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5 Problems with US News & World Report’s Diet Rankings

Yesterday marked the release of US World & News Report’s annual “best diets for healthy eating” rankings.

I am not a fan of diet rankings (our nutritional landscape’s Achilles heel is the obsession with dieting, as opposed to learning and developing healthful habits), but this list particularly disappointed and frustrated me.

Below, the five main problems I spotted.

1. Flawed methodology.

While US News & World Report recognizes that weight loss does not intrinsically equate with health, their criteria for a ‘bad diet’ is one that “locks out or severely restricts entire food groups, like carbs, or relies on supplements with little scientific backing, or clamps down on calories to an extreme.”

Not only are carbohydrates not a unique food group (they are found in fruits, grains, and vegetables), but the mere elimination of, say, dairy or grains does not necessarily result in nutritional deficiencies. More on that later.

I am more bothered by the red flags left out of that definition. Diet plans like Slimfast — where meals are often replaced by highly processed ‘foods’ — or NutriSystem — where you rely on pre-portioned meals to arrive at your doorstep — are problematic since they don’t do help people truly connect with food, nor do they instill healthful habits.

2. No regard for ingredients or foods.

Slimfast rates as #11 on this list of best popular diets, with a total score of 3.5 stars out of 5. I can’t begin to grasp that relatively high score. Consider, for instance, the ingredients that make up a Slimfast ‘sweet & salty chocolate almond meal bar’ (I have bolded certain ingredients):

Soy crisp with cocoa [soy protein isolate, tapioca starch, cocoa (processed with alkali), calcium carbonate], almonds, fructose, dry roasted peanuts, chocolate flavored coating [sugar, fractionated palm kernel oil, cocoa (processed with alkali), lactose, dextrose, soy lecithin, natural flavor, partially hydrogenated palm oil], polydextrose, enriched wheat flour (wheat flour, niacin, iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), toasted rolled oats (rolled oats, high fructose corn syrup, soybean oil, honey), corn syrup, milk, water, cocoa (processed with alkali), glycerin, inulin, chocolate, sunflower oil, maltodextrin, butter (cream, salt), palm oil, nonfat milk, sugar, salt, fractionated palm kernel oil, natural and artificial flavor, soy lecithin, whey, locust bean gum, sucralose and acesulfame potassium (nonnutritive sweeteners), dextrose, nonfat yogurt powder (cultured nonfat milk), sodium bicarbonate, mixed tocopherols (used to protect quality), artificial color, partially hydrogenated palm oil, soybean oil, gum arabic, brown sugar, citric acid, caramel color. Vitamins and minerals: calcium carbonate, potassium chloride, ascorbic acid, vitamin e acetate, niacinamide, biotin, folic acid, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin b6), riboflavin, vitamin a palmitate, calcium pantothenate, cyanocobalamin (vitamin b12), thiamin mononitrate, phytonadione (vitamin k1), cholecalciferol (vitamin d3).

Trans fats, a multitude of GMO ingredients, alkalized cocoa (AKA: cocoa that has been stripped of most of its health-promoting and beneficial compounds), artificial sweeteners, artificial dyes, omega-6 loaded soybean oil, and more white flour than whole grains. How can a diet program that centers around these sorts of “meals” (that atrocity is meant to replace a meal!) earn more than a single star?

3. The same old anti-vegan critiques.

This is perhaps the most disappointing aspect. A vegan way of eating (the term ‘vegan diet’ bothers me because it assumes weight-loss is the driving factor for people, when it usually is not) is ranked at #16.

Let me put that in perspective. A gimmicky diet program where you drink chemicals in a can (Slimfast) is ranked 5 spots higher than a way of eating that is simply about eating plant-based foods. Additionally, the critiques are rather uninformed and archaic. Consider these examples:

  • “Be mindful that healthy veganism requires planning, especially if you’re a newbie.”: A more accurate statement is that veganism requires a change in lifelong habits, so there is, of course, going to be a transitional period.  Once it’s traversed, new habits become ‘the norm’.
  • Veganism takes some work and creativity”. Perhaps if you were left to your own accord, but with the slew of vegan cookbooks on the market — many tailored to individuals looking for quick and easy meals — I vehemently disagree. Sure, cooking from scratch requires more work and creativity than nuking a Weight Watchers meal in the microwave, but that applies to any way of eating.
  • “It’s moderately pricey. Fruits, vegetables, and soy products—which should be filling your cart if you’re doing it right—are generally more expensive than heavily processed foods like white bread, sugary cereals, and sweets.”. Soy products are not necessarily an example of “doing veganism right”. Tempeh and edamame are one thing, but stocking up on soy hot dogs, soy nuggets, and soy burgers is not “doing it right”.  As for cost: anything is expensive in comparison to subsidized minimally nutritious foods, so why single veganism out?
  • “It can be really restrictive”. You literally have thousands of foods at your disposal.  It may be restrictive if you’re dining at a steakhouse or Arby’s, but why should that be the defined standard?

4. Very limited knowledge of raw food diets.

This article makes the classic mistake of casting all raw food diets as nutritionally imbalanced and potentially dangerous. One of the ‘warnings’? “Food poisoning could stem from eating raw or undercooked meat, fish, milk, or eggs.” An odd critique, since, except for very rare occasions, raw food diets are vegan.

One mentioned critique of raw food diets is that they ‘eliminate food groups’.  While some raw foodists abstain from grains and legumes (and all abstain from dairy), there is no evidence that shunning grains and/or dairy leads to deficiencies, particularly if said diet is high in whole foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.

Keep in mind, too, that many raw foodists consume ‘pesudograins’ like buckwheat and quinoa as well as whole grains like oats, corn, and wheatberries. So, really, the ‘food avoidance’ concern is not warranted. As far as fears of eliminating dairy, not only does bone health go beyond calcium & vitamin D; many vital nutrients found in plant-based foods are missing from dairy.

While I do not believe the enzyme theory central to the raw food diet (the idea being that we must get digestive enzymes from foods, and therefore should not heat them above a certain temperature) holds weight, I don’t have a problem with the diet’s nutritional composition. On the contrary, I find it is nutrient-rich and centered around a plethora of healthful whole foods.

Can it be unbalanced or lacking in nutrients? Absolutely, just like any other way of eating (is a breakfast of Lucky Charms and chocolate milk, or a lunch made up of chicken nuggets and soda “balanced” or “nutritious”?). It is also important to point out that while some raw food “gurus” take an ‘all or nothing’ approach and make ludicrous claims like “cooked food kills” (spoiler: it doesn’t!), many raw foodists simply want people to eat more raw plant-based foods, which sounds like a great idea to me.

5. The double-edged research sword.

Two of the criteria — “heart-healthy” and “can help prevent/treat diabetes” — rely on peer-reviewed research. The problem within this particular context is that it systematically gives Slim-Fast, NutriSystem, and Weight Watchers an unfair advantage. Not only do big corporations have money to spend on research, but since those diet plans are very uniform and popular, they are easier to include in a study and have scientific results about.

A vegan diet, for example, can take on many different forms, which can lead to ‘inconclusive’ or ‘mixed’ results. A vegan ‘diet’ rich in nuts, seeds, avocados, coconut, and dark leafy greens will yield very different results from one that is high in refined flours, added sugars, and unhealthy oils like corn or cottonseed.

————————————————————————————————————————–

Despite the hegemonic “battle of the diets” meme that often makes the media rounds, no one can argue against a whole-foods, plant-centric approach.

Interestingly, the better-rated plans (DASH, Mediterranean, etc.) aren’t so much strict diets as ‘good guidelines for health’ (i.e: prioritize fruits and vegetables, choose whole grains over refined, consume healthful fats, limit red meat and added sugars).

The American public would benefit less from rankings and lists, and more from nutrition advice based on common sense and whole, real foods.

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16 Comments

  1. Jaclyn said on November 2nd, 2011

    Really interesting article, Andy. I found #3 particularly intriguing and, as a vegetarian who has been looking into veganism for some time now, I think it would be really cool if you could tell us a little about your personal journey to veganism. What influenced your decision, and what tools/resources did you find most helpful in making the transition?

    Thanks, and love the blog :)

  2. Andy Bellatti said on November 2nd, 2011

    Jaclyn,

    I’ll give a Cliffs Notes version. I went vegetarian in 1998, but didn’t really start eating healthy until around 2003 (by that I mean that I would regularly eat fries, mozarella sticks, pizza, soda, etc.) Once I got more into health and nutrition in 2003, I started integrating more whole grains and legumes. Around 2007, I took an interest in veganism and started exploring with some cookbooks. By late 2008, I was interested in raw veganism (not as something I wanted to do 100%, but recipes I wanted to incorporate and flavors/techniques I wanted to try). It all came gradually and naturally — over a decade, plus a few years — and was born out of my own natural curiosity to try new foods and cooking methods (or, in some cases, ‘uncooking’ methods).

    This was all happening in conjunction with my nutrition studies, so I knew that not drinking dairy did not mean I was going to be calcium deficient, for example. What I can tell you is that I never had a moment of “that’s it, tomorrow I’m going vegan”. Rather, I liked how almond milk tasted in my coffee. And then, oh wow, oatmeal is really good when you make it with coconut milk! And, wow, that recipe for vegan muffins was delicious, etc, etc.

  3. Mitzi said on November 2nd, 2011

    I agree whole-heartedly with your criticisms. Sometimes we do need to eliminate a food group, especially when it causes demonstrable harm. And as a budding researcher I look with a very skeptical eye at any paper trumpeting some new supplement or drink or bar as the answer to obesity. The Slimfast stuff is pretty scary. Take cholesterol-raising palm oil- and partially hydrogenate it? Then drink it instead of using for a lube job on your car? Ouch.

    I’ve gone mostly vegan (except for a few eggs on week-ends, a bit of fish a few times a month, and dairy if I cannot avoid it on a restaurant menu) over the course of a Ph.D. in biochemistry/cell biology, doing gastrointestinal research at a medical school. Just spent a half-day in hypertension research seminars, with doctors talking about the relative effectiveness of drugs while stating, “we induced these conditions in mice with a high fat, high salt diet”. I asked about lifestyle change, and the physician stated that it clearly works, but most patients won’t do it, in a clear tone of frustration. These ranking lists with their “fake food is better than something you have to PLAN” message only reinforce the bad attitudes that prevent real dietary improvement.

  4. Barry said on November 2nd, 2011

    Great one, Andy. I can’t say I will ever (or never for that matter) be vegan or even vegetarian, but cutting back on animal protein is current goal. I’m just having difficulty working in a substitute. For the most part, the red meat we consume is pasture raised/fed and I have a source for poultry, also pastured. I want to raise my own birds next year, but am concerned about being able to find good, organic, non-GM grain to supplement their diet as I have limited pasture area.

    I am hoping to try making my own almond milk very soon and am looking forward to trying it in my coffee. Thanks for all your valuable input.

    (Oh, and paragraph 2 under #4 “As far fears…” just prior to the link) ;)

  5. Andy Bellatti said on November 2nd, 2011

    Barry,

    I’m glad you left this comment, because it brings me to why I always use the term “plant-centric”. It can certainly mean “plant-based foods only”, but it can also mean “a largely plant-based diet”. What you mention in your comment is key — reducing one’s intake of animal protein (even more so if the bulk of it is from CAFO-sourced animals raised on GMO feeds and injected with growth hormones and antibiotics). I don’t have an issue with styles of eating that are largely plant-centric, but not vegetarian or vegan.

    As I always like to tell people, taste is subjective and you are more than entitled to your opinion, but not until you actually give something a try. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me “I hate chickpeas”, and I later find out they’ve only ever eaten them straight out of a can in a salad. They try them roasted with spices and suddenly, the perception of chickpeas changes!

    Thank you for the editing FYI, too — changed the paragraph.

  6. Chris Langley said on November 3rd, 2011

    Insightful.

  7. susan yager said on November 3rd, 2011

    The very idea of “good” weight loss diet versus “bad” is illogical thinking. The original Atkins eliminated fruits and vegetables, and millions embraced it as “good.” (How ludicrous is that?) Essentially, “diets” set people up to fail, so more “diets” can be sold. Eating less leads to weight loss, less of what is relevant in terms of health, but not weight. That’s why something like DASH is so beneficial long term, as you point out. Anyway, thanks for this piece!

  8. Brandon said on November 3rd, 2011

    I always say when you consider the satiety factor, frutis and vegetables are cheap and sweets are expensive. A bag of chips/candy for $2, even on sale, is expensive. I can eat the whole bag and still not be full. ‘Sick’ maybe, but not full.

    It seems the best way to go is whole foods. The paleo/primal eaters have luck with their [grass-fed] meats, vegans have luck with their beans.

  9. Marla Heller, MS, RD said on November 3rd, 2011

    This take on the best diet rankings from US News & World Report, somehow neglects to mention that the best diet and the healthiest diet are the DASH diet. It is a healthy, balanced plan, based on real food.

    “The DASH Diet Action Plan” was written to make the DASH diet easy to put into practice. 28 days of meal plans and recipes, tracking forms, tips, strategies for staying on track. Readers say, “I can do that!” They also say that it doesn’t feel like they are on a diet, but they are losing weight. The DASH eating plan is for the whole family, and is a plan you can follow for life. For more info: http://dashdiet.org

    Marla Heller, MS, RD
    Author of the user-friendly guide, The DASH Diet Action Plan

  10. Andy Bellatti said on November 3rd, 2011

    Marla,

    In the conclusion of the post, I point out that the DASH and Mediterranean diets’ higher ratings make sense to me because they aren’t diets as much as they are “good, healthful advice”.

  11. Barry said on November 4th, 2011

    I think they use the word ‘diet’ in the titles to make people feel like they are doing something with a purpose. When someone tells me they need to go on a diet, I sometimes say, “well you’re on a diet. It’s just not a healthful one”. Most people (at work) no longer ask me if I want a cupcake or a cookie or whatever because they know I will not put that stuff in my mouth. I was lucky enough to be able to curb the addiction to sweets, but in a non-conventional way. I would simply look at something (cake, cupcake, coffee roll, etc) and imagine the baker as a filthy, sweaty mess who refused to wash his hands. That’s sort of rude when you know that a co-worker made the goodies, so I would tell myself their kids probably had a (dirty) hand in making it and I did not want to catch whatever germs they had. What can I say? It worked for me. These days, after any and all obvious hints of addiction are gone, I can look at something and think, “that’s just wrong and should not be considered food”.

    I wrote down everything I ate yesterday and was astonished at how many fruits and veggies I consumed, with minimal meat and dairy. If I can keep that up, and tweak it to include more variety, more prebiotics and probiotics, I’ll be in great shape. I do need to watch that I am taking in enough nutrients and calories, especially on running/cycling days.

    Thanks for the input Andy.

  12. Tanya @ Dine, Dash, and Deadlift said on November 4th, 2011

    Great post Andy! I would like to add a bit to the section where you talk about research on vegetarian diets being inconclusive. Certainly there are various ways of eating a plant-based diet, but there is A LOT of research the clearly supports their use and highlights a slew of health benefits associated with this type of lifestyle. The 7th Day Adventist Health Study papers as well as Dr. Neil Barnard’s research are just some examples!

    Cheers!

    Tanya

  13. Andy Bellatti said on November 4th, 2011

    Tanya,

    Thank you for your comment. You are right — there are many studies that show benefits of vegan eating. However, I am bothered when I see many review studies (or even individual studies) which “show” that vegan diets are defective in some way or “not as heart-healthy”, and when you look at the methodology, you see a vegan diet that wasn’t very high in healthful fats, etc. Vegan diets can take on so many different forms that, when it comes to research, there is very little consistency in how they are studied.

  14. Elisa Rodriguez, RD, LDN said on November 5th, 2011

    Hi Andy! Someone on the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group list serve shared this post and I’m glad they did. I agree with your interpretation and love how you spelled it out for folks. Thanks for sharing your work!

  15. Kate Shaw said on November 28th, 2011

    Great post Andy! I always cringe when I hear people talk about going on a ‘diet’.

    Just a small grammatical quibble: “centered around”, which you used several times, is a bit of a contradiction (though I know it’s a common idiom).

  16. Kate said on July 13th, 2012

    Great post, as usual. I think this list completely misses the point. To me, the best “diet” is the one you can stick with for the rest of your life. Was any sort of long term success rate calculated into these rankings? I have a gut feeling that the most long-term success comes when people make up their own path that works for their individual lives, but because these “diets” have no name and tend to have a follower of 1, they will never be included in this list
    I ran into an interesting and somewhat related phenomenon on the site I used to help me count calories when I was trying to figure out my own food and weight issues. They had a ranking of the “most successful diet plans” by user statistics. The site gave us the option of choosing a diet from a list or stating that we were on our own diet. “Kate’s Lifestyle Plan” or whatever we decided to call it. Because each of these individual plans was different, they would never be ranked in the stats, but over 2 years of interacting with people on that site, I noticed that most success stories were people making their own path. When you would look to the rankings, however, the HCG diet (500 calories a day + hormone injections) ranked #1 because its followers lost the most weight the most quickly. Obviously. Of course most of them gained it all back plus some more, but that wasn’t part of the ranking.
    This list made me think of that. Anyway, great post.

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