their endorsement, whether in articles they’re interviewed for or on social media. We’re not even talking about overt advertisements here.”
Look for evidence of lasting results.
Are you attracted to hot new diets or tried-and-true plans? “Fad diets can be very harmful for a number of reasons,” Agyeman says. “They may lack the essential nutrients your body needs for optimal health. Plus, most of them teach you nothing about healthy eating — and when the diet is completed, you will most likely head right back to unhealthy eating patterns and weight gain, if weight loss was your main goal. That is the reason why most diets fail. It’s time to work toward an eating plan that works for you and is sustainable — one that makes eating enjoyable.”
“Most of the time, it does make more sense to choose healthy, established diets,” Smith says. “This type of plan has been backed by research, has been established as being safe and effective and is supported by medical institutions, has shown positive results and effects over a lengthy period of time and for many people.”
For instance, the DASH diet is backed by decades of rigorous research showing multiple benefits for lowering blood pressure and preventing heart disease. Plant-based and semi-vegetarian diets are supported by numerous studies on weight loss. It’s also worth checking whether a touted study was conducted independently or was industry-run and funded.
One possible plus for emerging, popular diets: “These diets may offer hope to those who are ‘burned out’ on other eating plans,” Smith says. “Trying something new can be motivating and may incorporate newer science to favorably alter metabolism. However, because these are newer diets, they carry more risks as long-term implications may not be known. It is important to discuss these with your doctor before jumping on the bandwagon.”
Be honest about potential barriers.
Every diet journey includes some hurdles, but you can smooth the way by choosing wisely. Again, “Is it budget-friendly?” is a good question, Agyeman says. “Does it fit into you r eating style? If not, you probably won’t last. For example, does it require special prep? For those with a family, is it family-friendly? Big drastic changes are really hard to follow through.”
“Many people overestimate their resources,” Smith notes. “When motivation is at its peak, one may climb the highest mountain, but motivation wanes — and competing interests disrupt the best intentions. Before jumping into a diet, it is important to consider the specific challenges and obstacles that you will encounter along the way.”
Factor in exercise.
Exercise is important for overall health and plays a role in maintaining a healthy weight. Check whether diet requirements might conflict with your exercise goals and needs.
Smith says it’s important to talk with your doctor before starting an exercise program, particularly if you’ve been sedentary or have any chronic medical conditions. “A diet program should encourage consideration of your current exercise and fitness and offer a plan for gradual progression, if indicated, with allowance for individual variability,” she says. “Higher exercise levels can accommodate a greater number of calories and carbohydrates in the diet.” Are you an athlete? You may benefit from consulting with a board-certified sports nutritionist, she suggests.
Shore up support in advance.
If you thrive on group support, make sure the diet you choose offers plenty of it. “Don’t be a ‘lone ranger,'” Smith advises. “Support and accountability are essentials of behavior change. Those that have walked your road before you can offer wisdom. Realizing that others share your same challenges can be comforting. Ideas can be shared, hope offered. Temptations to revert back to old habits can be strong: Having an ‘accountability buddy’ — who is truly concerned about your best interests — is invaluable.”
Plenty of informal support is available online for popular diets like keto and paleo. Among commercial diets, WW (formerly Weight Watchers) is known for providing strong, ongoing support.
Reach out to a dietitian for one-on-one advice.
Choosing a diet can be complex, so it never hurts to call in an expert. “Consult with a dietitian to help you find an eating plan that works for you and your family’s nutritional and health needs,” Agyeman says. “Dietitians provide individualized food and nutrition advice while helping people prevent or manage disease through diet and lifestyle.”
More from U.S. News
Clarification 01/13/21: This story was updated to clarify the proportion of diets that ultimately fail.