Saturday, January 11, 2014

Vegan, DASH, Mediterranean—Which Diet is Best?


By Ginny Messina, RD; original post here; reproduced with permission.

U.S. News recently published their report on the best diets for 2014. The ratings were based on factors like nutritional adequacy, ease of compliance, and effectiveness for weight control or managing chronic diseases.

Not surprisingly, eating patterns like the DASH diet and a traditional Mediterranean diet scored high. These are two dietary patterns that have a great deal of research behind them and have been shown to protect against chronic disease. They are also nutrient-rich and relatively easy to follow.

Like most of the other diets that received high scores, the DASH and the Mediterranean diets are plant-based. It’s not surprising since there is general consensus in the nutrition community about this. Diets that emphasize whole plant foods are healthier than those that are rich in animal foods. The Paleo Diet finished dead last in this comparison.

But, while the best diets were plant-based, vegetarian and vegan diets didn’t score too well. Veganism received low ratings for ease and for safety.  I addressed these issues in a post last year when the panelists raised the same concerns.

I suspect that those who reviewed these diets don’t have any actual experience with veganism. In particular they ignore the fact that “vegan” is actually a very general term for all kinds of diets that exclude animal products. Some vegan eating patterns are healthier than others and some are far more restrictive than others. Had they defined a vegan diet using my Plant Plate, I suspect that they would not have had so many concerns about nutrient shortfalls or ease of preparation.

The U.S. News panel also looked only at health effects of these diets. That was the purpose of this report, but I would say that in the 21st century, it’s an outdated perspective.

We’ve come a long way in our understanding of the impacts of diet since the early days of nutrition science. In 1918 dietary advice was to “Eat what you want after you eat what you should.” The only concern at that time was meeting nutrient needs.

Fifty years later, we knew that there was much more to nutrition than meeting nutrient needs. And today we know that there is much more to diet than personal health. Food choices have far-reaching impacts on animals, the environment, and workers in poor countries. Health experts need to take those issues into consideration if we are going to be honest and helpful about “best” diets. Dietitians and other nutrition experts shouldn’t be shy about doing so.

The DASH diet is great for health, but because it emphasizes lean meats like chicken over red meats like beef, it actually contributes to more animal suffering [also see this analysis and backing studies]. That’s not a good diet in my opinion, let alone a “best” diet. Its emphasis on dairy is also bad for the environment.

Fortunately, any of these healthy eating patterns—which again, are already plant-based—can be veganized with ease. The DASH diet emphasizes potassium and calcium along with healthy lean proteins. Vegans can get potassium and protein from cooked beans, and calcium from leafy greens and fortified plant milks. Veganizing the Mediterranean diet is a no-brainer since it’s a dietary pattern that already limits dairy and is rich in healthy plant foods like beans, nuts, veggies, and extra-virgin olive oil.

There are all kinds of dietary approaches—all variations on a plant-based theme—that will protect health. But when it comes to the bigger and more responsible picture—eating with a healthy, compassionate and just world in mind—there is only one best diet. Vegan wins hands down.