Dieting is a lonely road, at least when you go it alone. But when you make healthy eating a family affair, lasting success is likelier. The trick is finding an approach that's suitable for everyone—from the kids to grandpa. "Most diets aren't about the family, and that really is a fundamental flaw," says David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine. "It's typically an every-man-for-himself scenario, and inevitably, people leave their families behind."
Although most experts say "dieting" is inappropriate for children, who need ample calories and nutrients, there are plenty of family-friendly eating plans that accomplish both weight and health goals. The plan must be safe and nutritionally sound enough to meet the needs of all family members, whether they're 12 or 72. That disqualifies low-calorie and super-restrictive diets that skimp on important vitamins and nutrients, like carbs or calcium.
Family-friendly diets should also allow for splurging and negotiation; if a kid doesn't like fish, for example, is it OK to substitute a favorite meat? "The more restrictive it is, the less likely it is to work for a family," Katz says. Likewise, families may find it tough to adjust to plans with unconventional menus, such as the raw food diet, which mandates that food never be heated above 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Extra points go to plans that are tasty and call for widely available ingredients, rather than those found only in specialty stores.
Though settling on an approach requires research and planning, it's well worth the work, says Teresa Fung, a nutritionist at Simmons College in Boston. When only one family member is dieting, compliance can be difficult; it's easier to fall off the wagon when everyone else is digging into their favorites, and you're stuck with a prepackaged meal. A family-friendly diet comes with a built-in support system, and if you choose your plan wisely, the entire family's health could improve.
In June, U.S. News released its first-ever Best Diets rankings, an evaluation of 20 eating plans from Atkins to the Zone. Both Katz and Fung were among the 22 experts who rated the diets. Below are five they identified as the most family-friendly, listed in no particular order.
DASH Diet. This family-friendly eating pattern aims to deflate high blood pressure, and helps keep weight in check, too. Online materials suggest how many calories you should eat for your age and activity level, meaning DASH can be tailored for kids and seniors alike. Meals emphasize fruits, veggies, grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy, and lean meat, poultry, and fish—all conventional ingredients. DASH-friendly recipes range from grilled pineapple to Southwestern potato skins, fruit smoothies, and Buckwheat pancakes. "I don't think the typical American diet looks anything like DASH or Mediterranean," Fung says. "Most families get pizza or go out to eat twice a week. But even if the diet looks very distant from where you are, moving [one] step closer will be an improvement."
Mayo Clinic Diet. The Mayo Clinic's take on healthy eating revolves around fruits, veggies, and whole grains. You'll learn to replace bad eating habits, such as chowing down while watching TV, with good ones, like getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day. It's appropriate for all ages. Plus, you don't count calories—which can be tedious for kids—and you can snack all you want on fruits and veggies. Bonus: The Mayo Clinic Diet, an essential guidebook, offers a crash course in nutrition basics that parents can use to educate children. "Anything that's engaging or creates a dialogue is helpful," Katz says.
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Mediterranean Diet. There isn't one specific Mediterranean diet. The approach is an alternative to the typical overprocessed, fat- and sugar-laden American diet, and emphasizes fish, vegetables, and whole grains drizzled with olive oil. It's nutritionally sound and appropriate for all ages. "Some people say, 'I can't follow this diet because I don't like the foods,'" Fung says. "But actually, you can build a Mediterranean diet with very typical foods. Even someone like me, who doesn't like olives or grape leaves—I can still do it." That's because the approach doesn't ban entire food groups, which makes long-term compliance easier for all family members.
Vegetarian Diet. Most vegetarians choose a lacto-ovo approach, eliminating meat, fish, and poultry, while still eating eggs and dairy. The approach is more family-friendly than is super-restrictive veganism, which bans all animal products, including dairy. When done right, vegetarianism is nutritionally sound and can be tailored to all calorie levels. (A French-fries-and-doughnut diet technically counts as vegetarian.) What's more, research suggests going vegetarian helps keep the weight off and prevents chronic diseases, such as diabetes. Children will have an easier time adjusting to a vegetarian diet if they adopt it young, says Katz, since the older they get, the more difficult they'll find the sudden restrictions to be. Though doable, it does take planning to build a menu that meets the nutrition needs of vegetarians of all age; the American Dietetic Association says key nutrients to focus on are protein, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium and vitamins D and B-12. Vegetarians sometimes develop B-12 deficiencies, since the vitamin is most plentiful in seafood and beef, but it's possible to get enough from milk, yogurt, fortified cereals, and supplements.
Volumetrics. Some foods are less energy dense than others—that is, they have fewer calories per gram. Volumetrics teaches you to fill your plate with more of those, so you take in fewer calories without actually eating less food. The approach is heavy on fruits, veggies, and whole grains, and light on saturated fat and salt. It's safe, balanced, and easy to follow. Plus, you're allowed to eat out and splurge on occasion—and flexibility and variety are vital components of a family-friendly diet.