Make every bite count. That’s the theme of the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 that were released at the end of December. Every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Health and Human Services update the nation’s nutrition recommendations based on the latest scientific evidence.
These dietary guidelines form the foundation of federal nutrition policies and programs — from school lunch and food stamps to public health education initiatives.
Even before the ink was dry, critics were quick to condemn the dietary guidelines. Advocates of a low-carb, high-fat diet complained about the recommendations for whole grains and limits on saturated fat. Other groups wanted to see lower limits for added sugars and alcoholic beverages.
Some critics even claimed that the government’s dietary guidelines are the reason why four out of 10 Americans are obese, so they rejected them entirely. Yet, most people aren’t even following the recommendations. So that argument doesn’t really hold water.
Why the New Guidelines Work
While low-carb, high-fat diets like keto may be trendy, the dietary guidelines are intended to outline the best dietary patterns to promote health and prevent disease. The recommendations — which limit saturated fat to less than 10% of calories — are based on the preponderance of scientific evidence that support these limits. Highly saturated coconut oil, for instance, is not really the good fat it’s cracked up to be.
Keto-type diets may help with short-term weight loss, but it’s not the approach that will keep you healthy for the long haul.
Grains are not the problem, it’s the type of grains most people eat — white, refined grains instead of fiber-rich whole grains.
Added sugar intake may not have been reduced to 6% of total calories — as recommended by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee — yet it remains at 10%, which is still less than most people eat.
“Anyone who knows anything about behavior change knows that you set goals that are achievable and then move to harder goals,” says registered dietitian Connie Diekman, a food and nutrition consultant in St. Louis. “If the current intake of added sugars averages 13% of calories, reducing to 6% would be totally unrealistic. Let’s discuss how to get the average intake to 10%, and then we can move lower,” she says.
The other hotly debated area focused on alcoholic beverages. The guidelines recommend limiting daily intake to one drink or less for women and two drinks for men — although the Advisory Committee wanted one drink for both women and men. Citing a lack of evidence from the last five years that the intakes should be lowered for men, the government groups did soften the language on the potential benefits of moderate drinking and agreed that ” drinking less is better than drinking more.”
What bothers me about all this quibbling is the confusion it creates. I worry about the message it sends to the public: If the experts are arguing over the dietary guidelines, then why should I care? Then perhaps no one will make positive changes and we’ll move even further away from a healthy eating pattern.
So, while there are complaints, the dietary guidelines are meant to cut through the current fads or unrealistic, hard-to-follow regimens and outline an accessible way of eating that has the greatest potential to improve our health — based on science. I thought the 2020-2025 dietary guidelines were the most comprehensive and inclusive than they’ve ever been.
It was the first time the guidelines included recommendations for infants, pregnant and lactating women, and focused on life stages — or specific nutrition needs from birth to older adulthood. I also liked how they emphasized ways to customize the guidelines, considering cultural traditions and budget constraints. Healthy dietary patterns were also outlined for vegetarian and Mediterranean-style diets.
Most importantly, I liked how they incorporated enjoyment. Eating should be pleasurable. If you enjoy what you eat, you’re much more likely to stick with a healthy routine.
[SEE: Plant-Based Diet Ideas.]
What to Add to Your Diet
Yes, we need to reduce added sugars. Our intakes of saturated fat, sodium and alcohol are also too high. But I like to focus on what we should be eating, not avoiding. If we add more of the good stuff to our plates and in our glasses, we can nudge out the sugary and less nutrient-rich options.
A good place to start would be the areas where we’re the furthest away from the nutrition recommendations. For some of the guidelines, we’re not even close. Yet in many cases, there are simple shifts that could make a dramatic difference. It’s about daily tweaks over time, not a drastic overhaul.
Shift from Refined to Whole Grains
Here’s where we need a lot of work. Most Americans meet the guidelines for total grains. Yet 98% fall below whole grain recommendations, and nearly three-fourths (74%) exceed limits for refined grains. Most of the refined grains we’re eating come from burger buns, pizza, mac and cheese, cakes and cookies.
Swapping out some of your pantry staples will help make it easier to flip the refined-whole grain ratio, says registered dietitian Rosanne Rust, author of the “DASH Diet for Dummies.” At least half your grains should be whole. To know what you’re buying, she suggests looking for the Whole Grain Stamp on package labels.
To increase daily whole grains, Rust recommends:
— Start the day with whole grains at least four times a week: A warm bowl of oatmeal, slice of whole grain toast with peanut butter, or scrambled egg wrapped in a whole grain tortilla.
— Keep whole-wheat flour on the shelf, so you can swap half of the white flour with whole-wheat flour in home-baked muffins and quick breads.
— Use oats in place of white breadcrumbs when making meatloaf or meatballs.
— Swap white rice and pasta for quick-cooking brown rice or whole-grain medley.
— Add whole grains like farro, quinoa, bulgur or wild rice to enhance tossed green salads.
[READ: Health Benefits of Arugula.]
Add More Vegetables to Favorite Foods
Nearly 90% of the U.S. population doesn’t meet the recommendations for vegetables — 2½ cups per day based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Virtually, no one is eating the recommended amounts of vegetable subgroups: dark-green; red and orange; beans, peas and lentils; starchy (such as corn and potatoes) and other vegetables, which include cauliflower, beets, Brussels sprouts, eggplant, celery, and onions.
What’s the most common vegetable eaten? Potatoes. Therefore, we not only need to eat more veggies, we need to mix it up more.
“An easy way to add more vegetables to your diet is to let someone else do the work for you,” says registered dietitian Liz Weiss, host of Liz’s Healthy Table podcast and blog. “In the supermarket produce aisle, shop for bagged salad greens, shredded carrots and sliced mushrooms. In the frozen food aisle, look for frozen broccoli, cauliflower rice, sweet potato fries and interesting mixed veggie combinations. And in the center of the store, don’t forget about canned vegetables. These convenient options count too.”
Nearly half of all vegetables are served on the side, while about 40% are incorporated into mixed dishes — a good strategy for bumping up the veggies into favorite recipes.
Weiss offers these ideas:
— Add canned pureed pumpkin to your pancake batter.
— Toss a few handfuls of bagged baby spinach into your blender when making a smoothie.
— Saute pre-cut mushrooms, bell peppers and onions to add to your breakfast omelet.
— Stuff sliced red onion, cucumber, shredded carrot, lettuce and tomato into your favorite pita pocket sandwich.
— Add a can of corn or pre-cut and roasted butternut squash to quesadillas.
— Fold frozen cauliflower, broccoli or peas into rice or quinoa side dishes.
[See: Healthy Beet Recipes.]
Get to Know Beans, Peas and Lentils
The guidelines introduced a new name for foods that do double duty as members of both the protein and vegetable group: Beans, Peas and Lentils, previously called legumes (also known as pulses). This group includes chickpeas, edamame, black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans and all other beans except green beans and green peas, which don’t have the same nutrient profile.
These budget-friendly, fiber- and protein-rich foods are also widely under consumed. The guidelines recommend 2 cups per week,or 6 cups weekly for vegetarian eating plans.
“Beans, peas and lentils can help move the diet toward a more plant-based eating pattern, which is a healthful and more sustainable way for Americans to eat,” says registered dietitian Sharon Palmer, aka the plant-powered dietitian. “Regrettably, sustainability was not addressed in these guidelines, which is unfortunate because many other countries have included sustainability in their food-based dietary guidelines.”
Palmer recommends using beans, peas and lentils to replace animal protein at least three times a week. She suggests:
— Simmer bean-laden dishes such as chili, stew and dal.
— Add canned beans to salads, casseroles and grain bowls.
— Puree pulses into dips, hummus or spreads.
— Swap beans for meat in tacos, burritos and enchiladas.
— Make beans the star feature on the plate in falafel, veggie burgers and plant-based meat balls or loaves.
Make Seafood a Twice a Week Habit
Most Americans fail to eat recommended amounts of seafood — 8 ounces or 2 servings per week. For a Mediterranean-style eating pattern, 15 ounces of seafood is recommended weekly. Yet seafood recipes can be easy to prepare and heart healthy.
“Not knowing how to cook seafood and lack of confidence in selecting fresh fish are big barriers to preparing seafood at home,” explains registered dietitian and chef Michelle Dudash, author of the forthcoming “The Low-Carb Mediterranean Cookbook.” “Cracking open a can (or pouch) of tuna or salmon is a tasty, convenient and economical lunchtime solution and one that I rely on frequently.”
Additionally, Dudash suggests:
— Plan on cooking fresh seafood the day you get it home, since it does not get better with age.
— Head straight to the freezer and thaw frozen fish the day you will cook it, for the freshest taste. Bypass purchasing previously frozen fish that has been thawed.
— Saute shrimp with Cajun or Mexican-style seasoning and tuck into tortillas for an easy and tasty taco night.
— Keep fish fillets individually packaged in your freezer for quick meals. Season with salt, pepper, dill, and garlic powder, and drizzle with olive oil. Bake in a 350-degree oven, about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on thickness. Listen and look for fish sizzling or bubbling around the edges — that’s when you know it’s done or close to being done.
— Press lightly in the thickest section of the seafood. Firm means overcooked, mushy means undercooked. Find the happy medium. You can learn this over time with a little practice.
— Spritz seafood with fresh lemon or lime to give it a bright lift after cooking.
The guidelines also identified the nutrients most likely to be lacking in the American diet: calcium, vitamin D, potassium and dietary fiber. Meeting the daily recommendations for dairy, fruits, vegetables and whole grains will help close these gaps.
To read more about the new nutrition recommendations, visit DietaryGuidelines.gov. The 164-page report is intended for professionals and policymakers, so there’s a lot to digest. You may also want to explore MyPlate.gov, which offers tools and resources to implement the dietary guidelines. You’ll find recipes, eating plans, quizzes and an app for tracking your meals.
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