These days it seems that everyone has an opinion (usually a very strong one) about what constitutes a healthy diet. The problem is, many of these opinions aren’t based on the latest research – or any research, for that matter. And because we’re bombarded with nutrition information that’s often less than credible, it’s easy to view every piece of dietary advice with skepticism. But not all nutrition advice should be dismissed.
The new edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recently released by the USDA is grounded in the most current scientific evidence and provides solid information that can help reduce the risk of obesity and disease. Are the guidelines the result of a political process? Indeed they are. But that doesn’t mean that they should be regarded as misinformation. The advice in the guidelines is sound (though they could have gone even further in some cases, such as with sugary drinks and red meat).
Here’s my view on the guidelines’ most helpful take-aways – and the areas where it fell short:
- The focus of the new guidelines has shifted to an overall eating pattern – and away from recommending specific foods that you should eat or avoid. This is a positive change, as a healthy diet is about choices you make over a lifetime, not how much vitamin C or beta-carotene you’re eating at a given meal.
- The report also recommends caps to saturated fats, added sugars, and sodium — all of which can lead to overweight and disease, and all of which people tend to over-consume. Here are the limits the guidelines advises you to keep in mind:
- Less than 10% of calories per day from added sugars
- Less than 10% of calories per day from saturated fats
- Less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day of sodium for those over age 14
- While I agree with the report’s recommendations, when it comes to implementing them, the report could have been more straightforward in some areas. As Marion Nestle points out in her Food Politics blog instead of detailing strategies for reducing added sugar, “how about just saying: Cut down on sugary drinks or Drink water instead of sugary drinks.” After all, sugar-sweetened beverages account for nearly half (47%) of all added sugars. In my home we have a “no-sugary drinks” policy, choosing water, sparkling water and unsweetened tea instead. You can also limit added sugars by swapping whole fresh fruits for sugar-sweetened snacks and deserts.
- The updated Dietary Guidelines also fell short of offering clear-cut advice on the topic of meat. Instead of saying, “eat less red meat”, the guidelines limit saturated fats to less than 10% of daily calories. It’s more helpful to think in terms of choosing less meat (which is high in sat fats) and increasing intake of plant-based foods. If you’re a big meat-eater, cut back gradually by finding non-meat recipes that you enjoy and making vegetarian meals at least 2-3 times per week.
Overall, the new Dietary Guidelines are a very helpful tool for creating a healthy eating pattern. First, though, you need to personalize your plan by determining your daily calorie needs. Then, refer to the number of servings from each of the food groups that you should eat in a day or weekly from the examples outlined in the Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern, the Healthy Mediterranean-Style Eating Pattern or the Healthy Vegetarian Eating Pattern.