Revised Dietary Guidelines a Move in the Right Direction
The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans on January 12, 2005. Though not perfect, the new guidelines are a vast improvement over the old, as they address the United States’ obesity epidemic by emphasizing reducing calories, eating more vitamin-and mineral-rich foods, and increasing physical activity.
Established in 1980, Dietary Guidelines for Americans is revised every five years by a joint committee from the HHS and the Department of Agriculture (USDA). The guidelines advise people two years and older about dietary and lifestyle habits that promote health and reduce risk for chronic diseases. The current recommendations attempt to summarize the scientific evidence supporting the healthful effects of specific eating patterns. They also acknowledge the link between a poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle with some of the most common chronic diseases in our society, including heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and some cancers.
In addition to the sensible and well-founded step of encouraging people to eat fewer calories and to increase activity, perhaps even more importantly, attention has shifted from quantities of foods from basic food groups to high-quality foods within each food group. For example, the recommendation for an average adult to consume up to 2 1/2 cups of vegetables per day is qualified with a further recommendation that these vegetables come from a variety of subgroups, such as dark green vegetables, orange vegetables, legumes, and starchy vegetables. Grains continue to make up a large part of the recommended daily diet but there is a specific provision for three ounces of whole grain products, which have higher nutrient and fiber content than refined grains.
Guidelines for fat consumption specify that fish, nuts and seeds, and vegetable oils—all sources of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids—are better choices to fulfill the day’s fat allowance than saturated fats (primarily from fatty meats and dairy foods) and trans-fatty acids (found in shortening, margarine, and hydrogenated oils).
Physical activity is emphatically recommended in the new guidelines: a minimum of 30 minutes per day for most adults, an amount that exceeds the activity levels of 50% of Americans.
Several issues continue to be problematic in the guidelines: Dairy foods continue to figure prominently in the recommendations. Although dietary calcium has some established disease-preventive effects, it is not clear that eating dairy foods is necessary or even desirable for good health. In fact, there is evidence that dairy might increase the risk of several cancers, including ovarian cancer and breast cancer, although conflicting evidence also exists. There is also speculation that bovine growth hormone, a drug that most nonorganic dairy farmers give to their milking cows and that persists in the milk from these cows, might have negative health effects in humans. Nonetheless, the guidelines suggest three cups of dairy food per day as a way to get adequate calcium. This recommendation should be reconsidered and other calcium-rich foods, such as figs, dark green vegetables, amaranth grain, some nuts and seeds, and soy foods should be included, if not emphasized.
Another flaw in the guidelines has to do with the type of recommended whole grains. While whole grains are emphasized as a crucial part of a healthful diet, the examples listed are refined whole grain products such as breads, cold cereals, and crackers. Processing methods, including milling, puffing, and making flakes, result in some loss of vitamin content, and create foods that are more quickly digested and converted to sugar in the body. A better recommendation would be to include some unprocessed whole grains, such as oats, brown rice, barley, buckwheat, millet, wheat berries, and quinoa.
Despite these problems, the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans is a welcome improvement in general advice for healthful eating and proper amounts of exercise. These new guidelines will be the foundation for food and nutrition policy and will direct changes in public food programs over the next five years, and will soon be reflected in the USDA’s updated Food Guide Pyramid. There is reason to hope that these changes in the guidelines will lead to better eating habits, higher activity levels, and better health for Americans.
Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.
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