Vitality

2015 US Dietary Guidelines Reveal What You Need To Change About Your Diet, Based On Nutrition Science

Dietary Guidelines
Brand new dietary guidelines load up on fruits and veggies, while cutting back on the usual salt and added sugar. Photo courtesy of Flickr, JD Hancock

Diet advice can be cumbersome and difficult to digest if not given the right tool to translate — but then that’s what the highly-anticipated U.S. Dietary Guidelines published on Thursday is for. 

Every five years, a carefully-selected advisory committee releases a new set of guidelines for Americans to follow, each with its own themes. In this most recent report, the themes are patterns and personalization. "We are suggesting to American families they don't need to make huge fundamental changes, that in fact small changes can add up to big differences," the U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Washington Post.

The 2015 to 2020 Guidelines represent an ever-evolving understanding of nutritional science, which can actually confuse Americans. In fact, in a 2012 survey, roughly half of Americans polled believed it was easier to do their taxes than it was to figure out how to eat healthy. While consumers struggle with getting the right nutrients, portion control, and the specific ways diet can be used to lower risk for certain diseases, this year's set of guidelines aim to clear up this convoluted science.

"Unless you study chemistry and biochemistry, it's very confusing for people," registered dietician Samantha Heller, senior clinical nutritionist at NYU's Langone Medical Center and exercise physiologist, told Medical Daily. "How is the average person supposed to know the differences between saturated fats? On the one hand, the dietary guidelines do have some great recommendations saying to look at patterns: Eat more fruits, vegetables, and plant foods. But then when they start talking about nutrients, we don't eat a single nutrient. We don't just eat a plate of saturated fat, so where does it come from?"

Analyzing popular fad diets and trends in America is part of the committee's decision-making process. In the past five years, a growing body of evidence has shown high levels of sugar and red meat intake can have adverse health effects. Most recently, the World Health Organization listed red and processed meats as a carcinogen, which increases cancer risk. The new guidelines reiterate this, while also recommending a variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats, poultry, eggs, legumes, soy products, nuts, and seeds.

According to the guidelines, roughly three-fourths of the American population follow an eating pattern low in vegetables, fruits, dairy, and oils. Knowing this, they urged Americans to follow a healthier pattern of fruits, vegetables, and grains — half of which should be whole; milk, cheese, and yogurt should be fat-free or low-fat. Meanwhile, added sugar should only account for 10 percent of a person's daily calories.

Saturated fats should only make up less than 10 percent of daily calories, and be replaced with unsaturated fats like canola or olive oil. As for sodium, less than 2,300 milligrams is recommended a day for adults and children over the age of 14. Avoid foods you may not even suspect, like muffins and bagels, and focus more on cooking at home to avoid processed foods loaded with sodium, fat, and added sugars.

Don't worry, coffee drinkers: you're safe. The guidelines allot up to five cups a coffee a day, but suggest you think twice about cholesterol.

"If they focus on a healthy eating pattern across their lifespan, [and focus on a variety foods], you're eating will lead to a healthier change," Heller said. "The dietary guidelines have not changed a lot over the last 35 years. They've changed somewhat, but hopefully they'll continue to change to reflect what is happening in our world. But I think we always knew that fruits and vegetables and whole grains and beans and nuts and seeds were good for us. It's just a matter of changing attitudes and perspectives realistically."

Heller recalls one patient from years ago who told her he ate butter on his bread every morning. "That’s okay," she said, before he explained how he took a stick of butter and wrapped it in a piece of bread. For him, she recommended he eat less butter, but not cut it out completely. "You have to be realistic about your patients," Heller said.

"It's why you have to know where your patients are in life and hope that they can make small changes to improve their health," she concluded. "We want to shift the culture of the country to have us all be supportive of making healthy choices and reducing the risk of chronic diseases, like type 2 diabetes, obesity, cancer, and heart disease.

Let’s look at the pattern and make sure we have vegetables on our plates at lunch and dinner. Maybe skip the sodas, or have one once a week if you love it. Let’s see what we can do realistically."

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