New dietary guidelines: How to make smart choices

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New dietary guidelines: How to make smart choices

It's official. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are in, and the 2005 guidelines are out. Like the 2005 dietary guidelines, the new version urges Americans young and old to cut back on salt, sugar and saturated fats, and instead eat more vegetables, fruit, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and seafood. Doesn't sound revolutionary, does it? But the real story is that the 2010 guidelines all but declare war on America's obesity epidemic.

What does that mean for you? Here's the skinny on what's new in the 2010 dietary guidelines.

Dietary guidelines: Closing the gap

Today as in the past a gap exists between dietary recommendations and what Americans actually eat. Americans of all ages eat too few vegetables, fruits, high-fiber whole grains, seafood, and low-fat milk and milk products. In contrast, Americans eat too much salt, added sugar, solid fats and refined grains. Indeed, solid fats and added sugars — called SoFAS — make up about 35 percent of calories in the typical American diet.

The 2010 dietary guidelines hope to close that gap by encouraging Americans to adopt a healthier way of eating that takes into account individual preferences and balances calories with physical activity. As examples, the guidelines point to healthy eating styles such as Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) as well as dietary patterns from the Mediterranean and Asia, and vegetarian eating patterns.

Focus on fighting obesity

The prevalence of overweight and obesity in the United States has increased dramatically in the past three decades. This is true of children, adolescents and adults. In an environment that promotes energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods and a sedentary lifestyle, too many Americans are regularly eating too many calories. Hence, the obesity epidemic and the subsequent health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and certain cancers.

To turn this around, Americans must be more tuned in to the dietary guidelines. This means Americans must become mindful eaters — attentively choosing what and how much they eat. In addition, they must know their calorie requirements and the calorie content of the foods they eat. Finally, Americans must begin eating smaller portions at home and when eating out.

Salt: Less for more

The typical American diet contains excessive amounts of sodium. The health consequences of excessive sodium and insufficient potassium are substantial and include high blood pressure and its consequences, such as heart disease and stroke. Because early stages of blood pressure-related atherosclerotic disease begin during childhood, both children and adults should reduce their sodium. The new recommendations are:

  • Limit sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) a day.
  • A lower sodium level — 1,500 mg a day — is appropriate for people 51 years of age or older, and individuals of any age who are African-American or who have hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease.

Discretionary calories vs. solid fats and added sugars

Forget about those so-called "discretionary calories" — the leftover calories you could use for sweets after you met all your nutritional goals. That concept didn't work for people. Instead, the new guidelines talk about the role of solid fats and added sugars (SoFAS) in the U.S. diet. For most people, SoFAS make up a whopping 35 percent of their total calories, leading to excessive amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol and insufficient amounts of dietary fiber and other nutrients.

To get people off the SoFAS, the guidelines recommend that Americans:

  • Cut back on calories from solid fats and added sugars.
  • Limit foods that contain refined grains, especially refined grains with solid fats, added sugars and sodium.
  • Use oils to replace solid fats when possible.

Nutrient-dense instead of energy-dense

Although most Americans get too many calories, they don't get enough health-enhancing and disease-preventing nutrients. To address this problem, energy-dense foods — especially foods high in SoFAS — should be replaced with lower calorie, nutrient-rich vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat dairy products.

Saturated fat and cholesterol

Certain dietary fatty acids and cholesterol are major contributors to heart disease and diabetes, leading causes of illness and death in America. Yet consumption of these fatty acids and cholesterol has not changed appreciably since 1990. The new guidelines reinforce the importance of cutting back on saturated fat and cholesterol, and recommend that Americans:

  • Keep calories from saturated fatty acids to less than 10 percent of total calories by replacing them with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Lowering the percentage of calories from dietary saturated fatty acids to 7 percent can further reduce the risk of heart disease.
  • Keep dietary cholesterol to less than 300 mg a day. Cutting back to less than 200 mg a day can benefit anyone at high risk of heart disease.
  • Avoid trans fat as much as possible by limiting foods that contain synthetic sources of trans fats, such as partially hydrogenated oils, and by limiting other solid fats.

Protein: It doesn't have to be meat

A diet that includes a variety of proteins provides a blend of nutrients and appreciable health benefits. The trick is choosing the right proteins. Some proteins — namely, meat, poultry and eggs — contain solid fats. In contrast, the fats in seafood, nuts and seeds are oils. The guidelines recommend for the first time that Americans eat two 4-ounce servings (or one 8-ounce serving) a week of seafood. In addition, Americans are encouraged to:

  • Choose a variety of proteins, including seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds.
  • Eat seafood more often and in greater variety by choosing seafood in place of some meat and poultry.
  • Replace proteins that are higher in solid fats with ones that are lower in solid fats and calories.

Keep an eye on the carbs

If you're sedentary, like most Americans, the guidelines say you should eat fewer energy-dense carbohydrates — especially refined, sugar-dense sources — to balance energy needs and achieve and maintain ideal weight. Cut back on sugar-sweetened beverages, desserts and refined grain products, and instead opt for more whole grains.

Alcohol: Defining moderate

Moderate drinking is associated with a lower overall risk of death and a lower risk of diabetes and heart disease among middle-aged and older adults. The guidelines define moderate as an average of up to one alcoholic drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men. One drink is defined as 12 fluid ounces (355 milliliters) of regular beer, 5 fluid ounces (148 milliliters) of wine or 1.5 fluid ounces (45 milliliters) of distilled spirits. However, the guidelines don't recommend beginning to drink or drinking more frequently in pursuit of potential health benefits.

The role of supplements

A basic premise of the guidelines is that nutrient needs should be met primarily through food. In certain cases, however, fortified foods and dietary supplements may be useful in providing one or more nutrients that otherwise might fall below recommended amounts. Consider these recommendations for specific groups:

  • Women who may become pregnant should get 400 micrograms (mcg) a day of folic acid from fortified foods or supplements.
  • Pregnant women should take an iron supplement, as recommended by their health care providers.
  • Adults age 50 or older should eat foods fortified with vitamin B12, such as fortified cereals, or take dietary supplements.

Food safety

The guidelines note that in recent years food safety concerns have escalated, with an increase in recalls of foods contaminated with disease-causing bacteria or nonfood substances. Action is needed to revise government policies and food industry practices. In the meantime, you can help prevent foodborne illness by practicing food safety at home. Follow the basic four food safety principles to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses: clean, separate, cook and chill. Proper cleaning of hands and produce, separating uncooked from cooked foods to prevent cross contamination, cooking to proper temperatures and then storage of leftovers help prevent food safety problems.

Call to action

To solve America's nutrition problems, the guidelines call for a systemwide approach that integrates government, agriculture, health care, businesses, educators and communities to help everyone make needed changes. Government regulations, agricultural policies and practices, health care, food producers, grocery stores, restaurants, schools and communities need to gear up to promote and support healthy patterns of eating and exercise.

Boiling it down

So where do you start? The guidelines suggest starting with changes in these three areas:

Balancing calories

  • Enjoy your food, but eat less.
  • Avoid oversized portions.

Foods to increase

  • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
  • Switch to fat-free or low-fat milk.

Foods to reduce

  • Compare sodium in foods such as soup, bread and frozen meals — and choose the foods with lower numbers.
  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks.

Using the dietary guidelines as your map, you can make healthy choices that meet your nutritional needs, protect your health, and help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight.

Last Updated: 2011-02-02
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