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Making Sense of Latest US Dietary Guidelines

Healthy eating pattern is key to good health

Earlier this month, the US government released its new Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Issued every five years by the US Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services, the guidelines recommend which foods should be included in the National School Lunch Program. They also influence federal nutrition programs like the $4 billion Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.

About two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and half of all adults suffer from preventable, diet-related diseases like diabetes. Not surprisingly, the 2015–2020 guidelines call for eating a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, seafood, lean meats, poultry, legumes, nuts, and low-fat or fat-free dairy products. And as always, too much sodium and saturated fats are bad for you. New warnings are offered about the perils of added sugars: daily added sugar intake should be under 200 calories a day, or 12 teaspoons of sugar (roughly the amount in a 16-ounce sugary beverage), and less than 10 percent of daily calories should be from added sugars. According to the report, Americans currently get about 13 percent of their daily calories from added sugars.

The guidelines have also drawn attention for what they no longer include: chiefly, a recommendation to limit dietary cholesterol to 300 milligrams a day. And in the biggest shift from previous federal guidelines, which had emphasized specific nutrients, the new recommendations emphasize the importance of a healthy eating pattern over individual dietary components. “A growing body of research has examined the relationship between overall eating patterns, health, and risk of chronic disease, and findings in these relationships are sufficiently well established to support dietary guidance,” the 2015–2020 guidelines note.

That emphasis on a healthy eating pattern is applauded by Joan Salge Blake (SAR’84), a Sargent College clinical associate professor of nutrition and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Forget searching for that “exotic berry, rare flounder, or ancient grain” to fight heart disease, certain cancers, stroke, and diabetes—4 of the 10 leading causes of death among Americans—says Salge Blake. A healthy eating pattern is the best ammunition.

BU Today spoke with Salge Blake about the new federal guidelines and what they mean for all of us.

BU Today: First, what is the purpose of the Dietary Guidelines?

Salge Blake: The Dietary Guidelines is designed for professionals to help all individuals ages two years and older and their families consume a healthy, nutritionally adequate diet. The information in the guidelines is used in developing federal food, nutrition, and health policies and programs. It also is the basis for federal nutrition education materials designed for the public and for the nutrition education components of federal programs.

The guidelines information can also be used to develop programs, policies, and communication for the general public, including businesses, schools, community groups, media, the food industry, and state and local governments.

How influential are they?

Very. They are based on the latest science and drive all of the above.

You commend the new recommendations’ authors for focusing on establishing a healthy eating pattern. Why is that so important?

We need to focus on the total diet by consuming a healthy eating pattern. A key take-home message is that the whole healthy diet is greater than the sum of its parts. It takes an entire healthy eating pattern to make a difference in your long-term health. The good news is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all eating plan that you have to follow. These latest guidelines provide suggestions for a variety of healthy eating patterns that can help reduce the risk of obesity and the other chronic conditions and diseases that plague us. The common theme in all of these diets is that they are higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat or nonfat dairy and/or soy beverages and provide a variety of protein foods such as seafood, lean meats, and poultry, but are limited in saturated fats, trans fats, added sugars, and sodium.

The new guidelines recommend that we consume less than 10 percent of calories per day from added sugar (about 12 teaspoons). The average American now consumes about 25 teaspoons of added sugar daily.

The new guidelines recommend that we consume less than 10 percent of calories per day from added sugar (about 12 teaspoons). The average American now consumes about 25 teaspoons of added sugar daily.

The guidelines suggest limiting added sugar to 10 percent of daily calories, quite a reduction for most Americans. What are added sugars and what’s behind this new guideline?

Added sugars include syrups and other caloric sweeteners such as brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, malt syrup, molasses, raw sugar, and sucrose. Naturally occurring sugars, such as those in fruit or milk, are not added sugars.

Currently, the average American is consuming about 13 percent of his or her total daily calories from added sugars, which translates to about 25 teaspoons of added sugars daily. When added sugars in your diet exceed 10 percent of daily calories, it becomes more challenging to consume a healthy diet that meets your daily needs without consuming excess calories. Over 69 percent of Americans are overweight. Being obese increases the risk of heart disease, certain cancers, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Overweight individuals should try to achieve a healthy weight to reduce their risk of these chronic diseases. Cutting back on added sugars could help Americans trim their expanding waistlines.

Sweetened beverages account for 47 percent of the added sugars in the American diet. While 25 percent of added sugars come from soft drinks, sugary coffee and tea beverages account for 7 percent of the added sugars that Americans are gulping daily. This is more than double the amount coming from sport and energy drinks.

To help consumers become more sugar aware, the US Food and Drug Administration is pondering a rule that would require food and beverage companies to list the grams of added sugars per serving on the food labels of their products. Until this rule becomes mandatory, you can visit the websites of many coffee shops before placing your order to hunt for the grams of sugar in each serving of a particular beverage.

The guidelines also conclude that men and teenage boys are consuming too much protein from meat, poultry, and eggs. Did that surprise you?

This was not a surprise. This gender and age group has typically been consuming more servings from this food group than is needed.

What do the new guidelines recommend instead?

The recommendation is to consume approximately six ounces a day of a variety of protein foods such as seafood, lean meats, poultry, legumes—beans and peas and nuts, which are lower in saturated fats.

Previous guidelines urged limiting intake of dietary cholesterol to 300 milligrams a day, but the new recommendations have dropped that limit. Why?

They actually didn’t drop it. The current recommendation in the guidelines is to consume as little as possible of dietary cholesterol.

The conclusion from the report of the 2015 Dietary Guideline Advisory Committee was that the amount of dietary cholesterol that Americans are currently consuming is about 250 to 350 milligrams daily. At this low intake level, dietary cholesterol doesn’t have a major effect on blood cholesterol levels. Following any of the healthy eating patterns that were suggested in the new guidelines will provide 100 to 300 milligrams of dietary cholesterol daily.

Americans love salt as much as sugar. What do the guidelines say about salt consumption, and what does it mean for the average person?

Americans currently consume 3,440 milligrams of sodium per day, on average, which is too high. Healthy eating patterns limit sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams per day for adults and children ages 14 years and older. Research suggests an association between increased sodium intake and increased risk of heart disease in adults.

Adults with prehypertension and hypertension would particularly benefit from blood pressure lowering. For these individuals, further reduction to 1,500 milligrams per day can result in even greater blood pressure reduction.

Since Americans consume 30 percent of their daily calories outside the home, restaurants and the food industry will have to continue to work on reformulating their products to be lower in sodium to help consumers lower their intake. It is going to take a village to help Americans eat a healthy diet.

john o'rourke, editor, bu today
John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

One Comment on Making Sense of Latest US Dietary Guidelines

  • Paula Quatromoni on 01.19.2016 at 10:29 am

    Excellent article with insightful interpretation from Professor Salge-Blake, a Registered Dietitian who gives consumers advice on how to apply the new Dietary Guidelines in their daily lives. What is exciting is the emphasis on total dietary patterns in this edition of the Guidelines. Even more exciting is the contribution that BU researchers have made to the body of scientific evidence that has helped inform this recommendation. The Framingham Study was among one of the first research groups to apply multivariate techniques to analyze food consumption information collected from study participants to look at diet exposures in the context of overall eating patterns (rather than isolated nutrients, like saturated fat) in relation to health outcomes back in the early 1990’s. BU nutrition researchers and biostatisticians are proud to be a part of that foundational work!

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