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6 Things to Know About the Dietary Guidelines

Every five years, a group of experts in the field of nutrition and health review currently available nutrition science research. The experts, known as the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, submit a report of their findings to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), who then use the information in the report to establish the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Of course, the scientists don’t define the guidelines, bureaucrats do. And this year, many scientists were less than pleased with the guidelines that emerged from the report data. While I don’t find them offensive, I do find them vague and kind of useless. So for this post I took data from the scientific report, which is where all the fun, new data is anyway. If you really want the guidelines, you can find them here.

1.Everyone agrees about fruits and vegetables

Like everyone, vegans all the way to paleos. The advisory committee noted that fruits and vegetables were the only dietary component identified in every conclusion statement, across numerous health outcomes considered. This means that across a wide breadth of research, fruits and vegetables were consistently identified as beneficial for health and part of a healthy, balanced diet. On the flip side, consumption of sugar sweetened beverages (soda, juice), high sugar foods, and refined grains were consistently identified as detrimental to health across all health outcomes.

Bottom line: eat your veggies, everyday. Preferably 5 servings (1 servings = 1/2 cup or one small fruit) or more of them.

2.Red meat is still a red light

Studies providing moderate to strong evidence regarding red and processed meat consumption consistently concluded that higher red and processed meat intake was detrimental to health. If you remember, the World Health Organization found something similar a few months ago. Red meat includes animal proteins of red color suck as pork, beef, veal, goat, and lamb. Processed meats include those such as bacon and sausage that have been altered by salting, curing, smoking, fermenting or other processes to lengthen preservation and improve flavor.

Bottom line: Red meat isn’t the devil but it has some downsides. Think of red and processed meats as more of a garnish than a staple of a health enhancing diet.  

3.Sugar is not so sweet

I don’t think this is earth shattering news to any of you, but evidence is pretty clear that sugar sweetened beverages are linked to negative health impacts including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity.  There have been initiatives across the United States, North America, and Europe to reduce consumption of sugar sweetened beverages, including a limit one the size of these beverages, a per ounce tax on their purchase, and addition of warning labels to their packaging. Three guesses why those don’t always pass.

Bottom line: the report confirms much of the evidence that higher consumption of sugar –sweetened beverages are harmful to health. Ditch the soday/juice and drink water, naturally flavored water (think: cucumber water), or seltzer instead.

4.You can still enjoy your cup of Joe

Studies have been trickling in about coffee for a few years, but the research in this review confirms that moderate coffee consumption – identified as about 3-5 eight ounce cups per day totaling 400mg or less of caffeine (for reference, a Grande Starbucks is about 320 mg of caffeine) is not associated with any negative long term health effects. Rather, coffee consumption is linked to a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and there is some evidence for a protective link between caffeine consumption and Parkinson’s disease.

Bottom line: you can work coffee (or tea) into any balanced diet, but it’s best to keep it to one large Starbucks or less per day.

 5.Pattern is the key

While previous versions of the Dietary Guidelines have focused on individual nutrients like sodium and saturated fat, the 2015 report placed a far higher focus on overall dietary patterns. This is mainly because the breadth of nutrition research indicates that overall dietary pattern is a much more important to boosting health than individual nutrients. The advisory committee concluded that healthy dietary pattern is one that is:

  • High in fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes (like beans), seafood, and whole grains
  • Moderate in low- and non-fat diary and alcohol
  • Low in red and processed meat, sugar sweetened beverages, sodium, and refined grains.

Of course, this dietary pattern could fit almost any diet – vegan, vegetarian, paleo, gluten free, Mediterranean, and low carb, just to name a few.

The advisory committee also recommends focusing on shifting overall dietary patterns instead of simply cutting back on less healthful choices. For example, instead of swapping a diet soda for a regular soda, drink water instead, or choose foods higher in unsaturated fats – like salmon – over those higher in saturated fat such as sausage.

Bottom line:  what you eat on a regular basis has more impact on health then counting saturated fat or protein grams.

6.The future is now

 A portion of the report focused on food sustainability – ensuring access to food for all both now and in the future. The Advisory Committee identified a diet high in plant –based foods – including fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, oils, and legumes – and low animal meat consumption as the dietary pattern with the lowest environmental impact. A sustainable diet can be maintained on a number of dietary patterns, including the vegetarian and Mediterranean diets.

Bottom line: the environmental impact of your diet matters. More plants, less meat is good for mother Earth.

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