The new dietary dos and don’ts
Every five years the federal government issues new dietary guidelines
that are supposed to put the country on the road to healthier eating.
Apparently Americans have been taking some wrong turns because two
thirds of us are now overweight and nearly a third are obese (a body
mass index of 30 or greater).
Weight control and exercise have been mentioned in the guidelines before,
but the new set released in January 2005 puts them front and center where
they belong. They give better advice about grains and cereals: At least
three of the six daily servings are supposed to be whole grains. They
also make a stronger statement about difference between the “good” and “bad” fats.
The dietary guidelines have trickledown effects on school lunch and
other government programs, even if many Americans aren’t aware
of the particulars. The new guidelines are especially important because
they will be used to update the familiar Food Guide Pyramid.
Here are some highlights of the guidelines:
Weight management. Prevention is the best policy. Many of us could avoid
weight gain in the first place by shaving 50–100 calories from
our diets. The guidelines note that although the 2,000-calorie-a-day
diet remains the reference diet, it’s not the recommended one.
Many Americans should be eating far fewer calories than that. They say
the best way to cut calories is to reduce the so-called discretionary
ones that come from added sugars (in soft drinks and candy, for example),
added fats, and alcohol.
Physical activity. Why do dietary guidelines include recommendations
about physical activity? Because regular physical activity, as much as
anything we eat, is essential to maintaining a healthy body weight.
Past guidelines have said that 30 minutes of exercise a day will reduce
chronic disease risk and have other health benefits. The new ones say
that most of us need an additional 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous
physical activity to avoid gaining weight.
An hour of exercise a day — that sets the bar pretty high. But
you don’t have to work out in a gym: Examples of moderate-level
physical activity include gardening, dancing, and walking at a 3 1/2-mile-per-hour
pace. And short, 10-minute bouts of activity have benefits similar to
longer stretches so long as you reach the same daily total. So give yourself
credit for the brisk walk from where you parked your car and similar
Dietary fat. Most of the fat you eat should be the “good” polyunsaturated
and monounsaturated fats found in fish, nuts, and vegetable oils (corn,
olive, soybean, etc.). Less than 10% of your daily calories should come
from saturated fat, found primarily in meat and dairy products.
For the first time, the guidelines take a strong stand against the trans
fats created by partially hydrogenating vegetable oils, saying you should
eat as little trans fat as possible. Some experts were hoping they’d
set a definite daily limit (1–2 grams), but Dr. Willett says the
guidelines got it right. Trans fats are used to make baked goods and
snack foods so they stay fresh longer. Other major sources include french
fries and many stick margarines.
Carbohydrates. Fruit, vegetables, all grain-based foods, dairy products — they
all contain carbohydrates, which in the good old days we called sugars
and starch. The trick isn’t to boycott carbohydrates, but to make
sure they arrive on our plates in packages — such as whole grains
and in fruits and vegetables.
The guidelines aren’t very bold on the extra, empty carbohydrates
from added sugars (the “more research is needed” refrain
is sounded). The advice is to limit intake as part of the general limit
on discretionary calories.
Potassium. Potassium offsets sodium’s effect on blood pressure
and has other health benefits. Your daily diet should include 4,700 milligrams
of the mineral. Potassium-rich foods include bananas, leafy green vegetables,
and potatoes. Meat, milk, and some cereal products contain potassium
but in a form that is difficult to absorb.
Fruit and vegetables. One of the first principles of healthy eating
is to choose nutrient-dense foods that pack, calorie-for-calorie, the
most amount of fiber, vitamins, and other nutrients. That’s why
the guidelines say that the 2,000-calorie-a-day reference diet should
include nine (!) servings of fruit and vegetables. For the average American,
that’s over double the usual number of servings.
Dairy. At least the guidelines recommend the fat-free and low-fat dairy
products, so people aren’t misled into eating cholesterol-boosting
saturated fat. It should be noted, though, that dairy products are fairly
high in calories. Three glasses of low-fat milk contain over 300 calories
that the American diet doesn’t need.
Although the guidelines are written mainly for nutrition experts, they
aren’t hard to understand. You can read the full, 84-page document
at www.healthierus.gov/dietary guidelines.
April 2005 Update
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