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Special Reports March 2016 Issue

Secrets of Uncle Sam’s Nutrition Prescription

7 key takeaways from the new federal Dietary Guidelines.


Every five years, your Uncle Sam rounds up the latest scientific evidence about nutrition and serves up advice about what to eat and drink for better health. The resulting Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) - whose eighth edition was released in January - provides basic guidance to the American public about healthy eating patterns and shapes nutrition education programs. The DGA also affects billions of dollars in federal spending on feeding programs and influences foods available in markets and restaurants.

But what do the guidelines mean for your everyday food and beverage choices? "These guidelines outline simple steps for small shifts in your eating habits to improve the quality of your diet, or in some cases - for example, replacing sugar-sweetened beverages with water or seltzer - to make large shifts in quality," says Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, executive editor of the Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter, who served as vice chair of the scientific advisory committee whose report formed the foundation of the updated guidelines. Two other Tufts faculty served on or advised this committee. (See the May 2015 newsletter.)

PATTERNS PAY OFF: In this edition, the DGA dramatically increases emphasis on the importance of overall healthy eating patterns - rather than focusing just on individual foods or nutrients. That emphasis is not on any one eating pattern but on improving the quality of individuals' current diets. For those who want it, examples are given of patterns such as the Healthy US-Style Eating Pattern, Mediterranean-style diet, the DASH eating plan or a vegetarian diet. (See bottom of next page.)

It's estimated that half of all US adults - about 117 million people - suffer from preventable, diet-related chronic diseases. Shifting to healthier eating patterns can help bring about lasting improvements in individual health, according to the DGA report.

Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, dean of Tufts’ Friedman School and editor-in-chief of the Health & Nutrition Letter, praises the emphasis on dietary patterns and also the new emphasis on healthy fats, including vegetable oils and nuts.

The new DGA also made headlines for recommendations regarding specific nutrients, such as limiting added sugars, as well as for reducing emphasis on concern about total fat and dietary cholesterol. For the first time, too, the DGA mentions coffee, stating that "moderate coffee consumption can be incorporated into healthy eating patterns." Other key guidance should be familiar, such as the importance of eating more vegetables, fruits and whole grains.

As before, the updated DGA recommends engaging in moderate levels of physical activity. Although physical activity is now covered by a separate report, those recommendations have been brought forth and included in the DGA.

Here are seven key points to keep in mind about what Uncle Sam's updated nutrition prescription means to you and your health:

1. All your food and beverage choices matter: A healthy eating pattern isn't just eating more of one or two foods and less of a few others. The whole of your diet, at an appropriate calorie level, is important to help achieve and maintain a healthy body weight, obtain adequate nutrients, and reduce the risk of chronic disease. According to the DGA, a healthy eating pattern includes:

- A variety of vegetables. (Be careful here, though, Dr. Mozaffarian adds, about loading up on just starchy vegetables such as white potatoes.)

- Fruits, especially whole fruits.

- Grains, at least half of which are whole grains.

- Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified soy beverages.

- A variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds, and soy products. (Tufts' Lichtenstein recommends limiting red and processed meat, and eating more of the other healthier options.)

- Oils, including those from plants such as canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean and sunflower, as well as those naturally present in nuts, seeds, olives, seafood and avocados.

2. Aim for nutrient density: To get the nutrients you need without consuming empty calories, choose foods that are "nutrient dense." According to the DGA, "All vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, eggs, beans and peas, unsalted nuts and seeds, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and lean meats and poultry - when prepared with little or no added solid fats, sugars, refined starches, and sodium - are nutrient-dense foods." Avoid foods that have been “diluted” by the addition of calories from added animal fats, sugars or refined starches.

3. Cut down on added sugars: For the first time, the new DGA calls for limiting added sugars to less than 10% of calories per day. In a 2,000-calorie daily diet, that means no more than 200 calories from added sugars, roughly 12 teaspoons or 52 grams - about the amount in a single regular 16-ounce soft drink. Since Americans get added sugars from so many foods, in practice this means much less than one soda per day. Naturally occurring sugars such as those in milk or fruits don’t count toward this limit, because they come with valuable nutrients and fiber. Americans currently get about 13% of daily calories from added sugars, with teens closer to 17%; nearly half of added sugars come from sweetened beverages, such as sodas, sports drinks and fruit drinks.

The Food and Drug Administration has proposed including a line for added sugars in revising the Nutrition Facts panel. Pending that change, use common sense, compare the total amount of sugars in similar products, and check ingredients lists for terms indicating sugar of any type. Simply cutting out soda, sports drinks and fruit drinks will get most Americans in line with the 10% limit.

For many food choices, Dr. Mozaffarian adds, it’s important to focus on added sugars plus starch. See: (Choose the Right Carbs to Help Control Your Diabetes Risk)

Next: Page 2: Continued...

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