Diets on Parade: The Best and Worst of the 2017 Best Diets Report

Healthy foods speared on large fork
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The annual overview of “best diets” by US News & World Report may not generate quite the eager expectation of that giant crystal ball dropping in Times Square, but judging from the media attention it engenders, it comes pretty close. This year is no different, and the 2017 best diet rankings are enjoying their time in the spotlight.

I’ve been privileged to serve as one of the judges for this project for, I believe, the past 7 years.

For this latest version, I was in the company of 19 colleagues. We each scored all 38 of the entries across seven performance categories using a numerical point system, and the editors then aggregated our scores to determine the final rankings.

Since I enjoy an insider’s view of the process, along with the public view of the results, I thought the home crowd here at Verywell might appreciate my perspective on the best, and worst, aspects of the best diets report.

The Best of the Best Diets Report

1) The company is fine.

The panel of experts invited to score diets is always impressive, and it really is a privilege to be included.  US News & World Report does a great job of capturing diverse perspectives, credentials, and disciplines, and thus informing the rankings with hybrid vigor.

2) No heavy lifting.

The information provided to us for review is beautifully organized, facilitating efficient judgments.

We get an overview of each diet, including not only the salient features, but also any relevant research and data.  The score sheets are also user friendly, making it easy for each of us to score every diet on the same scales, for all the same attributes.

3) One-stop shopping.

What matters most, of course, is what you, the reader, finally get to see.

There, I do think US News & World Report is providing a very valuable service. After all, with or without a concise ranking of diets, diet shopping is going to happen this time of year. This annual report basically says: if you are going to shop for a diet THIS New Year’s, start here and find out how they all fare with experts in the field.

Since the inventory of diets reviewed for this report expands every year, it really does provide an opportunity for one-stop diet shopping for all. Readers can select diets based on a personal health or weight goal, or choose from the diets that performed best overall. But since all diets were scored for safety and nutritional completeness, choosing a diet near the top of any of the rank lists guarantees a reasonable choice. All of the diets that perform well in this report are fundamentally reasonable.

4) Suit your taste.

Finally, this report honors two basic truths about diet. The first is that the basic theme of eating for good health is well established, and not up for debate. It is a product of massive evidence of every description, and global consensus. By ranking diets across multiple categories including their completeness, safety, and capacity to prevent disease, this report reliably puts at the top of every list dietary patterns that adhere to the theme.

The second is that diet shares a characteristic with exercise: in some ways, the “best” one is the one that you will actually do! No matter how good a dietary pattern is, it won’t do you much good if you can’t get yourself to swallow it. By laying out a menu of diet options, this report empowers you to find the variant on the theme of eating well most likely to work for you and your family. The project clearly has pop-culture sex appeal, but by guiding the public to sensible, vetted variants on the theme of eating well for health promotion and weight control alike, it has some genuine public health merit, too.

The Worst of the Best Diets Report

There's the rosy picture, here are a few thorns.

1) There's no good answer to a bad question.

To put it rather bluntly, I think “dieting” is a bad idea. Diet plans of all types tend to be things people go both on, and off. As a result, all of them wind up being temporary solutions to the permanent problem of eating well for health and weight, and pleasure for that matter.

If we concede that “which diet should I try this year?” is a bad question, then there are no good answers, no matter how carefully collated and culled. We should be working, both as individuals and as a culture, toward a dietary pattern that fosters health for a lifetime. There is little room in such an effort for “going on” a diet.

2) No one is an island.

Our editors at US News & World Report ask us if there are additional categories we think would add value to the scoring process, and so far, they haven’t taken me up on my top suggestion: suitability for a family.

I spent five years as editor-in-chief of the peer-reviewed journal Childhood Obesity, and so have a better perspective than most on the scope and impact of the childhood obesity epidemic in our country.  Accordingly, I don’t think it’s responsible for parents to “go on” diets that leave their kids behind.

But the argument is just as strong in the other direction. There is strength in unity that we never have alone. Trying to diet while your family eats otherwise almost never works. Families working together to eat better can reinforce one another, change the “culture” of the household, and make permanent improvements, so says this father of five! I have gone so far as to write that “dieting” should die, because it tends to imply a go-it-alone activity in an area that demands of us responsible attention to the health of children, and requires of us the strength to go the distance born only of unity.

3) Go anyway.

Finally, it’s not coincidence that this report comes out at the beginning of the year.  It plays to the perennial zeitgeist, and the notion that this is the time to make changes. Dietary change, generally for weight loss, invariably tops the list of New Year’s resolutions.

I have a problem with that, because lasting behavior change simply doesn’t work that way.  New Year’s resolutions are of the “go, anyway, whether or not ready and set” variety. Lasting behavior change involves preparation; ready and set really should precede “go.”  To whatever extent this report encourages a “go, anyway” mentality, it figures among the many reasons why all the same people shopping for diets this year will be doing it again in 2018.

How to Best Use the Best Diets Report

How, then, to make the best use of the best diets report and avoid any perils in the worst of it?Here are my takeaway tips:

Embrace the theme of eating well. The fundamentals of a dietary pattern that favor human well-being, both weight control and good health, longevity and vitality, really are well established. Never shop for a diet that diverges from that theme, with its emphasis on minimally processed vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and water preferentially for thirst. That theme is conducive to varied diets and the pleasure of great food, and fortuitously, it is beneficial to the planet, too. Since we can choose food that loves us, our families, our palates, our waistlines, our health, and the planet back, why wouldn’t you?

Get ready and set before you go. The likelihood that you are ready to make a permanent lifestyle change just because it’s January is really quite remote.  Don’t go into dietary change unless you really are ready and set to do so.

Have you thought about finding and identifying more nutritious food, affording it, preparing it?  Have you thought about time management, social challenges, your family’s reaction? Do you have the skills you need, from food label literacy, to cooking? Resolving to get ready and set for dietary change would be a very productive use of the New Year’s inspiration, but only go when you truly are ready. Otherwise, you, like so many others, are apt to fall off the wagon before the crocuses come up, and you will be stuck carrying the weight of one more “failure” that was never really your fault in the first place. Don’t do that to yourself.  Diet, like fortune, favors the prepared.

Remember the tortoise and the hare. I’m sure we have all read Aesop’s (or, if you are French like my wife, La Fontaine’s) fables, including, famously, the one about the tortoise and the hare. Somehow, though, when it comes to diets, and the New Year, we all forget who wins that race!

The tortoise slowly, methodically, and relentlessly progresses toward that finish line and wins the race.  When it comes to diet and health, you can win, too, if you focus on health, not just weight; your family, not just yourself; skillpower, not just willpower; the long term rather than a quick fix; and the opportunity to combine the pleasures of good food and good health, and to love the food that loves you back for a lifetime. Keep that big picture in view, and the race is yours.

The annual Best Diets overview by US News & World Report is very good. It’s a great place to shop if you are looking for a carefully considered diet. But how much better will it be if, come 2018, you are out of that market altogether!

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