In January 2016, the federal government announced its newest set of dietary guidelines, a set of proposed rules to help American citizens live healthy lives. These always evolving dietary suggestions are published every five years (starting in 1980) and are intended to incorporate the most recent data on nutritional sciences.
This year’s guidelines illuminate a valuable point: that health is not about living your life within a certain set of numbers, but about creating healthy patterns in your life.
But despite this generally positive message, the current guidelines have sparked controversy among scientists, clinicians, politicians and special interest groups alike.
For example, an expert panel initially recommended that the guidelines include revolutionary advice on sustainable eating practices. This sound advice would have implicitly acknowledged the deeply interwoven connection between personal nutrition and food growth, processing, and distribution, further encouraging Americans to consume more plant-based foods and less meat. Since raising cattle has a much larger carbon footprint than growing vegetables, replacing the meat you’d usually eat with locally grown legumes, vegetables and fruits would reduce CO2 emissions.
However, to the dismay of many nutrition experts, food industry lobbyists influenced last minute changes omitting this precedent-setting nod to sustainability.
While many of the most important dietary concepts in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines were lost in the final rounds of political compromises, several important suggestions remain. Here are a few recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans worth following.
First and foremost, it’s important to define what constitutes added sugar. Added sugars are those that are included during processing, cooking, baking, or afterward. Basically, it’s any type of sugar that doesn’t naturally occur in the food that you’re eating, whether it’s a completely human-created baked good, or topping your grapefruit with brown sugar. Though sugar does definitely enhance sweetness and arguably taste, it can lead to various negative health effects. The empty calories—calories without nutrients—can cause weight gain and poor nutrition. Not to mention that sugar is a main culprit of tooth decay.
When it comes to cutting down on sugar: Skip the soda, diet soda, bottled teas and juices and drink more water. Your teeth and waistline will thank you.
The new guidelines advise men to consume less meat, poultry and egg, and eat more vegetables instead. Food consumption data reveals that men and boys consume more than the recommended 26 ounces of protein from animal protein per week, while their vegetable consumption is consistently below desired levels. However, the guidelines’ recommendation doesn’t have the same “teeth” as the significant reduction of meat encouraged by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2015.
Navigating the latest information on meat can be tricky. If you eat red meat, keep the portion size small, preferably no more than a couple of ounces a day. When choosing your meat, select lean cuts such as sirloin, tenderloin, loin or filet. Also, go for high quality, grass fed meats, which are lower saturated fat and higher omega-3 fats than conventionally raised meat. If you have a choice between plain beef, lamb or pork, and bacon, sausage, deli meats, go for the plain meat. The same WHO report identified processed meats as dietary carcinogens. The message to take home: reduce your intake of red meat and limit your intake of processed meat and poultry.
Eating too much sodium can cause your body to retain water, which consequently, means that your heart and blood vessels need to work harder. Sometimes, this causes high blood pressure—an important indicator for heart disease or stroke. Right now, the average American consumes 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day—far more than the American Heart Association’s recommended 1,500 milligrams per day. Even though the new dietary guidelines aren’t as restrictive as those of the AHA, the point is clear: reduce your sodium intake for better health.
Start by reading the food labels. Remember that sodium content is listed based on the recommended serving size—so, if a package contains four servings, you’ll need to multiply the sodium content by four. Most fast and processed foods contain a high amount of sodium, so by cutting down on those types of foods, you’ll be able to reduce your sodium intake. Additionally, limit canned and boxed soups: a single serving can provide well over 500 mg of sodium. Buy unprocessed grains, fruits and vegetables, as they’re naturally low in sodium.
It’s actually pretty intuitive: eating an unprocessed, plant-based diet is the foundation for a healthy lifestyle. You’ll take in more fiber, and likely fewer calories, leading to an increase in health and decrease in weight.
Eliminate processed foods and snacks whenever possible. Whole, unprocessed grains, fruits and vegetables contain more satiety enhancing fiber, an added benefit for anyone trying to lose weight. For example, selecting regular rolled oats instead of instant maple and brown sugar flavored oats boosts your fiber intake and saves you about three teaspoons (12 grams) of added sugar.
While the dietary guidelines aren’t perfect, they do provide a good deal of useful information in terms of our eating habits and overall health. Though their initial comprehensiveness was undone by politics, they nevertheless send a message that matters: your health comes not from counting calories and crunching numbers, but from a holistic approach to eating and nutrition.