Menu for Healthy Eating: New Dietary Guidelines for Americans

Posted on by Yingna Wang

On January 7, 2016, the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) released the eighth edition (2015-2020) of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which provides science-based recommendations on nutrition information for individuals, ages 2 years and older. The guidelines will inform national nutrition policy and influence the diets of millions of individuals and their families. The guidelines will also shape food assistance programs, such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and help determine which foods are chosen for the USDA’s National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program.

While many of the recommendations have remained consistent with the last set of guidelines released in 2010 – such as consuming more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, and low-fat foods – the new dietary guidelines for Americans introduce some novel recommendations. For the first time, the USDA guidelines specifically recommend limiting added sugars to 10 percent of one’s daily calories. Assuming the average adult American consumes 2,000 calories a day, each adult would be limited to a maximum of 10 teaspoons of sugar per day, but children, women and those adults who consume fewer calories should eat even less. The guidelines also recommend individuals limit their daily sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams, a significant decrease from 3,400 milligrams, the average amount Americans consume every day. A third recommendation states that individuals should consume less than 10 percent of daily calories from saturated fats, echoing recommendations from the 2010 edition of the Dietary Guidelines, but the new recommendations expand on the concept of “good” fats, such as the omega-3 fatty acids found in some fish.

The new guidelines also recognize that caffeine appears to be safe in moderate amounts, suggesting up to 3 to 5 cups a day. The guidelines also state a moderate amount of alcohol can be consumed (up to 1 drink per day for women; 2 drinks per day for men, and is to be consumed only by adults of legal drinking age and women who are not pregnant).

Some scientific experts have suggested a vegetarian diet as the healthiest diet, leading to speculation as to whether the new guidelines should include any meat at all. Regardless, the guidelines do include lean meat and eggs as a part of a healthy diet. A notable change to the 2016 edition of the Dietary Guidelines is the inclusion of eggs as part of a healthy diet, which the government had cautioned against for 40 years due to concern over the health damaging impact of cholesterol intake.

The new guidelines focus on overall shifts in eating patterns to achieve healthier diets, such as a Mediterranean diet, and choosing nutrient-dense foods and beverages without added sugars in place of less healthy choices.

A key recommendation suggests following a healthy eating pattern that includes:
●  A variety of vegetables: dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy and other vegetables
●  Fruits, especially whole fruit
●  Grains, at least half of which are whole grain
●  Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified soy beverages
●  A variety of protein foods including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes such as beans and peas, soy products, and nuts and seeds
●  Oils from plants: canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean, and sunflower oils, as well as nuts, seeds, seafood, olives, and avocados.

In conjunction with the nutritional recommendations, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend individuals meet the Physical Activity Guidelines for all Americans to reduce the risk of obesity-related chronic illness, such as heart disease and diabetes. Lack of physical activity is also an independent risk factor for chronic illness. In the introduction to the report, USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack and Secretary Sylvia Burwell of HHS note: “Today, about half of all American adults—117 million people—have one or more preventable, chronic disease, many of which are related to poor quality eating patterns and physical inactivity.”

These new guidelines aim to reduce obesity by suggesting people eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and less sugar and processed foods, but it is important to note the co-existence between obesity and food insecurity. Food insecurity is defined as having limited access to adequate food at some point during the year, due to lack of money or access. A USDA report released in September 2015 estimated 14 percent of American households experienced food insecurity in 2014. A third of American children are overweight or obese and 15.3 million of them lived in food insecure households last year.

While SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) can help supplement the diets of food insecure households, SNAP beneficiaries are more likely to be obese or overweight in comparison to higher-income Americans and SNAP-eligible-non-participants. While male SNAP recipients consumed fewer calories than higher income non-participants, no differences existed in female beneficiaries. However the diets of SNAP participants fell far short of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, lower than income eligible and higher income non-participants in the program. This can partially be attributed to the higher cost of healthy foods that the dietary guidelines recommend Americans eat, which may not be accessible to low-income Americans and those living in food deserts. Food deserts are defined as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options.”

This coexistence of obesity and food insecurity in America underscores the urgent need for education about nutrition and physical activity targeted to all age groups. Strategies must be developed to address barriers to healthy eating and exercise, such as high healthy food costs, food marketing, food deserts, and access to safe spaces for recreation. While there is controversy about some of the guidelines included in the Report, these new Dietary Guidelines are a step in the right direction towards encouraging healthier eating patterns and lifestyles for all Americans.

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