In a recent ranking of the “best” diets from 2015, the top ranked diet was the DASH diet, followed by the MIND diet and TLC diet. The worst were the Raw Food diet, Atkins (low-carb), and the Whole30 diet. The next questions are: how did they come up with the rankings, and what do all those letters mean for how we should be eating?
The rankings were developed by compiling and averaging individual rankings from a panel of experts (about twenty doctors, public health experts, and Registered Dietitians). The categories included nutritional completeness, disease-fighting ability (specifically heart disease and diabetes), how easy it was to follow the diet, weight loss (short- and long-term), and safety.
Not surprisingly, the top three diets shared many familiar characteristics: an emphasis on fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains; avoidance of added salt, sugar, and saturated fats; and portion control. The worst ranked diets tended to be “elimination” diets (avoiding certain food groups or ways of preparing food) or diets that focus on quick short-term weight loss.
So should athletes use this information? I would focus on two general themes: first, avoid any diet that focuses on a single food group or that promises swift weight loss. Examples would be low-carb diets, wheat- or dairy-free diets (if you do not have Celiac disease, obviously), and any diet including the words “cleanse”, “detox”, or “elimination”, or that gives a certain time frame for the diet. Athletes need a healthy, well-balanced, and sustainable diet, not something designed to last 30 days or to quickly shed water weight.
The second theme to emphasize is fresh, unprocessed foods with adequate protein and high-quality fats. Minimizing added sugar and salt are also important, but if you’re not eating processed food or restaurant food, then you’re in control of both of those. Over 80% of the sodium in the average diet comes from processed/packaged food.
To further break down the areas of focus, start with fresh, unprocessed foods. This one is simple: try to eat things that grow in the dirt and don’t come in boxes, cartons, or cans. I can hear the question now: “But what about ‘healthy’ foods like canned beans or jars of salsa?” Quick answer: a ½ cup serving of beans contains 490mg of sodium (canned Bush’s Black Beans), while a single two-tablespoon serving of salsa contains 310mg (Herdez Salsa verde). And I don’t know about you, but I can’t build a meal out of a half-cup of beans with two spoonfuls of salsa.
(see my earlier post about minimizing added sodium in convenience foods)
Second: “adequate protein”. This one is a bit tougher, since each person has different protein needs depending on age, gender, activity level, type of training, and fitness level. The US RDA is 0.8 grams protein per kilogram body weight, but that is widely regarded to be inadequate, especially for athletes and older people. A better starting point would be 1.0 – 1.2 g/kg, with some seniors and hard training folks closer to 1.5 g/kg (or even up to 2 g/kg for calorie-restricted diets or intense periods of heavy training).
Most Americans eat more than enough protein, but the quality is another issue: your protein should come from mostly plant-based sources, lean meats, and low-fat dairy, and I look for a calorie to grams of protein ratio of no more than 10:1 for a food to be considered a “protein” in my diet. An example would be the super-firm sprouted tofu in my fridge, with 120 calories and 14 grams of protein per serving, which is over that 10:1 ratio (8.6:1). Look for a minimum of saturated fats and zero trans fats.
Finally, the high-quality fats. This one isn’t too complicated: plant sources are generally best (think avocados, olive oil, raw nuts, or dark chocolate), and high fat meats and dairy the worst (think bacon, ½ & ½, fatty cuts of steak, or ice cream). There are a few exceptions: the omega-3 fatty acids appear to have some potentially significant health benefits, and the best quality source of those fats comes from cold-water fish (sardines, herring, anchovies, some tuna, salmon). Plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids are in a less usable form, and the conversion rate to the good form of omega-3s is quite low. There is a bit of new evidence that a higher fat version of the DASH diet may be even more beneficial, but those data are new and mixed in their results.
Take any diet with a healthy dose of skepticism, but the general rules above have been repeatedly proven in studies over the years. A little bit of everything, not too much of anything, and cook it yourself.