What’s the healthiest diet to follow if you’re not a vegetarian?

What does a healthy diet look like?  You probably still find it confusing, despite (or maybe because of) all the diet books, food pyramids, and “expert” advice out there.

US News recently convened a panel of health experts who reviewed 38 diets. Their choice for the healthiest one: the DASH diet.

We agree.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has developed and tested three flexible variations of the DASH diet called the OmniHeart diet.

The diets were remarkably effective at lowering blood pressure, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and triglycerides.

Blood pressure

The Omniheart diet lowered systolic blood pressure by 13 to 16 points in people with hypertension (systolic blood pressure —the higher number—over 140). Blood pressure fell by 8 points in people who had pre-hypertension (systolic pressure between 120 and 139).

“The diets lower blood pressure more than most drugs,” says Frank Sacks, a cardiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health and one of OmniHeart’s principal investigators.

Cholesterol

The Omniheart diet lowered LDL (“bad”) cholesterol by 20 to 24 points in people with high cholesterol. LDL fell by 5 points in people whose levels weren’t high when the study started (they had LDL below 130). That’s not quite what you’d get from a prescription statin drug like Lipitor (a drop of 50 to 100 points), but it’s no small potatoes. The Omniheart diet also lowered damaging triglycerides by 9 to 16 points.

What makes the OmniHeart diet so potent?

It wasn’t just the low levels of saturated and trans fat (7 percent of calories), sodium (2,300 milligrams a day), and added sugar (2 to 5 teaspoons a day). It was also the high levels of potassium (4,700 mg a day), magnesium (500 mg), calcium (1,200 mg), and fiber (30 grams) in the diets.

Here’s a snapshot of what’s in the OmniHeart diet and examples of what makes a serving. If it seems skimpy, relax. The diet is designed for someone who eats 2,000 calories a day. If you eat more, just up the servings proportionately.

What about the pizza, tiramisu, gourmet ice cream, and other foods that aren’t here? Okay, so maybe you won’t follow the diet every single meal. Think of it as an ideal.

And what if you don’t want to measure out each portion of every food you eat? If you just get used to filling at least half of your plate with fruits and vegetables, that alone would be a success.

Omniheart Diet Guide Chart

The Omniheart Diet Guide Chart

 

A Day’s Worth of Food

Here’s a hybrid of the two OmniHeart diets, combining one higher in protein and one higher in unsaturated fat. We used the Wild Card for protein (the salmon), but you can use it for more oil or carbs if you prefer.

This version is for someone who needs only 2,100 calories a day. We added a few extra servings of fruits and vegetables. Extra salad greens can’t hurt!

omniheart-diet

Source: JAMA 294: 2455, 2005. 

This post was originally published in 2013 and is updated regularly.

Related post

The history of the OmniHeart diet.

 

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23 Replies to “What’s the healthiest diet to follow if you’re not a vegetarian?”

  1. OK, looks doable if Americans would be motivated to avoid so many addictions like the ubiquitous enormous burgers, fat-filled cookie “snacks”, etc. I notice when traveling that a “shake” in many other countries is a concoction of fresh and frozen fruit, ice, and maybe some yogurt, just as yummy. We could quickly learn to love healthy alternarives if we unhook from the need for a fatty taste. Also – the OmniHeart diet feels like the Weight Watcher diet I started in the 80’s,and still follow every day w/ occassional tweeks. Eating this way changed my life so much for the better, and I love my food!!!

    1. Right on Barbara. I can’t eat burgers in restaurants any longer because they are so unappealingly large. As Sheldon on “Big Bank Theory” would say . . . the meat to bread to condiment ratio is all off.

  2. Please view the documentary film, “The Perfect Human Diet”. You will learn, in no uncertain terms, that the high carbohydrate, low protein, whole grain approach to “health” has been debunked. The human body evolved in a manner critically dependent upon high protein and saturated fats. In effect, the “low carb”, or “paleo diets” are far more effective in controlling weight, and MORE importantly in generating a healthy lifestyle. Human health overall began to decline when mankind learned the fine “art” of harvesting WHEAT for bread, etc.

    1. It looks as if this diet has a content of fifty to seventy-five grams of protein, great if you are a child or midget!

      1. From Nutrition Action Healthletter: The dairy, legumes, meat/poultry/fish, and grains alone add up to 85 grams of protein before counting the wild card. The recommended amount of protein is 46 grams a day for women and 56 grams a day for men, though many researchers suggest 25 percent more than that for older adults to maintain muscle mass. We recommend a daily amount of protein in grams that’s equal to half your healthy weight in pounds.

  3. Can dried fruits and vegetables be used instead of fresh? It’s easy when working to grab and go for snacks, instead of eating steamed broccoli or sliced tomato…that can get messy

  4. I think there are still too many servings of grains for someone who is diabetic. As much as I love my breads this is one area that can really spike your blood sugar. Maybe sub a glass of red wine with dinner instead LOL !

  5. Gotta admit this is pretty radical for the average citizen, one serving of meat and eleven of vegetables and fruit. Wow! If the evidence keeps confirming this diet’s positive benefits, then that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

    1. The cookie has long since crumbled. The DASH Diet, a great improvement over the Standard American Diet, was fudged by Dr. Sacks, thinking (as some notes here attest) that most Americans wouldn’t stand for a Whole Foods-Plant Based diet. So we have 2 cups milk or yogurt or cheese equivalent, although the galactose is known to have negative effects– which yogurt or kefir would take care of. And the fish-fowl-meat. And the smidge of oils. And the fake desserts, because no American will eat an apple for dessert, or god forbid a snack.
      Then there are the so-called paleo diets; attempts at reconstructing ACTUAL paleo diets, by Simopoulos and others, yield fiber content hovering about 100 grams, not yer meat’n’taters paleo– and it turns out, WFPB satisfies more researched-paleo criteria than ‘paleo’.
      So the headline has it almost right: if you can’t go healthy (WFPB), with what that entails, here’s a second-best to try. But why not at least mention the best? So I did.

      1. “So we have 2 cups milk or yogurt or cheese equivalent, although the galactose is known to have negative effects– which yogurt or kefir would take care of.”
        How do you think yogurt or kefir is going to take care of galactose? Galactose is one of the simple sugars (glucose being the other one) that is the result of the breakdown of the disaccharide lactose in dairy products. Yogurt and kefir made from dairy have little lactose but have much more galactose than the dairy from which they are made.

  6. If they are recommending 2 cups of milk a day and 2 and a quarter cups of milk a day increases a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer, how smart can they really be?

    1. From Nutrition Action Healthletter May 2015:
      “Consuming dairy products…has been shown to increase one’s risk of ovarian cancer,” says “The Dr. Oz Show” website. “Studies have found that people who ate 30 grams of lactose a day increased their ovarian cancer risk by 20 percent. That’s one glass of milk or one cup of ice cream!” Relax. Dr. Oz hasn’t done his homework. For starters, one glass of milk has 12 grams of lactose and a cup of ice cream has about 10 grams. What’s more, it’s not even clear that dairy or lactose matters. When it comes to ovarian cancer, “dairy has been studied more than any other food,” says Melissa Merritt, a research fellow in cancer epidemiology at Imperial College London. “But there’s no consistent evidence linking dairy to ovarian cancer.” For example, when researchers pooled data on roughly 550,000 women in 12 studies, they found a “weak, marginally significant” link between lactose and ovarian cancer—and that was only if women got the lactose you’d get in at least three cups of milk per day. They found no link with cheese, yogurt, or calcium. But “when we looked at the Nurses’ Health Study, we didn’t see an association between lactose intake and ovarian cancer risk,” adds Merritt.23 “That was reassuring.” Her bottom line: “I wouldn’t advise
      women to change their dairy intake to avoid ovarian cancer.”

  7. I don’t believe there is enough protein in that day’s worth of food to maintain muscle mass in an older adult. How much protein per day is in the OmniHeart diet, and how much protein per day is recommended by the USDA Dietary Guidelines?

    1. From Nutrition Action Healthletter: The dairy, legumes, meat/poultry/fish, and grains alone add up to 85 grams of protein before counting the wild card. The recommended amount of protein is 46 grams a day for women and 56 grams a day for men, though many researchers suggest 25 percent more than that for older adults to maintain muscle mass. We recommend a daily amount of protein in grams that’s equal to half your healthy weight in pounds.

  8. This diet is soooo outdated. Low carb high fat LCHF has healed so many deceases. It is the opposite of what nutritionists and doctors have studied, and would put the pharmaceutical industry out of.business. Google it, Dr. Tim Noakes of SA wrote a book on how to load up on carbs before a marathon run 30 yrs ago, and he has now openly admitted he was wrong! He himself, a marathon runner, developed diabetes, which he cured with LCHF diet, or “lifestyle”. This works!

  9. How do I adjust this for my needs? At 59 yrs & 5’2″ and 20 lbs to lose I need to eat 1200-1400 calories per day. Any advice? Thanks.

  10. I am 77 and could never eat that much food as listed on the Omni diet. Plus I need to loose 10 pounds, what am I do do?

  11. I realize that the Omniheart chart was published by JAMA, but it would be nice if they and Nutrition Action could be a bit less ambiguous about their serving sizes. What is “one piece of fruit”? That 1/4 canteloupe could easily be over 300 grams, the banana over 200. Other diet systems equate a piece of fruit to 1/2 cup. 1/2 cup of diced fruit would probably weigh less than 125 grams so the recommended banana and wedge of melon could easily be 5 servings instead of 2. Same issue with 4 cups of salad – that kale/brussel sprout/cabbage mix probably would be twice the weight of that spring greens mix, for the same volume. And 1 slice of bread is a serving of grains? Is that a half ounce slice or a two ounce slice? That range is possible even in pre-sliced bread from your local baker.
    I would find it hard to consume the recommended 11 servings of fruits and greens because ‘one piece’ is often so large, or ‘4 cups’ so substantial. If weight measures are too intimidating for the general public, then volumes (like the deck of cards for protein) might help. Problem is that small errors can make for large ones – a 3.5 inch orange is 50% larger than a 3″ one and almost 3 times larger than a 2.5″ one. Which one of these is the “one piece” orange in the recommendations? Reminds me of the old cookbooks – a ‘dash’ of this or a ‘pinch’ of that, or a ‘good handful’ of something else. If the recommendations cannot be made more specific than something that permits 100% or more variation from the intended amounts, then recommendation like a 9″ dinner plate filled half with bright colored vegetables, 1/4 with starch and 1/4 with protein (or something like that) at least provide useful guidance. Without better quantification the Omniheart diet is no better than the plate portions approach.

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