Just How Healthy Are the Dietary Guidelines for Americans?

healthy diet, produce

Source: iStock

New year, new start. Right? Every January is an opportunity to reflect on what we achieved the year prior, or possibly what we did not achieve — like, say, sticking to a healthy diet. Well, it just so happens that the latest edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans was recently released, making it a great place to start when looking to revamp our 2016 meal plans.

Hold up! Put the hand blender down. Before we start cooking up a nutritional mess, let’s first look at who’s cultivating these guidelines for our picking. After all, it is “the” thing these days to source ingredients: organic, local, fair trade, etc. Released every five years by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is self-described as “the nation’s go-to source for nutrition advice.”

The aim of these guidelines is to provide public health professionals with current nutrition science findings so that they can support Americans — like you — in making “healthy food and beverage choices” as well as serve as the foundation for vital nutrition policies and programs across the United States. Got that? In short, we have government agencies (those that are rather susceptible to lobbying) advising us on what to eat and what not to eat. Also keep in mind, Congress recently asked the National Academies of Science to review “whether balanced nutrition information is reaching the public.” Now that you have some background information, let’s dig in and get a taste of the nutritional advice they are serving up.

Healthy eating patterns is the main focus of the recommendations found in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines.

According to recommendations, a healthy eating pattern includes:

  • A variety of vegetables: dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy and other vegetables. Sounds legit.
  • Fruits, especially whole fruit. We could bite into that.
  • Grains, at least half of which are whole grain. Fiber is essential.
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified soy beverages. Hmm, low-fat doesn’t have as many perks as you’d think.
  • A variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), soy products, and nuts and seeds. Let’s take note of “lean” here.
  • Oils, including those from plants: canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean, and sunflower. Oils also are naturally present in nuts, seeds, seafood, olives, and avocados. Alright, but let’s not get carried away, especially with those pressed oils.


Source: iStock

What a healthy eating pattern doesn’t include:

  • Added sugars, typically found in processed or prepared foods, especially beverages. It’s suggested that less than 10% of your daily calories should come from added sugars.
  • Saturated and trans fats. We’re talking butter, whole milk, meats that are not labeled as lean, and tropical oils such as coconut and palm oil. Less than 10% of your daily calories should come from saturated fats.
  • Sodium. Processed foods are the biggest culprit here; meats, frozen entrees, fast food meals, grab-and-go snacks. It’s suggested we don’t toe over the 2,300 milligrams per day mark.

All pretty logical suggestions. That’s until you cut deeper into the “nation’s go-to source for nutrition advice” and find some conflicting information that’ll have you questioning ingredient sources.

For instance, the section on proteins suggests, “processed meats and processed poultry are sources of sodium and saturated fats, and intake of these products can be accommodated as long as sodium, saturated fats, added sugars, and total calories are within limits in the resulting eating pattern.” How can that be? How can it be “OK” to indulge in, or rather accommodate an urge for, processed meats when we’re told to keep our intake of saturated fats and sodium at less than 10% of our daily calories? Is there really a bacon-eater out there who puts down the fork after just one serving — especially when they’re given the go-ahead to plate it in the first place?

Speaking of the go-ahead, it appears the leading scientists who initially drew up the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report delivered to the USDA, where the official Dietary Guidelines are drafted by federal employees, warned against processed meat as it is associated with an increased risk of cancer and heart disease. But after an earful from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, an industry trade group, and its supporters in Congress, the crucial health suggestion was cut. Then again, when the meat and poultry industry — the largest segment of the country’s agricultural economy — pulls in $64.2 billion a year, a visit to Washington D.C. to take care of some lobbying matters is simply chump change.

The best advice when it comes to revamping your 2016 meal plan? Stick to a whole food diet that will help to prevent chronic diseases like obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and Type 2 diabetes. Think of it this way: Fresh fruits, vegetables, proteins, and whole grains don’t need hyped-up packaging to sell you on their benefits; so there’s really no need to buy into the packaged health claims.

Ellen Thompson is a National Academy of Sports Medicine certified personal trainer at Blink Fitness in New York City, where she serves as Head Trainer at the Penn Plaza location. Ellen’s approach to training is that “anything is possible.” Endurance, strength, and stability/agility training are at the core of her fitness programming. She holds a master’s degree in New Media Publishing and Magazine Editing from the prestigious Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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