To prevent chronic diseases like heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and obesity, Americans should eat less sugar, saturated fat, and sodium (from salt). Those are among the key recommendations of the latest version of Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published jointly by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
In addition to limiting those ingredients, the 2015-2020 edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasizes eating a variety of nutritious foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat and fat-free dairy, and lean meats. The new guidelines, developed by experts in the fields of nutrition, health, and medicine, are designed to combat rising rates of chronic, diet-related diseases in a way that is easier for consumers to adopt, the experts said.
Previous guidelines emphasized individual dietary components such as food groups and nutrients. The new guidelines focus on overall healthy eating patterns—the combination of foods and drinks that a person consumes over time—rather than “a rigid prescription.” Experts believe that this new emphasis will help people to adjust their diets to their particular taste preferences, culture, and budget.
“You can still choose foods that you enjoy, but you need to align them with healthy eating patterns: less sugar, sodium, and saturated fat; and more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains,” said Kathryn McMurry, a nutrition coordinator at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).
“Making small changes in your diet over time, such as drinking water instead of one sugary drink each day or cooking several fresh meals a week instead of eating out, can really pay off in the long run,” said McMurry, who has played a key role in developing previous dietary guidelines.
Since 1980, HHS and USDA have joined forces to publish Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which is updated every five years. The guidelines affect individuals and families, policy makers, health professionals, restaurants, manufacturers, and many other groups. The guidelines also influence school lunch and school breakfast programs, which feed millions of school children each day.
Topping the list of food pattern components to change are added sugars. This year’s guidelines are the first to recommend that we consume less than 10 percent of our daily intake of calories from added sugars, as a target to help us meet our nutritional needs without going over our calorie limits. Added sugars are sugars added to foods and beverages by manufacturers. They include high-fructose corn syrup, fructose, dextrose, honey, and many other sweeteners.
Intake of added sugars is particularly high among children, adolescents, and young adults, the authors noted. Major sources include soft drinks (sodas), fruit drinks, sweetened coffee and tea, and energy drinks. Beverages are the source of almost half of the added sugars consumed by the U.S. population. Another major source of added sugars is snacks, such as cakes, pies, and doughnuts, guidelines noted.
Strategies to limit added sugars in beverages include choosing beverages with no added sugars (like water), drinking sugary beverages less often, and selecting beverages that are low in added sugars. To limit added sugars in snacks, consumers should limit or decrease the amount of sweet snacks and dairy-based desserts as well as choose unsweetened or no-sugar-added versions of canned fruit, yogurt, and other products, the guidelines recommended.
The guidelines also target saturated fats, so-called “bad” fats that come from animal sources, such as butter, cheese, and fatty meats. Major sources include burgers, sandwiches, tacos, and pizza. The guidelines recommend that less than 10 percent of calories per day come from these fats and urge people to read food labels and choose foods that are lower in saturated fats. Instead, choose foods that are higher in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, which are also known as “good” fats, such as those found in vegetable oils and nuts.
Examples of healthier choices include foods and beverages that are lower in fat such as fat-free or low-fat milk and cheese products or lean rather than fatty cuts of meat. Another option is increasing the amounts of veggies, whole grains, and lean meat that you use in your meals. You should also consider preparing foods with oils that are high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (like olive or canola oil) and using oil-based dressings and spreads instead of those made from solid fats (like butter).
People should also limit intake of trans fat, found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils used in some processed foods such as desserts, frozen pizzas, and microwave popcorn, the guidelines noted. Studies have linked trans fats to an increased risk of heart disease. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently taken steps to remove artificial trans fats from the food supply.
Sodium consumption, which remains high throughout the U.S. population, is another food pattern component highlighted in the guidelines. Major sources include burgers and other sandwiches, pizza, and soups. Most of it comes from salt added during commercial food processing and preparation, noted the guidelines, which specifically recommend consuming less than 2,300 milligrams per day of sodium.
Strategies to reduce sodium intake include reading the Nutrition Facts label to review the sodium content of foods and choosing products with less sodium or buying low-sodium, reduced sodium, and no-salt added food products. Another way to reduce sodium intake includes choosing fresh, frozen (without sauce or seasoning), or no-salt-added canned vegetables and choosing fresh rather than processed meat and poultry. In addition, eating at home more often, cooking foods from fresh ingredients to control sodium, limiting intake of sauces and “instant” products like noodles, and flavoring foods with herbs and spices instead of salt.
One noteworthy example of a healthy eating pattern is the DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. Designed to lower blood pressure and fight heart disease, the DASH diet emphasizes choosing foods that are low in saturated fats and rich in potassium, calcium, and magnesium, as well as rich in fiber and protein.
“The DASH diet fits nicely with the guideline’s recommendations and has been clinically proven to boost health by lowering blood pressure and LDL cholesterol in the blood,” McMurry said. LDL, or low-density lipoprotein, is known as “bad” cholesterol because it can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
“But keep in mind that dietary guidelines, along with scientific knowledge, are constantly evolving and there’s no perfect diet for everyone. Whatever diet you choose, try to follow the patterns for healthy eating recommended in the new guidelines,” she said. If you already have a chronic disease or have special dietary restrictions, then you should consult with a health professional to see what diet is right for you, McMurry noted.
Exercise: Yes, exercise
While healthier food choices are a key part of the new guidelines, the guidelines also note that exercise is important. Consumers are urged to complement their healthy eating choices with regular physical activity, which also is known to promote health and reduce the risk of chronic disease. In addition, regular physical activity helps people maintain a healthy weight when combined with a healthy eating pattern lower in calories, the guidelines noted.
“Eating better and exercising more is the best strategy,” McMurry said. “You maximize the health benefits by doing both.”