Hold on. Why are the Dietary Guidelines so important?
Whether you know about them or not, they affect what you and your family eat. Released every five years, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans aim to put the vast array of nutritional research into context for consumers. They set the nationwide standard for national food programs, including your child’s school lunch menu, nutrition plans your doctor recommends, low-income food programs, and diets for pregnant women.
Because of this influence, food industries lobby immensely for the guidelines to shed their products in a positive light. For example, in the first three quarters of 2015, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association spent more than $112,000 on lobbying, with the new Dietary Guidelines as its primary focus. The National Pork Producers Council spent $780,000.
This year’s 570-page report was authored by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a group of 14 appointed doctors and scientists working under the endorsement of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS). Here, the six key things to know about the report.
1. Meat is causing controversy
Arguably the most controversial aspect of the report, the new guidelines set no specific limit for the consumption of red meat or processed meat. However, recent studies have shown a strong link between these foods and health problems such as heart disease and cancer. The World Health Organization states that daily consumption of 50 grams of processed meat, fewer than two bacon slices, increases colon cancer risk by 18 percent.
“We are dismayed to see that the Dietary Guidelines have allowed lobbying efforts to supersede the scientific evidence when it comes to meat and cancer risk,” Susan Higginbotham, RD, the vice president for research at the American Institute for Cancer Research, said in a statement. “The failure to embrace decades of research with the potential to save thousands of American lives represents a missed opportunity.”
The report did note, however, that teen boys and adult men typically consume more than the recommended 26 ounces a week of protein from animal sources and should reduce overall intake of meat, poultry, and eggs. The report also encourages consumers to eat a variety of protein sources, such as seafood, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds, and soy products.
2. Make yourself a real omelet
Unlike past guidelines that suggest a 300-milligram daily limit of dietary cholesterol, found in eggs and other animal products, the 2015 report does not recommend a specific cap. Evidence now shows there is no proven relationship between dietary cholesterol consumption and blood cholesterol levels.
The report still states individuals should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible, since foods high in it tend to also be high in saturated fats. Egg yolks, however, are not high in saturated fat and are on the report’s list of suggested protein sources. It’s good news for the egg industry: Federal government warnings about cholesterol, first issued in 1977, dropped per capita egg consumption by 30 percent.
3. Cut way back on sugar
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The interest groups most likely upset with the new guidelines are sugar growers and food manufacturers. While old guidelines suggested limiting intake of added sugars—sweeteners added during preparation or processing, or consumed separately—the new report recommends that less than 10 percent of daily calories (about 50 grams) should come from added sugars. That’s about half of what most Americans consume today. Major sources of added sugars are soft drinks, sweetened coffee and tea, alcoholic beverages, and snacks and sweets such as cookies and cakes.
4. Limit your saturated fat intake
The HHS and USDA have acknowledged that suggested limits on red and processed meat were omitted from the 2015 guidelines, but note that some meats are high in saturated fats, a nutrient that past guidelines and the new guidelines recommend limiting. “The USDA and HHS decided to retain the dietary guidelines’ recommendation to limit intake of saturated fats to no more than 10 percent of calories per day based on evidence that replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease,” said Sylvia Mathews Burwell, an HHS secretary, in a media call. The 2015-2020 guidelines do not encourage a low total fat diet, but rather a low saturated fat diet, Burwell noted.
The report also recommends low- and no-fat dairy products. Some critics claim this is outdated advice, based on research that full-fat dairy may help maintain a healthy weight and does not increase risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
5. Yes, you (still) need to put down the salt shaker
The guidelines continue to recommend limiting sodium intake to 2,300 mg a day or less. The American Heart Association recommends people eat no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day. It appears to be a difficult habit for Americans to break: More than 90 percent of children and 89 percent of adults eat too much sodium, according to a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report released coinciding the new guidelines.
“More than three quarters of sodium in the American diet is estimated to come from processed and restaurant food, which gives consumers little choice when it comes to lowering daily intake,” said the CDC. “A key strategy for lowering population-wide sodium intake is gradually reducing sodium in the food supply.” Too much sodium leads to high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
6. Dietary patterns are more important than specific foods
In past years, guidelines have focused on individual foods and nutrients. The new report highlights overall dietary patterns that are linked with positive health outcomes. The three patterns showcased in the new guidelines are Healthful U.S.-style (American staples, but with less saturated fat, red meat, or refined carbohydrates and more fiber and nutrients—in other words, a balanced plate), Healthful Mediterranean-style (staples such as seafood, olive oil, and nuts), and Healthful vegetarian (featuring an abundance of vegetables and protein from whole grains, legumes, and soy-based foods instead of meat).