New dietary guidelines offer little new guidance
Posted By Patrick J. Skerrett On February 1, 2011
There isn’t much new in the latest iteration of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Three years in the making, the 2010 guidelines (released a tad late, on January 31, 2011) offer the usual advice about eating less of the bad stuff (salt; saturated fat, trans fats, and cholesterol; and refined grains) and more of the good stuff (fruits and vegetables; whole grains; seafood, beans, and other lean protein; and unsaturated fats). I’ve listed the 23 main recommendations below. You can also find them on the Dietary Guidelines Web site.
The guidelines do break some new ground. They state loudly and clearly that overweight and obesity are a leading nutrition problem in the United States, and that a healthy diet can help people achieve a healthy weight. They also ratchet down sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams per day (about two-thirds of a teaspoon of salt) for African Americans and people with high blood pressure or risk factors for it, such as kidney disease or diabetes. But the guidelines also leave the recommendation for sodium at 2,300 milligrams a day for everyone else, a move that the American Heart Association and others call “a step backward.”
One big problem with the guidelines is that they continue to use the same nebulous language that has made previous versions poor road maps for the average person wanting to adopt a healthier diet.
Here’s an example: the new guidelines urge Americans to eat less “solid fat.” What, exactly, does that mean—stop spooning up lard or Crisco? No. Solid fat is a catchphrase for red meat, butter, cheese, ice cream, and other full-fat dairy foods. But the guidelines can’t say that, since they are partly created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency charged with promoting the products of American farmers and ranchers, which includes red meat and dairy products. “Added sugars” is another circumlocution, a stand-in for sugar-sweetened sodas, many breakfast cereals, and other foods that provide huge doses of sugar and few, or no, nutrients.
Several Harvard-affiliated nutrition experts approved of the new guidelines with some reservations.
Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, called the guidelines an incremental step in the right direction. “But they don’t give Americans the concrete steps they need to make healthy choices about food,” he cautioned. (You can read more on the guidelines from Dr. Willett and his colleagues at The Nutrition Source.)
Dr. David Ludwig, a nutrition and child obesity expert at Harvard-affiliated Children’s Hospital Boston, praised the new guidelines for emphasizing food choices and dietary patterns—rather than focusing on isolated nutrients—and for promoting a healthful ratio of fats, carbohydrates, and protein in the diet. He did have some quibbles with the 35% upper limit on fat in the diet and the guidelines assertion that the glycemic index of food—essentially, the effect food has on blood sugar levels—isn’t useful for managing weight.
Dr. George L. Blackburn, a nutrition and obesity expert at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, complimented the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services for providing evidence-based dietary recommendations that focus on obesity.
Kathy McManus, a registered dietitian who directs the department of nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said the specific recommendations for sodium reduction are important. “This will be a challenge,” she said, “but we need to begin getting out the message and working with the food industry to support decreasing the amount of sodium in products.”
These experts are right in pointing to the positives of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are supposed to help us decide what we should—and shouldn’t—eat. The new recommendations also provide evidence-based nutritional guidance for federal food programs like school lunches and food assistance. To truly help Americans choose healthier diets, though, the guidelines need to use plain language and offer unambiguous direction. Maybe they’ll get it right in the next update five years from now.
In the meantime, you can get straight talk on diet and nutrition from Healthy Eating: A guide to the new nutrition, a special health report from Harvard Health Publications.
The guidelines divide 23 recommendations into four categories:
1) Balancing calories to manage weight
2) Foods and food components to reduce
3) Foods and nutrients to increase
4) Building healthy eating patterns
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