Now that the smoke, debate and confusion have cleared over the latest update to the federal dietary guidelines, here is what you need to know.
Big picture focus: This year’s update stresses “a healthy eating pattern” over the course of your life as opposed to focusing on individual nutrients or foods. “It’s not one food. It’s a whole eating pattern,” said Barry Popkin, a food science researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author.
Elisabetta Politi, nutrition director at the Duke Diet & Fitness Center, cheered the change: “I’d like to commend them for that.” The previous focus to limit certain foods or nutrients created confusion for many people trying to watch what they ate. “I see this every day with many clients,” Politi said. “They feel guilty about eating eggs and butter.” (It’s worth noting that the new guidelines do mention limiting three nutrients, to be explained below, but the overall focus has changed.)
So what does a healthy eating pattern include? The usual suspects: a variety of fruits and vegetables, grains (especially whole grains), fat-free or low-fat dairy, a variety of proteins (seafood, lean meats, eggs, beans and peas, nuts, seeds and soy products) and oils.
How can you do this? The key is to take small steps, not efforts at large-scale change, explained Nancy Fey-Yensan, a registered dietitian and dean of the college of health and human services at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She suggests keeping track of what you eat for a few days and then looking at what healthier substitutions you can make. “Mindfully identify places where you can swap out for things that you like,” Fey-Yensan said.
A few ideas: Bring home a new-to-you fruit or vegetable every week, whether that’s papaya or kohlrabi. Instead of white rice, make brown rice half the time. Instead of white bread, try some whole grain bread. Instead of whole milk, try 2 percent milk, then graduate later to 1 percent or skim. Expand your protein choices: Try a new fish, go meatless one night a week, make a big pot of beans or field peas once a month.
What does a healthy eating pattern limit? Sugar, salt and saturated fat. We should consume less than 10 percent of calories per day from added sugar. The same goes for saturated fat. Sodium should be limited to 2,300 milligrams a day.
What’s the math for sugar and saturated fat? Determining what is 10 percent of your daily calories depends upon how many calories you eat in a day. For women, that’s 1,600-2,000. For men, it is 2,400-3,000. Therefore, 10 percent equals 160 to 300 calories. One 20-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola contains 240 calories from sugar. Three Oreo cookies contain about 54 calories from sugar. A burger and a large fries contains 148 calories of saturated fat. A 12-inch meatball sub has 126 calories from saturated fat. It’s easy to see how quickly it adds up.
Let’s break down the math for salt: A teaspoon of salt is equal to 2,300 milligrams. This is not only the salt you sprinkle on food; this number also reflects the salt already in the processed foods we eat.
What about coffee? The guidelines gave a boost to those who need their daily caffeine. The guidelines’ scientific report cited research that shows the amount of caffeine in three to five cups of coffee can reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease in adults and may even protect against Parkinson’s disease.
And eggs? The guidelines also seemed to clear eggs, with their high levels of dietary cholesterol, as a culprit for the artery-clogging plaques that cause heart disease. The guidelines removed the limit of 300 milligrams of dietary cholesterol a day. Experts caution that this is not a green light to eat a lot more of cholesterol-laden foods, including eggs, butter, red meat, cheese and pastries.