Recommended Changes to the Dietary Guidelines and What They Mean

Since 1980, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have released the dietary guidelines for Americans every five years. Over the past 40 years, as our understanding of diet and nutrition have changed, so have the dietary recommendations for Americans.

The process of creating these dietary guidelines is rather grueling. First, a committee of nationally recognized health and nutrition experts are selected and assigned to review scientific evidence. These experts write the Dietary Guidelines Committee Report, which includes recommended changes or additions to the next set of dietary guidelines that the HHS and USDA release.

The process doesn’t end there. Written and public oral comments are accepted for consideration before the final 2020-2025 dietary guidelines are released. In mid-July, the committee’s report was released. It includes several significant changes to the current 2015-2020 guidelines based on the latest scientific data.

[See: How to Make Healthful Dietary Changes Last a Lifetime.]

The Purpose of the Dietary Guidelines

About half of all American adults have one or more preventable chronic disease. About 155 million, or 67%, of U.S. adults are overweight or obese. Research has revealed that poor dietary patterns, eating too many calories and physical inactivity directly contribute to these issues.

The dietary guidelines address significant nutrition-related health issues facing the U.S population including overweight, obesity and other diet-related chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and cancer.

In addition, the dietary guidelines become the basis of federal nutrition policy, education, outreach and food assistance programs such as school lunch programs, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (commonly known as WIC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP) that provides nutrition benefits to supplement the food budget of families in need. These guidelines sometimes also influence the dietary recommendations of other countries.

[See: The 10 Best Diets for Healthy Eating.]

New Guidelines for Infants and Breastfeeding Moms

In the 2015-2020 dietary guidelines, the world was told that the 2020-2025 dietary guidelines will, for the first time, include recommendations for infants 0 to 24 months, as well as for pregnant and breastfeeding women. The committee found that breastfeeding can help reduce the risk of several chronic diseases, and infants should ideally be breastfed for at least six months.

In addition, the committee reviewed the evidence of when to introduce high allergen foods to infants. Based on the research, the committee recommended that high-allergen foods like eggs and peanuts should be introduced as early as 4 to 6 months in order to help prevent food allergies.

[See: 14 Ways Alcohol Affects the Aging Process.]

Less Alcohol

The current 2015-2020 dietary guidelines recommend a maximum of one drink per day for a woman and a maximum of two drinks per day for men. One drink is defined as 12 fluid ounces of beer, 5 fluid ounces of wine and 1½ fluid ounces of 80-proof liquid like rum or vodka. And you cannot accrue your drinks for the week and consume them all on Saturday night.

Over the past 20 years, alcohol consumption — including binge drinking –has increased in the U.S. Mortality as a result of drinking alcohol, including alcohol liver disease has also increased.

In addition, the committee brought up the nutrition implication of alcohol consumption, as alcohol can contribute many calories with few nutrients. Among people ages 20 to 64 years of age, alcohol contributes more than 20% of total calories from beverages. Because research has found that men are more likely to drink alcohol than women, the committee made the recommendation to decrease the guidelines for men to a maximum of one drink per day — the same as it currently is for women

Taylor C. Wallace, CEO at Think Healthy Group and a professor in the department of Nutrition and Food Studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, doesn’t agree with the recommendation to cut back on men’s daily maximum of alcohol consumption. “The burden of disease from alcohol is undoubtedly high when consumed in excess, but there is no clarity about estimates or risk (or protection) with low-levels of consumption. There is really no new exciting data in this field as one would perceive.”

Wallace explains that the reported associations between alcohol and negative health outcomes tend to come from only certain types of studies (observational studies) which have limitations and can lead to inaccurate findings. “We have got to stop making pseudoscience recommendations without first doing our homework or else people stop listening,” says Wallace. “We have to stop jumping the gun and give science a chance to speak for itself.”

Healthy Fats

The recommendation for saturated fat remain at a maximum of 10% of total calories. However, the committee recommends swapping saturated fat with mainly polyunsaturated fats, which have been shown to help lower the incidence of cardiovascular disease in adults. Foods such as walnuts, salmon, avocado and extra virgin olive oil are excellent sources of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, and consumption can help replace unwanted saturated fats in daily diets.

Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats in the diet also contributes to the maintenance of normal blood cholesterol levels. A 2018 study from Penn State University found that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats from walnuts or vegetable oil with similar fatty acids many improve LDL (bad) cholesterol and total cholesterol.

Cutting Added Sugars

The 2015-2020 dietary guidelines include a maximum of 10% of total calories for added sugar per day — 50 grams. Most Americans consume too much added sugar, and this reduction could help reduce the risk of weight gain, obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Recent data suggests that only 37% of Americans keep their added sugar intake below the 10%. Americans take in an average of added sugar of about 12% of total calories. The committee felt that based on the research, added sugar should be curbed even further, to a maximum of 6% of total calories, or 30 grams.

Cutting back on sugar sweetened beverages like soda, iced tea and lemonade are at the top of the list for sources of added sugar, but they can also be found in breakfast cereals and bars, flavored yogurts, snack foods, baked goods and frozen treats. Cutting back on foods containing added sugar may help lower the intake of empty calories, decrease weight gain and help reduce the risk of obesity and other chronic diseases.

Meal Frequency

Current dietary guidelines provide recommendations for types of foods and how much to eat, but how frequently you should eat isn’t addressed. Research shows that 64% of Americans report eating three meals per day, verses 28% of Americans who eat only two meals per day. Compared to those who ate two meals per day, those who ate three meals per day had a better quality diet.

In addition, research shows that 93% of Americans snack two to three times per day, with late night snacks being high in added sugar, sodium and saturated fats — all of which are over-consumed by Americans.

The committee concluded that there isn’t enough evidence to determine the healthiest amount of meals and snacks you should consume every day. However, the committee did suggest that there are various ways to eat in order to meet nutrients needs to keep the body healthy including following a healthy dietary plan, such as the U.S.-style healthy eating plan, the Mediterranean diet and vegetarian diet.

Bottom Line:

Nutrition is an ever evolving field, which takes the whole body of evidence, including the latest studies, into account. These recommendations made by the dietary guidelines committee are just that — recommendations. We will need to wait and see which recommendations actually make it to the final 2020-2025 version, which should come out around the end of this year.

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