New U.S. Dietary Guidelines Limit Sugar and Emphasize Plant Foods

Written by Susan McQuillan, MS, RDN, CDN

The latest version of the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans was released yesterday. The guidelines are designed to help nutritionists, health professionals, and health policy makers translate nutrition science into practical advice for the average American who is trying to make healthy food choices every day.

Ultimately, the recommendations are meant to help consumers make lifestyle decisions that will ensure a healthy weight and prevent chronic health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

First published in 1980, the guidelines are continually reviewed, updated, and then published every five years. With each update, some guidelines change to reflect an evolving science, while others remain the same. In a nutshell, the message from USDA is “all food and beverage choices matter” when it comes to your health.

New sugar recommendations

For the first time ever, the new guidelines include sugar on the list of substances that should be limited to very specific amounts in the diet. The restrictions include:

• Limit added sugars to less than 10 percent of calories per day. That means, for example, no more than 180 calories from sugar in a 1,800-calorie daily diet.
• Limit saturated fat to less than 10 percent of calories a day. Again, that means no more than 180 calories from saturated fat in a 1,800-calorie daily diet.
• Limit sodium to less than 2,300 mg per day.
• Limit alcohol to no more than one drink per day for women, two drinks per day for men, and only adults of legal drinking age should consume alcohol.

DiabeticLifestyle Medical Advisory Board Member and 2015 AADE Diabetes Educator of the Year Susan Weiner, MS, RDN, CDE, CDN, points out that the Dietary Guidelines, as they are written apply to the general population, but not necessarily to those who already have diabetes or other chronic health problems. The sugar recommendation, in particular, may be confusing to some.

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“People with diabetes still have to monitor their total carb consumption more closely than others,” she says. “The 10 percent limitation applies to added sugars, not the sugar that is naturally occurring in fruits, dairy, and other foods.”

Healthy eating patterns

The new guidelines focus on eating patterns that demonstrate the relationship between the foods we consume, the nutrients they contain, and the consequences to our health. Three healthy eating patterns are recognized:

The Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern is based on typical American food choices, but with an emphasis on preparing and eating foods in their most nutritious forms. That means without added sugars and at their leanest.

The Healthy Mediterranean Eating Pattern is a modified version of the Healthy U.S. Style Eating Pattern, with more fruits and seafood, and less dairy.

The Healthy Vegetarian Eating Pattern contains more legumes (dried beans, lentils and peas), soy products, whole grains, nuts and seeds than the Healthy U.S. Style Eating Pattern. It contains no meat, poultry or seafood.

All of these patterns promote a diet rich in vegetables, grains, fruits and other plant foods, with limited amounts of meat or none at all. The guidelines emphasize that teenage boys and men should especially watch their meat intake. However, some consumer advocacy groups, such as Friends of the Earth, say the guidelines still don’t go far enough to emphasize the health, environmental, and food security issues associated with eating meat.

“We are disappointed in the government’s efforts to clearly communicate how important it is for everyone to eat less meat, especially red meats and processed meats, because of their link to pancreatic, colon and other types of cancer,” says Kari Hammerschlag, senior program manager with Friends of the Earth. “The suggestion to eat less meat is buried in the report, and not even included in the Key Recommendations.”

In a nutshell

The research used to develop the guidelines does show that, in addition to staying within a healthful calorie range, most Americans need to increase the amount of vegetables and fruits in their diets. While surveys show that we eat enough grain, they also show that we still eat too many refined grain foods and not enough whole grains. The guidelines recommend that at least half the total grains in the average diet should be whole grains. The guidelines also state that the majority of Americans would benefit from eating more low-fat and fat-free dairy, more liquid oils in place of solid fats, and embracing more variety in our protein choices, to include more seafood, legumes, nuts, and seeds. In addition to following a healthy eating pattern, the guidelines acknowledge that being physically active is one of the most important things Americans can do to improve their health.

“For now, the basic message for everyone is to cut back on sugar and other food substances like sodium and saturated fat, that are associated with chronic disease,” Weiner sums up. “People with diabetes especially need to remember that the Dietary Guidelines are generalized, so they should continue to follow the meal plans developed with their diabetes educators.”

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