New Dietary Guidelines: Will They Help Reduce Obesity?

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Today the government has issued new Dietary Guidelines for Americans, something they do every five years (which is why the banner behind Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in the picture reads "2010"). With obesity (and the deadly medical conditions associated with it) at a critical level in this country, they are guidelines that we can’t afford to ignore.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 31: U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius listens during a news conference to announce the release of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans at George Washington University January 31, 2011 in Washington, DC. The USDA held the news conference to promote proper nutritional guidance and ...reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and reduce the prevalence of overweight and obesity through improved nutrition and physical activity, according to a USDA news release. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

These new guidelines not only address the need to reduce our intake of unhealthy foods (such as high amounts of sodium, saturated fat, and sugar), but they go a step further, and suggest that Americans must begin to eat less. Eating less may seem like an obvious suggestion, but most Americans have become a custom to extremely large serving sizes (even super-sizing).

But let’s talk about the specifics -- this is from the Executive Summary of the New Dietary Guidelines.

Here are the suggestions for foods we should be trying to eat more of:

  • Increase vegetable and fruit intake.
  • Eat a variety of vegetables, especially dark-green and red and orange vegetables and beans and peas.
  • Consume at least half of all grains as whole grains. Increase whole-grain intake by replacing refined grains with whole grains.
  • Increase intake of fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, such as milk, yogurt, cheese, or fortified soy beverages.
  • Choose a variety of protein foods, which include seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds.
  • Increase the amount and variety of seafood consumed by choosing seafood in place of some meat and poultry.
  • Replace protein foods that are higher in solid fats with choices that are lower in solid fats and calories and/or are sources of oils.
  • Use oils to replace solid fats where possible.
  • Choose foods that provide more potassium, dietary fiber, calcium, and vitamin D, which are nutrients of concern in American diets. These foods include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and milk and milk products.

Here are the suggestions for foods we should be trying to eat less of:

  • Reduce daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) and further reduce intake to 1,500 mg among persons who are 51 and older and those of any age who are African American or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease. The 1,500 mg recommendation applies to about half of the U.S. population, including children, and the majority of adults.
  • Consume less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fatty acids by replacing them with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
  • Consume less than 300 mg per day of dietary cholesterol.
  • Keep trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible by limiting foods that contain synthetic sources of trans fats, such as partially hydrogenated oils, and by limiting other solid fats.
  • Reduce the intake of calories from solid fats and added sugars.
  • Limit the consumption of foods that contain refined grains, especially refined grain foods that contain solid fats, added sugars, and sodium.
  • If alcohol is consumed, it should be consumed in moderation—up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men—and only by adults of legal drinking age.

As important as I believe these new guidelines are, I am disappointed by the lack of acknowledgment about why most Americans make unhealthy food choices in the first place. The bottom line is, healthy foods are generally more expensive than unhealthy foods, and the super-unhealthy foods are downright cheap.

In a time when so many Americans are struggling financially, it’s unrealistic to assume that the reason people are making unhealthy food choices is because they just don’t know any better. I hope the reason money wasn’t addressed isn’t because the USDA believes that even people who can only afford to eat junk food, are covered by their “eat less” guideline (as in a post I wrote about Twinkies a few months ago).

From the New York Times –- Latest Dietary Guidelines Reinforce Need to Restrict Salt:

“They are blunter here than they’ve ever been before, and they deserve credit for that,” said Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University and a critic of government nutrition guidance. “They said, ‘Eat less!’ I think that’s great, and to avoid oversized portions. That’s the two best things you should do.”

I also think that the guidelines on sodium are unrealistic for most Americans, and this is actually one of the most important guidelines for a healthy heart. But unless the manufacturers of processed foods (and fast-food restaurants) are required to reduce sodium in “all” their products, it will continue to be impossible for most Americans to lower their sodium to healthy levels.  And call me a cynic, but I just don’t think manufacturers are going to “voluntarily” comply with these guidelines.

This is from the AP -– Government Advising Americans to Cut Down on Salt:

The Food and Drug Administration has said it will pressure companies to take voluntary action before it moves to regulate salt intake.

Dr. Howard Koh, assistant secretary at the Health and Human Services Department, said food companies will have to make cuts for the reductions to work.

“Even the most motivated consumer can make only a certain amount of progress before it’s clear that we need extra support from the food industry,” Koh said.

This is from RemedyLife –- Kick the Sodium Habit:

Americans consume up to 77 percent of their sodium from processed and restaurant foods ... How much more sodium do these foods contain? Well, one cup of fresh tomatoes provides 16 mg of sodium. By contrast, one variety of canned tomato sauce may contain as much as 1,400 mg of sodium. Depending on the brand and the type of meal, a single frozen dinner can easily contain 600 to 800 mg of sodium, or half the day’s supply.

Here’s what one blogger thinks about the omission of the financial impact of eating healthy –- New Dietary Guidelines Don’t Admit Obesity is an Economic Problem:

The alternative to fast food is picking through (in most cases) expensive produce at the grocery store and learning how to prepare it healthfully at home. That takes more time and money than a lot of people have. Why doesn’t the government get rid of its $5 billion/year corn ethanol subsidies and subsidize farmer’s markets or local farms instead, so that people can save money on the food they need in order to be healthy? Or create a contest for companies to come up with innovative ways of fighting the obesity epidemic, and pay the three winners to implement their ideas?

The new food pyramid is like whipping an enraged bullock with a wet washcloth. Considering the strong economic factors at work, it might sting the obesity epidemic, but in the larger scale of things, it’s not going to do jack.

What do you think about the new guidelines? Do they go far enough to make an impact on the health of America? Will guidelines alone make a difference in our obesity epidemic? Will these guidelines be helpful for the lower-income population of our country (the ones most affected by obesity)? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Also See:  Why Does Walmart Need 5 Years to Roll Out it's Healthy Food Initiative?

Contributing Editor Catherine Morgan
Also at Catherine-Morgan.com

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