Salt, processed foods and sugary drinks were singled out as dietary hot spots in the U.S. government's latest nutrition guidelines, released today. Unveiled every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the new dietary guidelines echo the government’s previous advice to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, replace white flour and other refined grains with whole grains, cut back on salt and saturated fat intake, and increase exercise. Yet, this advice was given in a stricter tone necessitated by America’s ballooning obesity epidemic.
"It's important to have guidelines that will help us deal with that issue of obesity," said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in releasing the guidelines. "These new and improved dietary recommendations give individuals the information to make thoughtful choices of healthier foods in the right portions and to complement those choices with physical activity."
The bottom line, according to the guidelines, is that Americans should consume less food, while enjoying the food they do eat.
Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, told The New York Times that she appreciates the “clarity” the USDA has provided on the specific foods people should reduce or avoid. Nestle, who often criticizes the government’s nutrition guidelines, also liked the agency’s message about the importance of enjoying one’s food.
Dietary guideline cheat sheet
Following are some of the key recommendations outlined in the USDA’s new Dietary Guidelines for Americans:
Slash the salt: People age 51 and older, African Americans and those with hypertension, diabetes and chronic kidney disease are advised to consume no more than 1,500 mg of sodium a day. Others should take in no more than 2,300 mg a day. By gradually reducing sodium intake over time, you will get used to the taste of less-salty food.
Choose real food over processed food: The majority of sodium in an average American’s diet doesn’t come from the salt shaker, it comes from processed food.
Drink water instead of soda: Rather than just telling Americans to cut back on the sugar, the government is getting more specific: replace sodas and other sugary drinks with water.
Cover half your plate with fruits and vegetables: Pick a variety of vegetables, especially dark-green, red and orange veggies. Beans and peas should also be well represented on your plate.
Eat more fish: The USDA and HHS advise replacing red meat with 8 ounces of fish.
Go for fat-free and low-fat dairy: Milk, yogurt and cheese are components of a healthy diet, but choose low-fat (1 percent) or fat-free versions.
Enjoy your food, but eat less: Food is meant to be savored, experienced and shared with family and friends—not eaten in front of the television or while driving to run errands. Enjoy your food, but watch your portions
Do these guidelines really have an impact?
Following the release of the government’s new dietary guidelines—which offered much of the same advice the government has been giving for years now—the blogosphere lit up with opinions on whether the tips will have much impact.
After reading the guidelines, Jenna Bell, PhD, RD, author of the Eating Right Around Chicago blog, bemoaned the lack of specifics in the new guidelines: “The ‘new’ guidelines appear to provide us the same vague, scientifically supported advice,” Bell wrote. “From the perspective of the general population (not living in the world of food and nutrition - rather living in the world of accounting, technology, motherhood or something more common), I still don’t know what to have for dinner.”
Although many Americans will likely never get around to reading guidelines—or, unfortunately, implementing their advice—these nutritional blueprints from the government do impact the food U.S. consumers eat.
For example, when the government advised Americans to eat more whole grains in its 2005 guidelines, large food manufacturers such as Kraft and General Mills took note and began reformulating their products to include more whole grains. Today, the inclusion of whole grains—and the marketing of the benefits of whole grains—remains a hot trend within the global food market. This trend has enabled ancient, nutrient-dense whole grains such as quinoa to make the leap from the natural food world into the mainstream market.
Prodded by First Lady Michelle Obama, mega retailer Walmart is also jumping on the healthy eating bandwagon through its new healthy foods initiative, announced earlier this month. Not surprisingly, this initiative reflects many elements within the USDA’s new guidelines to eat less salt, fat and sugar and more fresh fruits and vegetables. Walmart has pledged to reformulate its private-label line to include less sodium, fat and sugar and to lower the price of fresh fruits and vegetables for consumers.