Monday, March 2, 2015

What You Should Eat-The Dietary Guidelines for Americans

Last Thursday the administration’s “Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee” issued their report that will be the basis for next year’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture. As with previous reports the committee recommends some significant changes in what Americans should be eating, but also larger changes in how our lives are lived. According to the report, about half of all American adults (117 million) have one or more preventable, chronic diseases, and about two-thirds of U.S. adults (155 million) are overweight or obese. According to the report poor dietary patterns, eating too many calories, and lack of physical activity directly contribute to these disorders that have increased and worsened since the first set of Dietary Guideline for Americans were published in 1980.

The report states that healthy dietary patterns are low in saturate fat, low in added sugars, and low in salt. The committee recommends that less than 2,300 mg of salt a day, less than 10% of total calories be from saturated fat per day and less than 10% of calories from added sugars per day. The report also noted that there was a shortfall of vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin C, folate, calcium, magnesium, fiber, potassium and for women iron in the American diet. Finally, the committee tells us that a healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat, and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and low in refined grains.

The committee acknowledges that in order for their policy recommendations to be fully implemented, they are going to have to change the way people eat and behave. “These include reducing screen time, reducing the frequency of eating out at fast food restaurants, increasing frequency of family shared meals, and self-monitoring of diet and body weight as well as effective food labeling to target healthy food choices. These strategies complement comprehensive lifestyle interventions and nutrition counseling by qualified nutrition professionals.”

Access to sufficient, nutritious, and safe food is an essential element of food security for the U.S. population. A sustainable diet ensures this access for both the current population and future generations. The report states that the recommended eating patterns are both healthier and have less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet. The dietary patterns recommended by the committee include the Healthy U.S.-style Pattern, the Healthy Mediterranean-style Pattern, and the Healthy Vegetarian Pattern. The report tells us that the average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use, compared to the preferred dietary patterns. This is because the current U.S. population intake of animal-based foods is higher and plant-based foods are lower, than proposed in these three dietary patterns.

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee bases their assumptions about the sustainability of red meat on a report prepared a few years ago by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations which stated that 26% of the earth’s surface is used as grazing land, 33% of all arable land is utilized to grow feed for animals, as much as 18% of greenhouse gas emissions come from raising beef livestock, and it takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. These estimates are  are the basis of the presumed size of the greenhouse gas footprint of beef and why beef and other livestock need to be reduced in the American dietary patterns as part of an overall reduction in carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. Greenhouse gases, primarily methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide, are produced by the animals during the digestion process in the gut. Additional greenhouse gas emissions are produced from animal waste lagoons and digesters used in industrial concentrated animal feed lots which also require large amounts of fossil fuels, industrial fertilizers, and other synthetic chemicals to produce and deliver animal feed.

What the committee calls “dietary patterns” are just the ways of cooking and eating. Americans need a rational plan of what and how much to eat. The meals I cook each day are much like the meals I ate growing up- I have eaten salmon every Thursday since I was a child, stews and soups are made all winter and I still tend to eat fruits and vegetables in season- lots of root vegetables (and the tomatoes I canned) in the winter and a wondrous variety of fruits and vegetables from the farm in the summer. Food is my heritage and it is second nature for me to know what we should be eating. Apparently, this is not common in much of America. The committee tells us that food insecurity makes it difficult for millions of Americans to have healthy diets. In addition, immigrants are at high risk of losing the healthy dietary patterns characteristic of their cultural background as they acculturate into mainstream America. It seems all the changes in the American eating pattern that have resulted from the changes in society and the various recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture have eliminated what was a good in the American diet.

So what can be done? The committee believes that adoption of their newest set of recommendations will ensure a healthier population and more sustainable and healthier environment. They state that to motivate and facilitate behavioral change at the individual level, will require changes at all levels of society. Coordination of programs among health care, educational and social changes and agricultural program changes will be necessary in their view of the future. The committee states that America must reduce the prevalence of overweight and obesity and chronic disease risk across the U.S. population and reduce the disparities in obesity and chronic disease rates that exist in the United States for certain ethnic and racial groups and for those with lower incomes. Maybe they will give us all ration books appropriate for our approved and assigned dietary pattern. Or maybe teach America how to cook real food.

In summary, eggs and other forms of dietary cholesterol are back in the acceptable American diet (my husband is quite pleased that he insisted that I keep serving eggs, now fatatas, on the weekend). Coffee is also now good for you. Sugar is now that great evil that was occupied by fat in the 1980’s while processed grains and carbohydrates the foundation of the 1980's diet are to be limited. Now the guidelines advise people to eat fish, nuts, olive and vegetable oils -foods with unsaturated fat, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and moderate amounts of alcohol. Less red meat is recommended. Low fat dairy is still in as long as it is not high in sugar. No ice cream for you.

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