Harvard Men's Health Watch

What's new in nutritional guidelines?

The USDA recently updated its recommendations for healthy eating. Here are the takeaway messages for men.

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Every five years, the USDA releases its Dietary Guidelines for Americans—advice to encourage healthier eating patterns based on the latest nutritional science.

"While there is a lot of nutritional information out there, the guidelines are the foundation for many government food programs, and many men can benefit from their recommendations," says Katherine McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Here are four areas from the latest release that stand out, according to McManus.

1. Vary your food choices

One important overall message is the suggestion to adopt a varied eating pattern, she says. "Mix it up on a regular basis, whether it is a Mediterranean-inspired diet or vegetarian, and try different foods from different cultures."

The reason is that variety exposes you to an assortment of micronutrients—a broad array of minerals like calcium, zinc, magnesium, iron, and selenium, and the key vitamins. Micronutrients work both alone and together to help protect against heart disease, increase bone health, and keep many of your body's systems running smoothly.

Men older than age 50 need certain amounts of micronutrients on a daily basis. But their diets make it tough to meet those minimums, which is why seniors are often deficient in many micronutrients. For instance, the USDA reported that only 7% of older men get the recommended daily amount of calcium and vitamin D.

What to do. "One way to broaden your exposure to micronutrients is by expanding your palate to different foods," says McManus.

Focus on nutrient-dense foods, like whole fruits and vegetables. Of course, that is the standard fallback advice—eat more fruits and vegetables. How can you better follow it? Instead of routinely buying the same few types, think about their colors—red, green, orange, and yellow.

"Challenge yourself to try a different color each week," says McManus. Also, to broaden your choices, buy seasonal produce and shop at farmer's markets. "If you can keep your choices interesting and varied, you are more likely to eat more fruits and vegetables on a regular basis," she says.

Another strategy is to experiment with different types of cuisine. Go vegetarian one day or meatless for one or two meals per week. Make a simple soup or stew with beans and spices or herbs that have a Caribbean or Latin American flavor.

2. Take a fresh look at fat

Previous guidelines suggested adults limit their daily intake of fat to no more than 30% of total calories. That concept now has changed to focus more on the types of fat you consume. "Men should still eat less saturated fat, like that found in red and processed meat. But do not avoid the healthier kinds, such as monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, including omega-3s," says McManus.

Healthy fat protects against heart disease. Research also suggests it may improve cognitive function.

What to do. Great sources of monounsaturated fats include olive, canola, and peanut oils; nut butters and nuts like almonds, pecans, pistachios, and cashews; and olives and avocados. Polyunsaturated fats are found in safflower, sunflower, and soybean oils, while omega-3s are abundant in fatty fish, like salmon, tuna, and sardines, as well as in walnuts.

3. Go sour on added sugar

Perhaps the biggest message from the guidelines is to curb excess sugar. It recommends that everyone, including older adults, cap their daily sugar intake at 10% of their total calories. (On average, men consume about 12% of their calories as sugar, according to the most recent data.)

Most added sugar comes from sugar-sweetened beverages—like soft drinks, flavored coffee and tea, and energy and sports drinks—and from feel-good foods like candy, cookies, and cakes.

The sugar in these foods and drinks can quickly add up if you are not careful. For instance, the American Heart Association says a man should have no more than nine teaspoons of sugar a day, or 36 grams, but one 16-ounce cola has 41 grams of sugar.

Drinking too many sugary drinks of any kind may increase your heart failure risk, according to a study in the Nov. 3, 2015, issue of Heart. It found that among 42,000 men ages 45 to 79, those who consumed two or more sugar-sweetened beverages daily were 23% more likely to develop heart failure compared with those who did not drink any. (Diet soda with artificial sweeteners may not be a healthier option.)

What to do. There is nothing wrong with the occasional sweet, suggests McManus. "Focus on moderation. Choose your high-sugar foods and drinks carefully, limit the amount you consume, and make a point not to have them every day," she says. Another option: switch out your favorite sugary drinks for water flavored with slices of lemon, lime, or orange, and stick to plain coffee and tea with no sugar or sweeteners.

4. Cut sodium, but not potassium

Although many men should continue to monitor their salt (sodium) intake to protect against high blood pressure, the USDA noted that less than 3% of older men get enough potassium. "Potassium is needed for the healthy function of cells, and low amounts in some people can cause muscle weakness and irregular heartbeat," says McManus.

What to do. You can get good amounts of potassium from fruits like cantaloupe, honeydew, and kiwi, and from vegetables such as winter squash, broccoli, tomatoes, and most greens.

Change how you eat

One of the best ways to improve your overall eating habits is to change your mindset about food, says Katherine McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital. "Some men may take an indifferent outlook to food and meal-making, which may lead to poor food choices." Here is how to change that:

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    Revamp your attitude, and you can take a healthier approach to eating. For instance, if you are in a relationship, take a more proactive role in the home's meal preparation—be involved in the shopping and the meal prep, or even pick a day of the week to regularly introduce a new meal.

  • If you live alone, invite a friend over for regular dinners or arrange a group potluck. "Not only will this help you be more conscious of your food intake, it encourages you to eat more home-based meals, which cuts down on takeout that can be high in sugar, salt, and calories," says McManus.

  • Not comfortable in the kitchen? Take a basic cooking course at a local community center or college. "When you begin to enjoy food more, healthy eating becomes more of a habit instead of something you have to do," says McManus.