What do the Dietary Guidelines have to do with your diet?

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 8.51.47 AMThe nutrition and food policy world was atwitter last Thursday when the latest version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans was released. I know, you’ve probably heard of them but really have no idea what they have to do with your diet and food intake. I’d bet we are all touched by the Dietary Guidelines in some way, even though lots of us don’t really notice.

What are the Dietary Guidelines?

The Dietary Guidelines, required since 1990’s National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act, are a set of nutrition recommendations released jointly every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services. What is the purpose of these guidelines? Well, they are designed to inform federal food, nutrition and health policy, as well as be the basis for consumer educational materials provided by the government. Other groups, such as state governments, the food industry and schools use them. They are written for a professional audience, which explains why lots of consumers have no idea what they are.

Why should you be interested in the new guidelines?

The guidelines reflect the current thinking and huge amount of scientific research we have on the connection between food, health and chronic disease. I don’t know any professional—let alone a consumer— who is up-to-date on every area of human nutrition research, and so the comprehensive report is a good way to see a focused document that distills all the research into an easy-to-digest (sorry, had to do it) form. If you want to know how to eat for health, the guidelines are a great place to start. Incidentally, you might be interested in reading the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s original report of recommendations, which is considerably less “shaped” than the final guidelines themselves (some experts consider the original report a more valuable document that is less influenced by industry and politics).

The Five General Principles of the Dietary Guidelines

In years past, the guidelines centered around nutrients in a very specific way. This latest version instead puts forth five major principles that are more focused on lifestyles and eating patterns (see the statements below). It’s a refreshing change. If they seem pretty general, you’re right; they are and it is intentional. Within each of these five guidelines is a lot of room for diet individualization in order to make them adaptable for the widest audience. Eating patterns, such as a Mediterranean-style eating pattern are provided in some detail as healthy examples, and key recommendations get a bit more specific on how to put the five general principles into practice, but for real specifics you’ll have to dig pretty deep into the guidelines document. Here are the general statements:

  • Follow a healthy eating pattern across the lifespan
  • Focus on variety, nutrient density, and amount
  • Limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats and reduce sodium intake
  • Shift to healthier food and beverage choices
  • Support healthy eating patterns for all

What’s new and notable?

“Shifts” and nutrient density

These concepts are some of my personal favorites because most folks find them pretty easy to comprehend. The guidelines frequently use the term “shift” where I would use the term “swap,” but the concept is the same. Moving from a current food choice to a better one is something that we can all do. Making “shifts” to increase nutrition in the diet or decrease calories, saturated and trans fat and sodium are key recommendations. The guidelines emphasize also giving thought to nutrient density (basically the amount of nutrients relative to the calories) when making food choices—aim for getting the most nutrition out of your food choices.

New emphasis on limiting added sugar

Many nutrition experts (and we at Guiding Stars) applaud the calling out of added sugars in this version of the guidelines. The guidelines put a limit on added sugar at 10% of daily calories, echoing that of the World Health Organization (most American consume more than that—roughly 13% for adults and 16% for teens, as we discussed in a previous post on added sugars).

No more specific cholesterol limit

For many years the guidelines called for a 300mg cholesterol limit, but this time around that suggestion is gone. It’s one move that reflects newer science showing that, for most people, dietary cholesterol does not increase blood cholesterol levels.

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are not perfect by any means. There is room for improvement in every version that comes along, which is why it’s a good thing that revisions are made every 5 years. It’s a giant undertaking, and I have the utmost respect for the Dietary Guideline Advisory Committee, a group of independent scientists and nutrition experts who do the heavy lifting required to form the guidelines. At their core, the guidelines do a pretty good job in helping provide direction for major nutritional programs and efforts in this country. The Guiding Stars Scientific Advisory Panel, for example, uses the guidelines to guide and improve our nutrition rating algorithms. If you’re looking to make improvements in your personal diet, certainly reading the guidelines document won’t hurt, but don’t stop there and think you have to go it alone either—seek the help of a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist to help you navigate the nutrition world.