New Dietary Guidelines: Cut Salt and Sugar, Eat More Fish

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It’s never fun being told what to eat — we all know that we should be eating more fruits and vegetables and cutting down on sweets and meats. But every five years, the government reminds us of these important lessons with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).

Issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) by Congressional mandate, the DGA guides federal nutrition policy, including public education about healthy eating as well as menus at public schools, food assistance programs and other government-based food projects. This year’s revision includes specific recommendations about eating more fish and seafood, as well as more practical advice for adopting healthier eating habits such as eating breakfast and avoiding fast food traps. Other messages, including advice to maintain a healthy weight by balancing the number of calories consumed with the number burned off, and recommendations to boost the amount of plant-based foods Americans eat, reinforce already familiar nutrition lessons. (More on Big Breakfasts Are Out. 5 Better-For-You Morning Meals)

“The guidelines are about controlling caloric intake, increasing the calories you burn by moving more and sitting less, and eating more fruits and vegetables and cutting down on sodium, sugar and fat,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said during a briefing to launch the report.

Vilsack noted that the guidelines are only a small part of a larger effort to address the obesity epidemic in the U.S., which includes new food labeling that will make it clearer to consumers how much sugar, fat, sodium and other ingredients they are eating, as well as efforts such as the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign that encourages children to become more active. Exercise, as a way to balance the calories entering the body, is a part of the Dietary Guidelines as well.

Changes included in the current revision were intended to make the guidelines more practical and accessible so more Americans can act on them and start to eat healthier. A website will serve as a portal for questions as well as background on the guidelines, and the DGA itself contains a chart to help people figure out how many calories they should be eating every day on average, based on their gender, age  and activity level. (More on 5 Ways to Improve Your Diet on the Cheap)

The guidelines are the result of an extensive review by leading experts in nutrition, medicine and education of existing studies on the health effects of different nutritional programs. The review of the data was completed in June 2010, and grouped into four core action steps encouraging Americans to — better balance the number of calories they eat with the amount they burn off; favor more vegetable and plant-based foods and increase seafood intake; lower consumption of foods high in added sugar and fat; and meet federal recommendations for physical exercise (for the average adult, about 150 minutes of moderate activity each week).

One recommendation, that people without a history of hypertension or at risk of the condition limit their salt intake to 2,300 mg a day, is already being questioned by the American Heart Association, which advises that all Americans keep their sodium in check at 1,500 mg a day.

Will the new guidelines make a difference? The DGA have been issued every five years since 1980, and their release has coincided over the past two decades with the biggest surge in overweight and obesity this country has ever seen. “It’s not just about the guidelines in isolation,” said Vilsack about how the new advice could help Americans to change their eating habits. “It’s about the guidelines in the context of eliminating food deserts [where healthy foods are not available], it’s about the guidelines in the context of new food labeling, and it’s about the guidelines in the context of more opportunities for improving school lunches.” (More on 5 New Rules for Good Health)

Recognizing that merely issuing the advice isn’t enough to convince Americans to eat better, the 2010 version contains specific strategies for helping people to avoid added sugars, for example, by opting for water instead of sodas or sports drinks, and selecting fruit instead of a calorie-dense dessert to top off a meal. The revisions may not cause a stampede for the produce aisle at the local market, but they’re a much-needed step forward in curbing the obesity epidemic, not just among adults, but among children as well.

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