The Good, The Bad, and The “Meh” of New Dietary Guidelines

00Nutrition

new dietary guidelinesAs you may have heard, the new 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) were recently released. The DGA were first created in 1980 and are updated every 5 years, based on new science. (By the way, we still follow the Food Pyramid, it’s time to check out MyPlate.)

Here’s my take on the wins and losses regarding what changed (and didn’t) this year.

The Good
Focus on Dietary Patterns, Less on Individual Nutrients – The meal patterns they recommend are a healthy American, vegetarian, or Mediterranean diet. All of these patterns have ample evidence to support them and the DGA point out that you don’t have to pick just one. You can switch them up based on what you feel like. They characterize a healthy eating pattern by lots of vegetables, whole fruits, grains (mostly whole grains), low-fat or fat-free dairy, a variety of types of protein, and oils.

The Bad
Meat – There is brief mention of men and boys reducing their intake of red meat, poultry, and eggs while increasing their intake of other protein sources including beans, nuts, seeds, and seafood. But 1) nobody actually needs meat, though it can be included in moderation. Yes, men and boys eat more meat than women, but based on the advisory committee’s report, just make the recommendation for everyone to eat less meat; and 2) there is no mention of processed meats, which are more of an issue than meat in general.

Portion Sizes – This is one of the biggest issues in the American diet. We simply eat too much. People need to learn what a portion size of a given food looks like. The DGA would be the perfect resource for that, but they don’t go into it (not that I could find, at least).

Wordplay – This is by far the worst part of the DGA, as it always has been. Recommendations are vague and indirect. When it’s recommended you should eat more of something, the report mention “foods.” When it’s recommended you should eat less of something, the report mentions “nutrients” (i.e. salt, saturated fat, sugar; see below: The Meh). While the general focus is on overall patterns, this back and forth between “foods” and “nutrients” is confusing for consumers. Should we be following a pattern or do we need to be tracking our nutrient intake? People want to know how to improve their health, so be direct and tell them how: eat fewer processed foods, less meat, fewer sodas/sweetened beverages/sweetened yogurt/cake/cookies…sweet stuff.  

The Meh
Physical activity – The 2015-2020 DGA now have recommendations on physical activity…a bit suspect since physical activity is not diet. However, I’m not that bent out of shape about there being physical activity recommendations in the DGA because perhaps having them in the same space as the dietary rec’s could lead to people actually reading them. But we do already have a document for this exact purpose, and it’s called the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

The Three S’s – The recommendations for salt (2,300 mg/day) and saturated fat (no more than 10% of total calories) remain the same, while a recommendation for added sugar (no more than 10% of total calories) was added.
Since the other two didn’t change, let’s focus on the sugar recommendation. I absolutely don’t support eating a lot of added sugar, but I’m also slow to vilify individual foods/nutrients, which is what has been happening with sugar. We should consider the whole low-fat fad of the 1980’s and the subsequent obesity epidemic as a cautionary tale of what happens when we let out a war cry against a single nutrient.

So, there it is. The good, the bad, and the meh of the 2015-2020 DGA. What did you think of the new recommendations?

Is Caffeine Good or Bad? That is the Question!

00Nutrition

coffeeCoffee.  

Some love it, some hate it. There are many people who smell the strong aroma throughout the day and are in heaven, but for others, the idea of drinking a cup of joe makes them sick. While popular opinion may never agree on good vs. bad, scientific studies do have their fair share to say on the matter.

Some studies say caffeine decreases the risk of skin and prostate cancers. Some say it lowers depression risks in women. Also, findings show that it may protect you from Type 2 diabetes, and fight off Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. According to an article by AARP, the National Institutes of Health suggests coffee reduces the risk of Parkinson’s and dementia, and boosts concentration and memory, partially because coffee beans are seeds, which are loaded with protective compounds.

However, other reports suggest that caffeine should be avoided or limited during pregnancy. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (USNews article), coffee consumption has been linked to lower birth weight and increased risk of miscarriage and stillbirth, although there is no proof at this point that caffeine can be a cause of miscarriages. Another reported downfall to drinking coffee that is being studied is that it may act as a trigger for heart attacks with some people who don’t drink coffee often, though the report says more research is needed to determine if this is a serious issue.

Wow, that is a lot of information! So how do you know which reports hold more value? Which one do you pay the most attention to? Well, to start, the information above provides support about how caffeine can be both good and bad for you depending on who you are. And they all may be worth paying attention to in order to determine the significance.

That’s why it is important to look for a “conclusion” at the end of every article. In every reputable study where the author(s) give their summary of results, there is a statement about the strength of the findings. This is worth paying attention to, as it shows how strong the study is (or isn’t). And if you aren’t sure you are viewing a credible medical source, talk it over with a health professional.

If that information overload leaves you feeling overwhelmed, just let your body do the talking. If caffeine makes you feel sick, then it may not be good for you. However, if it gives you a boost without making you feel bad, then caffeine may be your friend. There is real value in paying attention to how your own body responds to what you put in it.

We want to know! Tell us – do you love coffee, or hate it??

Evaluating the Sugar Situation

00Nutrition

sugarThere’s regular sugar, then Sweet-n-Low, Splenda and Equal. Oh, and don’t forget cane sugar and brown sugar and powdered sugar. Maybe you should be substituting sugar with honey…or Stevia…or applesauce? It seems these days everyone has something to say about your choice of sweetener. Let’s break it all down and take a look.

Sugar: A Raw Deal

As the American Heart Association points out, there are really only two types of sugars in our diet – naturally occurring sugar and added sugar. Naturally occurring sugar is fairly self-explanatory. It’s what you find in fruit. Added sugar is also just how it sounds. It’s anything you add to your food – think sweet tea, lattes or soda (Sugar 101).

While white sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar and honey are considered natural sugars, they are still added sugars when you add them into your food. According to the American Heart Association, “You can use sugars to help enhance your diet. Adding a limited amount of sugar to improve the taste of foods (especially for children) that provide important nutrients, such as whole-grain cereal, low-fat milk or yogurt, is better than eating nutrient-poor, highly sweetened foods.”

Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners can actually be much sweeter than regular sugar. That, along with the fact that they often have no calories, are why many people prefer them. The Mayo Clinic says artificial sweeteners have a bad reputation due to a study that came out in the ‘70’s linking saccharin, a sweet-tasting synthetic compound used as a substitute for sugar in many artificial sweeteners, to bladder cancer. However, they say there’s no sound evidence that artificial sweeteners approved in the U.S. cause cancer or any other serious health problems (Artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes). So it’s okay to swap out real sugar for artificial sugar and save yourself some calories.

Limiting Sugar in Your Diet

No matter what type of sugar you prefer, the bottom line is that with the exception of fruit, most Americans need to limit the amount of sugar in their diets. The World Health Organization is calling on adults and children to decrease their free sugar intake by 10% (10 Easy Ways to Slash Sugar from Your Diet). Most of us should be eating 1 ½ to 2 ½ cups of fruit per day. That should be primarily where our sugar comes from. If you’re not already eating fruit on a daily basis, try swapping out your morning or afternoon snack for some fresh, in-season fruit instead.

Another place to watch out for sugar is in processed foods. Make sure you’re checking the nutritional label to see how much sugar there is. You may be surprised, but processed foods can be high in sugar, even with products like catsup or pasta sauce.

What is your sweetener of choice?