If you’re wondering what the nation’s foremost nutrition experts think America should be eating, the wait is over. By law, our dietary guidelines are updated every five years — and just in time for National Nutrition Month, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s (DGAC) report is out and up for debate. Now is the time to look at what’s new and what it means for people, communities and businesses.
Dietary Guidelines 101
The DGAC report was written by an expert committee, which reviews the current science to make evidence-based recommendations on what to eat for optimum public health. This year’s report validates tried-and-true recommendations (eat your vegetables), but also includes some surprises (cholesterol is no longer taboo).
It also explores new territory like environmental and sustainability factors. “I really like the broad approach of these dietary guidelines to create a ‘culture of health’ that places health in a broader perspective than the absence of disease,” says Pamela Koch, Ed.D., RD, Executive Director Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy, Teachers College, Columbia University.
The report is available for public comment — including those from individuals as well as industry groups — through April 8, 2015. Once the debate period is closed, Health and Human Services and the USDA go to work developing the final Dietary Guidelines for Americans, due out later this year.
The current report, unlike the final guidelines, has the benefit of being a purely academic report based on the best available science, which means that its recommendations have only the public’s health in mind. So regardless of what makes the cut for the final guidelines, the DGAC recommendations are worth paying attention to if health is important to you.
The Recommendations in a Nutshell
Half of all American adults have a preventable chronic disease, and more than half are overweight or obese. Americans overeat refined grains, solid fats and added sugars (mostly in the form of sugar-sweetened drinks and sweets) while not eating enough vegetables, fruit, dairy or whole grains.
Plant-based diets, which don’t necessarily exclude any food groups, are ideal because they promote human health as well as environmental health. The average American diet, which is higher in animal foods than a plant-based diet, results in more greenhouse-gas emissions, land use, water use and energy use.
Here’s a breakdown of the report’s recommendations:
Have More: Vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, water.
Have Some: Low-fat and nonfat dairy, seafood, alcohol in moderation for adults, coffee in moderation for adults.
Have Less/None: Red meat, processed meat, added sugar, high-caffeine drinks, refined grains, salt.
While the basics of how to eat well hold true (eat more fruits and vegetables, eat less saturated fat, salt and sugar), there is some news in this newest set of recommendations, most notably:
Sugar: Limit added sugars to no more than 10 percent of total calories per day (and the committee had the good foresight to preemptively say artificial sweeteners are not the answer).
What it means for you: For a 2,000-calorie diet, that means no more than 200 calories from added sugars, which is 50 grams, or about 12 teaspoons. For context, Americans take in quite a bit more: 22 to 30 teaspoons per day, and half of that comes from soda.
What it means for the industry: Food labels may change and businesses may look to reformulate their foods to look better when it comes to added sugar.
While artificial sweeteners were specifically called out as the wrong way to address this issue, watch out for companies that will still try to promote foods sweetened this way.
Coffee: Three to five cups of coffee a day are OK for adults.
What it means for you: Go ahead and enjoy a few cups of your daily buzz, but watch the added cream and sugar. This amount of coffee is not linked to long-term health risks and in fact reduces the risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It may even reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease.
What it means for the food industry: The coffee craze can continue uninterrupted, and no doubt manufacturers and coffee shops alike will start to promote health benefits.
Cholesterol: Cutting back on cholesterol in foods like eggs is no longer a target.
What it means for you: Enjoy eggs, lobster and shrimp without the guilt. The evidence points to your genes — not the cholesterol in your diet — when it comes to blood cholesterol.
What it means for the food industry: The egg industry, which has been saying this for years, has been validated, and they can continue going strong with their health campaigns.
Fat: Don’t worry about eating a low-fat diet, but do replace saturated fat with unsaturated fats.
What it means for you: Enjoy foods high in healthy fats such as avocados, flaxseed, pistachios, almonds, walnuts, olive oil, salmon, anchovies and trout.
What it means for the food industry: Fear of fat is finally on its way out, but it lingers. Food manufacturers will need to promote the benefits of healthy fats.
Seafood: Responsibly farm-raised seafood is not only OK, it’s probably needed to combat overfishing of wild species, not to mention to fulfill dietary recommendations.
What it means for you: Eat fish twice a week, especially fatty fish like salmon and trout. A mix of both wild and farmed fish is OK. The benefits of seafood outweigh the risks from mercury or pollutants.
What it means for the food industry: The seafood industry needs to continually improve its sustainability practices and policies — from the fishermen to retailers and restaurants. Much of this is already underway, and we should expect to see more.
The Environment: The larger systems of our built and natural environments are finally included in the conversation.
What it means for you: Meals should revolve around plant foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds. When including animal foods, go for low-fat and nonfat dairy, lean meats and eggs. Avoid red meat and processed meat.
What it means for the industry: The meat industry has already started a strong response in opposition to the clear recommendation to cut back on red meat, and we should expect that to continue.
Koch says, “If these recommendations are enacted, I believe it would make life easier for the average shopper by bringing healthful and ecologically sustainable foods to our stores, restaurants and communities.”
Who Is Responsible for Your Health?
Yes, you are responsible for your own health, but you’re not the only one. The report calls for “bold actions” from individuals, families, communities, industry and government to “promote the health of the U.S. population.”
It calls for a paradigm shift that makes public health a national priority, with the goal of achieving a “culture of health” that makes healthy living easy, affordable and the American norm. “These recommendations could help schools become a model for the healthy lifestyles that will enable our children to grow into active and productive citizens as adults,” notes Koch.
What You Can Do Now
- Reduce screen time
- Eat at fast-food restaurants less often
- Share a meal at home with family more often
- Keep track of what you eat
- Keep track of your weight
- Understand how to read a food label
- If applicable, stick with your traditional non-American diet more often
What Needs to Change Around You
- Improve access to healthy, affordable foods that respect cultural preferences in the community, at child care and worksites
- Create more opportunities for physical activity
- Provide point-of-purchase information
- Increased parent engagement (in child care and school settings)
- Prevent household food insecurity and help families cope when needed
- Create better nutrition standards for food service
- Implement school nutrition curriculum
- Food industry to reformulate foods and market improved products to customers
While overall she is appreciative of the new recommendations, Koch says, “The recommendation for schools could have gone farther to not only recommend nutrient composition of school meals, but to also recommend more scratch cooking and less reliance on precooked, processed food products in school meals (even if these products are manufactured to meet the nutrient recommendations).”
Koch adds, “I do not agree that what we need is for food industry to continue to reformulate products. What we need is for there to be more whole food or whole foods that have been prepared in simple ways. We do not need more highly processed products, even if they have been “formulated” to manipulate the nutrient content to what [the experts recommend]. These kinds of products have led to more confusion and more reliance on experts to tell us what to eat. We want food to be simple, satisfying and tasty, not complicated and mysterious.”