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What the New Dietary Guidelines Left Out

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Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD - Blogs
By Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RDRegistered dietitianFebruary 08, 2021

Every 5 years, the government comes out with recommendations for how we should eat called the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Even if the average person doesn’t follow them to a letter, what they say really matters. The Guidelines help shape policies and programs that affect millions of people and even influence the food industry.

The newest edition includes familiar advice about eating a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, lean meats, and whole grains. But it’s actually what the Guidelines left out that you should know about.

First, some quick backstory: Before the Guidelines are released, an advisory committee of scientific experts looks at the evidence and submits a report with what they think should be included. Then two government agencies, the USDA and HHS, write the Guidelines.

This time around, the committee recommended two things that didn’t end up making the final cut: stricter advice around both alcohol and sugar.

Since 1990, the Guidelines’ advice about alcohol has been no more than two drinks a day for men and one for women, and the latest edition stuck with that. One drink is the equivalent of 12 ounces of regular beer (5% alcohol), 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol), or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits (40% alcohol).

But the committee had suggested tightening that guidance to one drink or less per day for both men and women, citing evidence that the health risks are higher with more than that. Rates of drinking are up among Americans, including binge drinking. Deaths from alcohol are up too, with alcohol accounting for 100,000 deaths every year.

As for sugar, the advice has morphed from “avoid too much sugar” in the 1980s to a suggested limit of no more than 10% of calories from added sugar (also included in the newest Guidelines). Most people get about 13% of their calories from sugar.

Yet the committee suggested an even lower intake of 6% of calories. Their reasoning: Reducing sugar could help public health. And most people need to focus their daily calories on foods that give them the nutrients they need -- they can’t afford to spend those calories on sugary foods and drinks. (The top sources of added sugar are sweet beverages and desserts.)

Why didn’t these stricter limits make it in? The authors of the Guidelines didn’t think there was enough evidence -- and they aren’t obligated to take all the committee’s recommendations anyway.

Let’s face it: A global pandemic is not exactly the best time to shame people about drinking alcohol or eating sugar. But it’s good to know what’s on the minds of some health experts, what kind of recommendations we might see down the road, and what we might want to consider for our own lives.

So in the meantime, here’s what both the committee and Guidelines do agree on: However much alcohol you drink, drinking less is better for your health than drinking more (and if you currently don’t drink, don’t start for health reasons). And limit portions of sugar-sweetened drinks -- or better yet, replace them with water.


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About the Author
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD

Sally Kuzemchak is a registered dietitian in Columbus, Ohio. An award-winning reporter and writer, Sally has been published in magazines such as Health, Family Circle, and Eating Well and is a Contributing Editor to Parents magazine. She is the author of the book The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She blogs at Real Mom Nutrition, a "no-judgments" zone all about feeding families.

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