If you’re looking towards to lose weight, the most commonly asked question is “what’s the most effective diet for fat loss?”. Instead of telling you what I do and what I’ve seen other people do I’m just going to give you a simple answer. But before I answer that question let me give you some background about myself and why I’m qualified for giving such an answer.
Dietitians tout these 4 diets as the best for safe, sustained weight loss
- One of the best diets for weight loss is the whole food diet, which eliminates all processed foods.
- The Mediterranean diet discourages eating red meat but encourages veggies and whole grains.
- A plant-based diet may also help you lose weight since some meats have been linked to weight gain.
Every year, new fad diets pop up with promises that drastically changing your diet can help you lose weight. But in reality, this type of quick-fix weight loss doesn’t last.
If you want to improve your diet, your best bet is to adopt healthy habits that you won’t mind keeping up over the long term. Following diets like the Mediterranean diet or a flexitarian diet can improve your health and may help you shed a few pounds.
Here are four types of diets that actually boost your health and aren’t too hard to maintain:
1. Mediterranean diet
“There is no standard definition of the Mediterranean diet per se,” but it emphasizes plant-based, heart-healthy foods, says Heather Seid, MS, a registered dietitian and manager of the Bionutrition Research Core at Columbia University.
The Mediterranean diet is named for the traditional cooking of the region and generally consists of:
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains like brown rice and whole wheat
- Nuts and seeds
- Lean protein like fish and poultry
- Dairy only in moderation
- Legumes like beans and lentils
- Heart-healthy fats like olive oil instead of butter
The diet also discourages eating things like processed foods, red meat, and too much sugar, all of which can contribute to chronic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes.
Following the Mediterranean diet has been shown to help with weight management and may encourage weight loss because:
- The foods in the diet tend to be higher in fiber and healthy fats, which make you feel more full and helps stabilize your blood sugar, Seid says. This may make you less likely to overeat or crave sugary snacks.
- “Heart-healthy fats are also slower to digest, which keeps people feeling fuller longer,” Seid says.
Research also suggests that following an eating plan like the Mediterranean diet may reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
2. DASH diet
The DASH diet, also known as Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, was originally created as a way to treat high blood pressure — but it may also help you lose or maintain weight.
The DASH diet helps lower blood pressure by encouraging a diet rich in key minerals — it promotes foods rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, and low sodium, says Julie Stefanski, a registered dietician and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The DASH diet is similar to the Mediterranean diet, in that it involves eating high-fiber foods like vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. However, there are two main differences:
- “Unlike the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet promotes low-fat or fat-free dairy products rather than full-fat,” Seid says. Some experts believe that low-fat dairy is better for heart health, especially if you already have heart disease.
- Also, DASH strongly limits your salt intake, which can help control hypertension — the goal is to stay below 2,300 mg of sodium per day, or about one teaspoon of salt.
If your current diet includes plenty of red meat and butter, following the DASH diet may help shift your weight. “Lean protein and low-fat dairy are less calorically dense and may contribute to an overall calorie deficit and subsequent weight loss,” Seid says.
“Even without a major change in weight, the DASH diet can make a desirable impact on blood pressure,” which might motivate you to keep up the diet and possibly shed pounds long-term, says Stefanski.
3. Whole food diet
A whole food diet includes all major food groups, but you’re going to need to read labels on your products. The diet emphasizes foods that haven’t been refined or processed — this means checking that your foods:
- Don’t contain preservative chemicals like benzoates or sorbates.
- Don’t contain additives like artificial color dyes.
- Don’t have words on the label like “refined”, “bleached”, or “hydrogenated” that indicate processing.
Some examples of processed vs. unprocessed foods include:
|Chicken nuggets||Chicken breast|
|High-fructose corn syrup||Maple syrup|
|White bread||Whole grain bread|
Shifting your diet toward whole foods may help with weight loss since processed foods can pack extra calories, Stefanski says. Processed foods tend to have higher calorie counts because they often have added sugar and fats.
Eating a processed food diet may also prompt you to eat more calories. A very small 2019 study found that people ate more and gained more weight when eating an ultra-processed diet and ate less and lost weight when they were offered meals with the same amount of calories but from unprocessed foods.
4. Plant-based diet
The goal of a plant-based diet is to eliminate or cut down on animal products like meat, dairy, and eggs. There are several different types of plant-based diets that you can choose from, including:
- Vegetarian, which cuts out all meat but includes eggs and dairy.
- Pescatarian, which eliminates all meat except for seafood.
- Flexitarian, which includes eggs and dairy and allows occasional meat-eating.
- Vegan, which eliminates all animal products including eggs and dairy.
Following plant-based diets may help you lose weight for several reasons, including:
- They cut down or eliminate red meat and processed meats, which have both been linked to long-term weight gain.
- Plant-based diets are generally high in fiber, which adds volume to meals. “This means that people may consume fewer calories while still feeling satiated,” says Seid. In fact, a small 2021 study that compared a low-fat, plant-based diet to a low-carb diet that included meat found that people ate 550 to 700 fewer calories per day while on the low-fat, plant-based diet compared to when they were on the low-carb diet with meat.
However, there are many highly processed foods in the market that are plant-based — for example, non-dairy ice cream is vegan but it’s often packed with sugar. “People should look for whole-food-based options rather than processed or convenience foods,” Seid says.
We know that short-term diets don’t really work to help you lose weight and keep it off, but you may have more luck trying more flexible, long-term eating habits that you can stick with and enjoy.
“Choosing to increase foods that make up a Mediterranean style of eating or a DASH focused plan can have more long-lasting benefits that focus on health rather than just weight,” Stefanski says.
5 Best Diets for Losing Weight and Burning Fat
5Cultura RM Exclusive/Liam Norris/Getty Images
Should you count calories or count macros? Cut fat or cut carbs? Eat double the recommended amount of protein? Triple? Maybe just hook up to a steady IV of protein shake?
Really, it shouldn’t be so difficult to figure out which eating regimen will set fire to fat while maintaining muscle. Fortunately, the International Society of Sports Nutrition just released its position paper, which combs through all existing scientific studies to report how every diet will affect your body composition. Here, we’ve pulled five of the most six-pack-friendly diets and streamlined how they’re great, as well as why they might be right (or wrong) for you—according to the hard science.
1. Low-calorie diet
Defined as: Only consuming 800 to 1,200 calories a day.
Pros: The sole purpose of limiting your daily calories (and pushing the boundaries of sanity) is to lose weight ASAP—and the study analysis says it works, while also preserving as much lean muscle mass as possible.
Cons: In our experience, capping your calories low will probably mean a lot of internal strife and stress. Plus, we’re big fans of enjoying food instead of fearing it, and 800 calories doesn’t leave much room for satisfied taste buds. Lastly, if you’re currently eating double to triple this amount of food, dropping to a daily caloric intake this low can tank your metabolism and actually slow weight loss more than switching to one of these other diets might.
2. Low-fat diet
Defined as: Getting only 20–30% of daily calories from fat; the remaining 80–70% are split between protein and carbs, typically with an emphasis on carbs.
Pros: Advocated by the Institute of Medicine, a low-fat diet (or high-carb, depending on your perspective) is based around the idea that cutting back on the most calorie-dense macro will help you eat fewer calories overall. And studies do show switching to a low-fat diet can help you lose body fat quickly, though not necessarily long-term.
Cons: Eating this way perpetuates the outdated idea that dietary fat is the enemy of body fat. And it isn’t necessarily better than other diets: One study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition compared high-protein, normal protein, high-fat, and low-fat diets, and found no significant difference in fat loss among the groups at six months or two years (though all did result in some fat loss). What’s more, while the low-fat group was supposed to keep its intake of the macro at 20%, actual intake was closer to 26-28%, suggesting that sticking to a strict low-fat diet is rather difficult and potentially unrealistic for most.
3. Low-carb diet
Defined as: Getting 15–40% of daily calories from carbs; the remaining 85-60% is split between protein and fat.
Pros: Compared to eating a traditional diet, switching to a low-carb diet can significantly reduce body fat, studies show. Cap your carb intake at 20% of daily calories and the weight-loss results are even stronger—plus, you can reduce your risk for heart disease and stroke. Some research suggests low-carb diets are even better than low-fat diets: One study in Annals of Internal Medicine found that people who limited their carbs lost eight more pounds than those who cut back on fat. If you cut back on carbs enough, your body learns to burn fat as fuel instead. Studies are mixed on how low-carb diets affect performance, but some evidence suggests that endurance performance can actually improve among people whose bodies adapt to fat-burning fairly easily.
Cons: Teaching your body to burn fat instead of carbs takes time, so you have to be patient while you feel sluggish during the weeks it takes to become fat-adapted. And not every body burns fat as efficiently as carbs, so your endurance may never measure up (though, as we said before, others actually see an improvement here.) Without carbs, your body’s ability to generate explosive energy will most likely decline, so if you love sprinting or HIIT, you might need to consume more carbs than other low-fat dieters. And while you’ll probably lose body fat, this kind of diet is actually keeping you focused on the wrong macro: Studies have proven that the higher protein aspect of a low-carb diet helps promote weight loss, rather than the lower carb count.
4. Ketogenic diet
What it is: Less than 10% of daily calories from carbs, 10-30% from protein, 60-80% from fat.
Pros: Technically a subtype of low-carb diet, the keto diet is unique: By depriving your body of carbohydrates, you not only force your body to become fat-adapted, but also, if you keep protein low as well, elevate your levels of ketone bodies, which is basically a sign your body is running on fat. The keto diet puts you in a unique metabolic state called ketosis wherein your brain burns ketones instead of glucose—and, in doing so, supposedly leads to clearer thinking. Physically, eating such a high amount of fat significantly increases your body’s ability to burn body fat, according to the study analysis. Research also shows keto athletes have a higher VO2 max, and are able to lose fat without losing strength or power.
Cons: That same study on the perks of being a keto athlete also found those same dieters had a lower exercise economy (how efficiently you use oxygen while moving). And whereas pretty much every other diet offers flexibility in the macro range, eating a few too many grams of carbs or protein will knock your body out of ketosis, so you have to be pretty committed to see the perks of keto. Lastly, the low protein count required to stay in ketosis may be holding you back here: A study analysis in Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Diseases found upping protein on a keto diet by just 5% tripled fat loss.
5. High-protein diet
What it is: At least 25% of daily calories from protein.
Pros: The most consistently beneficial of all diets here, study after study shows that upping your protein intake can help significantly reduce body fat and build lean muscle. For example: Guys who ran sprint intervals, did resistance training, and ate a diet of 2.4g of protein per kg of bodyweight per day (roughly 1g per lb of bodyweight) gained 1.2kg of lean muscle and lost almost 5kg of fat in just four weeks, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. If you cut calories but eat high protein, the macro can help prevent your metabolism from plummeting and help keep hunger at bay, since protein is so satiating. The study analysis also confirmed that eating a ton of protein stuff doesn’t cause you to gain weight or harm any internal systems, despite myths.
Cons: With the focus on protein, it’s easy to forget you need to eat enough fat or carbs to fuel your workouts, so keep an eye on your energy levels and other macros. And that’s the only real downside. The only other con the study analysis found: High protein is so effective in making you less hungry that it might hurt your efforts to gain weight.
The Best and Worst Diets for Sustained Weight Loss, According to Registered Dietitians
Should you try keto, flexible or full-on vegetarianism, or some other plan? Dieting isn’t for everyone, but if you want to give one a try, some are easier to maintain, not to mention healthier, than others.
Is losing weight or eating better on your mind these days? There’s no shortage of weight loss diets grappling for your attention. And the reality is that most diets — the good and bad — will help you shed pounds in the short term. The difference is in whether they’ll help you keep them off, and that requires a doable plan that you can stick with for life. Usually, that means diets that cut out entire food groups (sorry, keto) or impose strict rules for eating (looking at you, Whole30) are likely out, unless they’ve been recommended to you for medical reasons by your healthcare team.
Here, a few registered dietitians share details on the healthy, sustainable, and effective weight loss diets they want to see stay — and those they’d be happy to see take a hike in the new year.
The 4 Best Weight Loss Diets in 2022
1. Mediterranean Diet
Gorin applauds the Mediterranean diet — which is rich in whole vegetables, fresh fruit, whole grains, fatty fish, olive oil, nuts, legumes, and some red wine and dairy — because it’s a balanced way of eating. The Mediterranean diet’s focus on whole, plant-based foods over highly processed junk foods or fast foods may make you more likely to stick with it.
“By default, if you’re eating healthier foods that are higher in fiber and protein and are eating less saturated fat and sugar, you will likely eat fewer calories and lose weight,” says Amy Goodson, RD, who is based in Dallas-Fort Worth.
Beyond weight loss, there are the health benefits associated with eating like Italians, Greeks, and other people who live on the Mediterranean Sea (the diet’s namesake). This approach, Gorin says, also supports heart and brain health. For example, a previous review published in the journal Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders suggested that a Mediterranean diet, especially when combined with exercise and followed for longer than six months, was associated with reduced weight gain. The review involved 16 randomized controlled trials, which represented 1,848 people who followed a Mediterranean diet and 1,588 people who acted as the controls.
Weight loss and a healthier body? Win-win!
2. WW (Formerly Weight Watchers)
You know this popular weight loss plan by its previous name, Weight Watchers. In 2018, the company rebranded to make the program more about wellness, per an explainer on the WW website.
“This program is one of the most effective weight loss programs out there, promoting long-lasting, sustainable changes with many studies to back this up,” says Gorin, who previously wrote a nutrition blog for WW called The Eat List.
The newest version of WW, Gorin says, offers a customized program that the company touts as a holistic approach to weight loss.
One word of caution, says Goodson, concerns the ZeroPoint foods. The number and type of foods that count as zero points differ depending on your color level (Green, Blue, or Purple) in the system. For everyone, fruit and nonstarchy veggies are zero points, which is great, as it encourages consumption of these fiber-rich foods that can make you feel fuller at meals and snacks (and are tasty, too). But if you are on Purple, the ZeroPoint foods include bananas, eggs, beans, legumes, and whole-wheat pasta (and more) — a detail that gives Goodson pause. “Bananas have 100 calories, and eggs have 70. I love both foods, but it can add up. Someone shouldn’t have the belief that they haven’t eaten anything by consuming these foods. Portion control is still necessary,” she says.
3. Vegetarian Diet
There are so many reasons for going vegetarian, including environmental and ethical considerations.
Weight loss, though, is another potential benefit of opting to eat plants instead of meat, according to a previous review of 12 randomized controlled trials representing about 1,150 people. Indeed, the Mayo Clinic notes that when you pay attention to portion size and food quality, a vegetarian diet can help with weight loss because the foods you’ll eat (including whole ones like fruit, veggies, whole grains, and plant-based protein) contain fewer calories and fat but are more filling than foods found in a standard American diet, or SAD. The SAD is high in processed and packaged food that tends to be loaded with salt, sugar, and saturated fat.
Boosting your health may be another reason to adopt a vegetarian diet, and there’s science behind this choice. When carefully planned, “a vegetarian diet is a wonderful diet,” as it is high in nutrient-rich plant foods and low in saturated fat, says Jeanne Tiberio, a registered dietitian based in Salem, Massachusetts. In a meta-analysis published in November 2017 in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, a vegetarian diet was associated with a 25 percent lower risk of heart disease and 8 percent reduced odds of cancer.
A word of caution: If you have a personal history of eating disorders, you may want to sidestep this approach (and any other restrictive plan, for that matter). A previous study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics noted that some people use a vegetarian diet to legitimize food restriction to aid weight loss. There can be many perks to going veg — but play it safe and ask yourself where your motivations lie before you make this choice.
4. Flexitarian or Semi-Vegetarian Diet
Whereas vegetarians eschew meat, a flexitarian diet allows you to add small amounts of animal products, like meat, poultry, or fish, for additional protein and satisfaction. And U.S. News & World Report ranks this sustainable approach No. 1 on its list of weight loss diets. If you’re looking to burn calories in a balanced way, this flexible approach may be a good match for you. “I like to think about following a plant-focused diet. Only 1 in 10 people are eating the recommended amount of fruit and vegetables in the U.S. By focusing on eating more plant-based foods along with high-fiber whole grains and lean proteins and dairy, you can reach the number of fruits and veggies you need,” says Goodson.
Reducing but not necessarily eliminating how much meat you eat is generally positive. For instance, a review of 25 studies published in January 2017 in Frontiers in Nutrition found that semi-vegetarian diets were associated not only with weight loss but also with health benefits such as lower blood pressure and a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. The authors concluded that although it’s a popular eating approach with women, men, too, may benefit — especially because guys generally consume more meat.
2 Diets That Land in the Middle
1. Intermittent Fasting, or IF
Intermittent fasting (IF) is an increasingly popular way to lose weight fast — and it seems as if more people are becoming interested in it, says Goodson. The approach involves extended periods of not eating, and there are several ways to tackle it.
For instance, some people fast for two days out of the week (called 5:2, eating very little on fast days), while others set a specific eating window (like 16 hours fasting, 8 hours feeding). Others still might reserve a day where they don’t eat at all, says Goodson.
While research on this approach is still in its infancy, there is some evidence that it helps people lose weight, at least in the short term, per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. This approach is not right for everyone, however, and that’s why it lands somewhere in the middle in our survey of healthy diets.
You really have to understand your needs and your schedule to know if it will work for you. “This eating style has a very restrictive nature and could lead to overeating or binge eating, so it’s not a good fit for a person with a history of disordered eating,” says Gorin. Goodson also worries about athletes who are training in the morning. “If you go to the gym early in the morning and then don’t eat for several hours, this is counterproductive to muscle recovery,” she says. That said, Goodson recommends it in certain situations, such as if you are an overweight person who is at risk of diabetes. If you have diabetes and are taking insulin to manage your condition, ask your doctor if IF is safe for you before starting.
2. MIND Diet
The MIND diet wasn’t designed for weight loss, which is why it falls in the middle. This diet wins accolades, however, because it shares striking similarities with the Mediterranean diet. In fact, MIND “is a cross between the Mediterranean Diet and the DASH diet [the acronym stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay] — so it’s a dietitian’s dream,” says Goodson. The diet is based on Mediterranean but emphasizes specific foods, such as leafy greens, berries, extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, fish, whole grains, and wine. (Just don’t start drinking alcohol if you don’t currently consume it, experts advise.)
The MIND diet focuses on promoting better cognitive health, says Goodson. A study published in April 2019 in the journal Alzheimer’s Dementia, for instance, found that participants who followed MIND had a 53 percent lower risk of developing cognitive impairment over 12 years. Though it doesn’t rank high on U.S. News’ ranking of top weight loss diets, it is generating a lot of buzz and is one Goodson predicts will become more popular. What’s more, as U.S. News points out, it is possible that you’ll lose weight following MIND, since the diet deemphasizes foods that are associated with weight gain, such as dairy, sweets, and fried foods. The website ranked the diet No. 4 in Best Diets Overall.
The 6 Worst Diets for Sustained Weight Loss in 2022
1. Carnivore Diet
The carnivore diet requires eating mostly meat (along with some eggs and fat, like cheese). There’s also a popular version that involves eating only beef. Although you can find carnivore dieters’ success stories online, don’t even think about it, says Gorin. “This is not a healthy or sustainable diet, and there are healthier ways to lose weight. Not only is the carnivore diet extremely high in saturated fat, which can put you at risk for increased cholesterol levels, it also leaves out a lot of foods that are really good for you,” Gorin adds. That includes fruit and veggies, which are known to promote weight loss and help fight disease.
Bottom line: Avoid this diet — or, if you’re determined to try it, be sure to run the idea by your healthcare team and get their take first.
There’s nothing wrong with the foods that Whole30 asks you to eat, like fresh fruit and veggies. In fact, proponents of the plan say that focusing on whole foods instead of packaged, processed ones may result in weight loss and other health perks, too, like higher energy and improved sleep.
But the Whole30 plan prohibits many dietary staples — not just unhealthy foods like added sugar and alcohol but also legumes, dairy, and grains. And while your body doesn’t need those healthy foods to function, Whole30’s restrictions can make the program difficult to stick with. “This diet wasn’t designed to be sustainable — it’s meant to be a 30-day thing. But if you can’t maintain a diet for more than 30 days, why are you doing it?” says Goodson. If you are someone who finds motivation in a diet “jump start,” then Whole30 might work for you, but make sure you have a plan for how you’re going to sustain healthful choices after the month, she says.
Strict rules can create a cycle of guilt around food, says Anne Mauney, a registered dietitian in Washington, DC. Even if you follow through on the entire 30-day program, at the end you’re likely still going to feel down on yourself for eating what was once deemed “bad.”
Plus, when you go back to eating these foods, “you may end up eating more of them than you need or want, because there’s that sort of ‘screw it’ mentality, where you’ve already started eating something you ‘shouldn’t’ have, so you might as well keep going. This can turn into a sort of ongoing restrict-binge cycle over time, where you limit certain foods and then end up overdoing it on those foods later, before going right back to restricting and trying to be ‘good,’” Mauney says. That’s no way to live.
3. Keto Diet
If you want to lose weight quickly, this diet, which researchers designed to help control epilepsy in children, has become a popular way to do so.
But there’s a lack of definitive research proving that keto is safe and effective for the long haul. What we do know is this high-fat, moderate-protein, and very low carb diet has a reputation for being challenging, especially if you’re doing it without medical supervision. When you go off the plan, you may gain back all the weight you lost.
What’s more, for all the buzz about the health benefits of keto (for type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and more), long-term randomized, controlled trials in humans are lacking, Harvard notes. “Keto restricts foods that help fight cancer and heart disease, like whole grains and legumes,” says Tiberio.
There are many ways to approach keto, and not all of them are healthful. “Though you should be eating a lot of spinach and kale on keto, people generally eat bacon and eggs,” says Tiberio, which leaves out important disease-fighting nutrients, including fiber.
But the eating plan can be useful in certain populations, says Goodson. “Overall, I don’t love keto, especially for exercising people. But if you have diabetes and have uncontrolled blood sugar, this approach can help you lose weight, balance those numbers, and get you back on a healthy eating plan,” she says.
Still, if you are following this diet, it’s important to focus on diet quality, which means including high-fiber foods, lean proteins, and healthy fats rather than saturated-fat-rich foods like butter and bacon.
Of course, the Atkins diet was the original low-carb diet, made popular decades ago. Now that keto is on the scene and there’s a popular carb phobia, you may be thinking again about going on a low-carb diet like Atkins. (Atkins and keto differ in that Atkins allows for more protein, whereas keto limits protein.)
“As with many diets, you lose weight quickly on Atkins. But it does not work long term,” says Tiberio. On the U.S. News rankings of best diets, Atkins doesn’t rank, potentially because of worries about safety and negative impact on heart health, as the website has previously noted.
5. Paleo-Vegan (‘Pegan’)
Fusing the popular paleo diet with some vegan principles, the pegan diet has you eating loads of fruits and vegetables, along with nuts, seeds, and oils; eliminating dairy and gluten; and limiting beans and grains. It’s not traditionally “vegan,” which previous research has linked to weight loss and in which you eat no animal products of any kind, as it allows for a small amount of meat.
While the pegan diet hasn’t been researched for weight loss or other benefits, it’s likely to help you reduce your blood sugar and triglycerides, says Tiberio.
Still, the fact remains that it’s a restrictive diet with many rules. Translation: You may lose some weight and boost your health temporarily, but chances are you won’t be able to follow this unbalanced way of eating forever. The fact is that many people struggle to maintain diets that contain a long list of off-limits foods. Those hurdles put this diet mashup on the “avoid” list for weight loss, per RDs.
6. Cleanse Diets
Juice cleanses or other types of cleanse diets are ineffective for long-term weight loss. “Many people try these in the beginning of the new year, but there is zero science behind their health benefits,” says Goodson. “You do not need something to cleanse your body — that’s what you have a liver and kidneys for,” she says. These types of diets often require buying expensive bottled juices, supplements, or small meals. Her advice is to save your money.