Due to the focus on nutrition over the last 100 years, many nutrient deficiencies have been eliminated. But now we find an increasing number of the population suffering from chronic diseases related to poor diet as well as decreased physical activity. What if the top chronic diseases including heart disease and type 2 diabetes could be eradicated by a change in diet? That was the purpose behind the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) that began in 1980. Every five years the research is reviewed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and new dietary guidelines are released. The accuracy of these recommendations is important since many agencies follow the DGA when developing policies and public health education. The purpose of the DGA is to offer concrete dietary advice based on research in order to prevent disease. It is intended to meet the needs of an average healthy adult or child over two years of age. It is not intended to treat or cure any disease. It can be modified as needed by each individual based on health status and/or food allergies or intolerances. A registered dietitian can help you interpret these guidelines and choose a meal plan that fits your personal situation and food preferences.
In an attempt to obtain unbiased information on which to base these guidelines, the government appoints a Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee made up of 15 highly qualified members that conduct research in the fields of nutrition, health and medicine. The members are screened for any potential conflicts of interest and are required to submit financial disclosure forms annually. Once the committee agrees on their recommendations, the reports goes to the secretaries of the federal departments and then is open to the public for comments. Next a report is drafted which is then reviewed again by the agencies and open for public comment. After this review, the dietary guidelines are published and implemented. There are a few changes from the 2010-2015 guidelines. These are listed below:
- The new guidelines emphasize the overall diet or eating habit of individuals rather than specific foods, food groups or nutrients. Since no one food is eaten in isolation but rather with other foods and food groups, it makes sense that the synergistic power of the diet is more important than the individual foods or nutrients themselves. The point is to eat a healthy diet over each stage of the life span in order to reduce risk of disease.
- Choose a variety of nutrient-dense foods from different food groups that provide adequate nutrients within a desired calorie limit.
- A focus on individual choices to exchange healthy foods for less healthy foods within personal and cultural preferences that are affordable and doable long term.
- Recognition that everyone plays a roll in food choices from home, school, work, communities and national regulations and must help support healthy eating patterns.
- The recommendation to limit dietary cholesterol intake to 300 mg or less was eliminated in the new guidelines due to the lack of evidence of dietary cholesterol having a significant impact on blood cholesterol levels.
One thing did not change, and that is the recommendation to limit calories from added sugars and saturated fat and reduce sodium intake. Due to the health concerns that may arise from too much of these dietary components, there are specific limits given. It is recommended that less than 10% of total daily calories come from added sugar or saturated fat and sodium be limited to less than 2,300 mg daily. Specific recommendations are also given for alcohol intake and defines moderate intake as being one drink daily for women and no more than 2 drinks per day for men. These quantities are based on the fact that overall calorie intake after getting all of the recommended food groups in sufficient quantity does not allow for more calories from added sugars, saturated fat and alcohol.
It is important to notice that the guidelines give options since there are many food choices available that can contribute to an overall healthy diet. The Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern has two modifications. A Healthy Mediterranean-style and Healthy Vegetarian eating pattern are USDA dietary patterns included based on reduced risk of disease associated with them. The new view of looking at eating patterns and health risk has shown a few common characteristics of diets that promote health. The most proven is that consuming more fruits and vegetables is good for us. Consumption of whole grains has also been noted but with slightly less consistency. Eating less meat (especially processed meat) and poultry, less refined grains, sugar-sweetened foods and sugary beverages has also been correlated with healthier outcomes. The reports goes on to say that it does not mean these foods cannot be included within an overall healthy diet but that a higher intake is associated with increased risk of certain diseases. The 2015-2020 DGA also lists recommended calorie levels based on age, gender and activity level with the appropriate amount of foods from each food group to be included. This is important because we know that too many calories from any food group can lead to weight gain and increased risk of becoming overweight or obese.
So how do Americans measure up to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans?
- 85% fail to get the recommended amount of vegetables
- 75% fail to get enough fruits
- 42% do not get enough grains
- 85% do not get recommended amount of dairy products
- 41% do not get enough protein
- 70% exceed the recommended guidelines for added sugars and saturated fats
- 90% consume more sodium than recommended per day
Nutrients that have been identified as being under consumed by some Americans include:
- Dietary Fiber
- Iron (females age 19-50)
- Vitamins A, D, E, C
The groups overconsuming or under consuming certain food groups or nutrients vary by age, gender and even socioeconomic status. But the main concern is that a huge number of the American population does not consume a healthy dietary pattern. A gradual shift in food choices must occur before our nation will be able to see a reduction in chronic diseases.
With so much information out there about nutrition and a new diet book seemingly published every hour, it is helpful to have evidence-based, peer-reviewed guidelines to help us make better choices. In the next few weeks, we will look at some popular diet trends and how they compare to the dietary guidelines. Please feel free to join the discussion in the comments below. If you find this article helpful, please share with others.