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Dietary guidelines: healthful eating

Exercise and food safety have been added, but do government guidelines go far enough?

The federal government's latest "Dietary Guidelines for Americans" is now available in a 40-page booklet that tells us how to be healthy.

In an attempt to not get too complicated, the guidelines seem pretty obvious: Aim for a healthy weight. Be physically active each day. Choose whole grains, fruits and vegetables and keep your food safe. Watch the saturated fat, sugar, salt and alcoholic beverages. Well, duh . . . is this something we didn't already know?

"There were a few changes, but even so, people still need to hear about the importance of eating right and exercising," pointed out Pauline Williams Ingols, a Utah State University Extension agent for Salt Lake County.

Even as common-sense as these guidelines seem to be, they've still drawn criticism. The nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C., says they don't go far enough in advocating a plant-based diet. In a press release, the committee noted that animal products such as milk and meat contain cholesterol, which contributes to stroke, diabetes, hypertension and obesity.

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"Thus, a federal 'OK' to meat-eating is like suggesting smokers choose 'low-tar' cigarettes or advising alcoholics to drink 'lite' beers," states the PCRM press release.

One may wonder if the guidelines really carry that much weight, since many Americans don't appear to follow them. But all federal food programs, including the School Lunch Program, must conform to the guidelines.

"Today, we're eating about half our meals away from home," said Georgia Lauritzen, a Utah State University Extension nutrition specialist. "These guidelines are used in many feeding situations, such as school-lunch and health-care institutions, so in that context, many people benefit from them. Also, there's a segment of our population that's very health-conscious and interested, even though others don't care."

Lauritzen and Deloy Hendricks, also a Utah State University nutrition specialist, discussed the new guidelines at a recent meeting of the Utah Nutrition Council.

"We don't eat single nutrients, we eat food," he said. "My thought is if I can't get a certain nutrient with a reasonable amount of food, is it really necessary? I still like the concept that there's no such thing as a bad food, only bad diets, in how we put the foods together."

Since 1980, the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services have jointly published the dietary guidelines every five years. Beginning with the 1985 edition, the USDA and HHS appointed an advisory committee of experts in nutrition and health to review the scientific and medical knowledge current at the time and recommend revisions.

This time, the guidelines were expanded from seven to 10 and subdivided into a color-coded "ABC" or "Aim, Build and Choose" format to make it simple for the public to remember. For the first time, physical exercise and food safety were included.

"Fitness was insignificant in the last version," said Lauritzen. "Now it's a big part."

The guidelines are now available at Extension offices; the larger book is $4, and the abbreviated pamphlet version is 50 cents. They can also be downloaded from the USDA's Web site www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/.

Here are the guidelines, with highlights from each:

AIM FOR FITNESS

1. Aim for a healthy weight.

"Being overweight or obese increases your risk for high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, certain types of cancer, arthritis and breathing problems," state the guidelines.

Suggestions for losing weight include choosing low-fat foods and sensible portion sizes.

2. Be physically active each day.

All adults should get at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week. Children should aim for at least one hour of moderate physical activity daily.

BUILD A HEALTHY BASE

3. Let the Food Guide Pyramid guide your food choices.

No single food can supply all the nutrients in the amounts you need. So the "Food Guide Pyramid," which replaced the old "Basic Four Food Groups," is still the standard. The pyramid advocates 6-11 servings of grains, 3-5 servings of vegetables, 2-4 servings of fruits, 2-3 servings of dairy products, and 2-3 servings of meat, poultry, fish, beans or eggs. Fats should be used sparingly. People who are less active should choose the lower number of servings.

Watch portions: A slice of bread or a half-cup of pasta is considered a serving; your spaghetti dinner could easily take up four servings.

This section also explains nutrition facts labels on food products.

4. Choose a variety of grains daily, especially whole grains.

Whole grains — such as whole wheat bread, oatmeal, brown rice or whole-grain corn — offer vitamins, minerals, fiber and other protective substances.

5. Choose a variety of fruits and vegetables daily.

People should eat a variety of fruits and vegetables because they offer different nutrients. The booklet states that all forms — fresh, frozen, canned, dried and juice — provide vitamins and minerals, adding, "Choose dark-green leafy vegetables, orange fruits and vegetables and cooked dry beans and peas often."

6. Keep food safe to eat.

To avoid food-borne illnesses, the guidelines advise, "Do not eat or drink unpasteurized juices, raw sprouts and raw (unpasteurized) milk and products made from unpasteurized milk. Do not eat raw or undercooked meat, poultry, eggs, fish and shellfish."

Basic food preparation is discussed — washing hands and keeping cutting surfaces clean, keeping raw meat or poultry away from other foods and refrigerating perishable foods.

"When in doubt, throw it out" is the watchword for questionable food.

CHOOSE SENSIBLY

7. Choose a diet that is low in saturated fat and cholesterol and moderate in total fat.

"Fat intake in the United States as a proportion of total calories is lower than it was many years ago, but most people still eat too much saturated fat," the guidelines state.

The guidelines also offer information on transfatty acids — partially hydrogenated vegetable oils such as hard margarines and shortenings. Foods high in transfatty acids tend to raise blood cholesterol.

8. Choose beverages and foods to moderate your intake of sugars.

"People might think maybe we shouldn't pound on the sugar thing so much, but we still have a high incident of dental caries," said Hendricks. "The non-nutritive sweeteners have diminished it quite a bit, but we shouldn't have problems."

"In the United States, the No. 1 source of added sugars is nondiet soft drinks," the guidelines state.

Drink water to quench your thirst instead of soft drinks. In fact, Hendricks says water should be part of the Food Guide Pyramid for the elderly, because the thirst response is blunted with age. By the time they feel thirsty, they're often already dehydrated.

9. Choose and prepare foods with less salt.

High salt intake is linked to high blood pressure, but it can also lead to osteoporosis because it increases the body's loss of calcium. According to nutrition facts labels, a person eating 2,000 calories a day should limit sodium intake to 2,400 milligrams a day — that's about 1 teaspoon of salt. Salt is found mainly in processed and prepared foods. Lower the amount of table salt you use by seasoning your food with more herbs, spices and fruits.

10. If you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation.

The guidelines seem to sidestep the recent studies claiming that a daily glass of wine is good for the heart.

"Alcoholic beverages supply calories but few nutrients," the guidelines state. "Taking more than one drink per day for women or two drinks per day for men can raise the risk for motor vehicle crashes, other injuries, high blood pressure, stroke, violence, suicide and certain types of cancer. Alcohol consumption during pregnancy increases risk of birth defects."

What counts as a drink? Twelve ounces of regular beer, five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.


E-mail: vphillips@desnews.com