Many of us put eating healthier on our list of New Year’s resolutions, so new dietary guidelines out Thursday arrive at a useful time.
The federal nutritional recommendations, revised every five years, are the first ever with a limit on added sugar – no more than 10 percent of daily calories, or one can of soda for the average adult. Too much sugar is blamed for the epidemic of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
But we should take some of these recommendations with, well, a grain of salt.
Nutrition and public health experts don’t agree on all of them. Plus, there are allegations that some food and agriculture interests had too much influence on the guidelines, jointly issued by the departments of agriculture and health and human services.
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For example, a scientific advisory panel called for cutting back on red and processed meats, which the World Health Organization says probably contribute to cancers. But the meat industry objected, so instead there is more general encouragement to eat other protein such as seafood and nuts. Also, the guidelines keep the advice that saturated fats – in foods such as red meat and butter – should be no more than 10 percent of calories.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine sued the agencies over egg producers’ attempt to drastically weaken the guidance on cholesterol. The industry and supporters cite new research that high-cholesterol food only marginally adds to levels in the bloodstream and that drugs and exercise are more effective in reducing cholesterol. While the final recommendations drop the long-standing numerical limit, they still urge people “to eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible.”
Some critics say the guidelines should further lower the recommended limit for salt, which stays at about one teaspoon a day. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that even without salt added at the dinner table, the vast majority of Americans consume sodium well above the recommended limit.
As a whole, Americans – and especially teenage boys and men – are being urged to eat less animal protein and more vegetables. But after Congress intervened last month, the guidelines dropped “sustainability” language that encouraged all of us to consider a diet based more on plants because that would do less damage to the environment.
There’s a lot at stake. The scientific advisory panel noted that half of all Americans – 117 million people – have one or more preventable diseases linked to bad diets, coupled with lack of exercise, including high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and several kinds of cancer. More than two-thirds of adults and one-third of children are overweight or obese.
The guidelines set the standards until 2020 for federal food purchases in programs such as school lunches, food stamps and aid to pregnant women and children.
For the rest of us, these are only recommendations. But just maybe there will be a nagging voice in our heads to turn down that juicy steak on the menu, or pass on another scoop of ice cream. And all our individual decisions could lower health care costs and make us a healthier society.