By Karen Ansel, M.S., R.D., "America's New Food Rules,"May/June 2011
Every five years, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) update the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which tell us what we should be eating (and inform the food pyramid). The new Dietary Guidelines—released at the end of January 2011—do tell us what to eat more of and what to eat less of, although you have to wade through sometimes murky and confusing government-speak to get the information you need.
So we navigated the jargon to interpret the new "food rules." Here's how to bring your eating in line with them and what they mean for your health.
For the first time in their 31-year history, the Dietary Guidelines are speaking to a nation where the majority of us are now overweight. That's why the Dietary Guidelines tell Americans to "enjoy your food, but eat less." "The biggest difference from the last guidelines issued in 2005 is the new focus on calories," says Joanne Slavin, Ph.D., R.D., a professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota and member of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.
Losing just 5 to 10 percent of your body weight can lead to better blood pressure, a decreased risk of diabetes and improved lipid levels (lower triglycerides and higher "good" HDL). "At the end of the day, weight loss all boils down to one thing: calories in and calories out," Slavin says.
For most of us, calories aren't even on our radar: according to a 2010 survey conducted by the International Food Information Council, only 12 percent of Americans know how many calories they need in a day. Do you? To calculate the calories you need to maintain your weight using this equation: your current weight (in pounds) × 12. If you subtract 500 calories per day from this number, you’ll shed about a pound a week; trim 1,000 calories and you’ll lose two pounds a week. Don’t go below 1,200 calories or you risk missing out on important nutrients.
Easy ways to trim portions and slash calories: use smaller, salad-size plates; order an appetizer and a salad instead of an entree; cook at home, where you’re apt to stick with more reasonable portions; wrap up leftovers right after you serve yourself so you can't go back for seconds.
Related Link: 30-Minute, Low-Calorie Dinner Recipes
"The Dietary Guidelines’ message to 'make half your plate fruits and vegetables' is useful, actionable and simple, since most people don’t measure their food," says EatingWell advisor Rachel Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D. Only one in four Americans is currently getting the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Which means we’re missing out on many of the nutrients that produce delivers, especially potassium and fiber. Big in volume and low in calories, fruits and veggies are also natural diet foods. Additionally, the Dietary Guidelines push us to eat a wider variety of colorful vegetables (particularly those that are dark green, red and orange) and fruits. The most brightly colored produce is often the most nutrient-rich.
To squeeze several servings into one meal, pile your plate with salad—start with a base of dark leafy greens (romaine, arugula or baby spinach), then toss in red peppers, grape tomatoes and carrots or colorful fruits like dried tart cherries, peaches, apples or red grapes.
Related Link: Low-Calorie Dinners Packed with Produce
The Dietary Guidelines say, "reduce the intake of calories from solid fats and added sugars" (or "SoFAS," as nutrition experts like to call them). Combined, solid fats and added sugars make up a staggering 35 percent of all our calories—and the top source of calories in the American diet is starchy desserts (cookies, cakes, pastries) where SoFAS are found together.
But what are solid fats and added sugars? Despite their cryptic name, solid fats are simply fats that are solid at room temperature (think: butter, stick margarine, shortening and lard). Packed with artery-clogging saturated fats, these foods contribute to heart disease, which now affects 37 percent of Americans. Added sugars are what their name implies—sugars added to food. Not just table sugar though—honey, molasses, agave and high-fructose corn syrup also count.
You can satisfy your sweet tooth—and help your heart and waistline—by eating naturally sweet foods like fresh and dried fruit. Plus, you’ll get vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber. Replace solid fats with plant-based fats found in nuts, nut butters, seeds, avocados and liquid oils, such as canola and olive.
Salt is another ingredient often added to foods—especially processed ones like soup, crackers, chips—that Americans overconsume. Americans on average take in 3,400 milligrams of sodium each day. That’s a third more than the daily recommended limit of 2,300 mg (about 1 teaspoon salt) and more than double the 1,500 mg suggestion for adults age 51 and older and for anyone who is salt-sensitive (e.g., people who are African-American, those with high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease)—about half the U.S. population. Cutting your sodium intake can help lower high blood pressure and also reduce your risk of developing high blood pressure.
One of the easiest ways to slash your sodium intake is to replace sodium-laden processed foods with fresh foods. Other tricks: look for "low sodium" or "no-salt-added" labels and rinse canned beans.
Related Link: Healthy Recipes to Satisfy Junk Food Cravings
Bad-for-you saturated fat isn’t just hiding in butter and lard. It also lurks in whole milk, full-fat cheese and certain cuts of meat and poultry. Because these foods are such staples in Americans' diets, we are wolfing down one and a half times as much saturated fat as we should. The Dietary Guidelines suggest we replace protein sources "that are higher in solid fats with choices that are lower in solid fats and calories and/or are sources of oils and choose a variety of proteins."
Doing so can significantly improve your health. In a 2009 Journal of Nutrition study, when researchers examined the diets of 350,000 American men and women, they found that the death rate was 20 percent lower during the 10 years of the study in those who consumed lean meat, low-fat dairy and few added solid fats, even after other differences were accounted for. One easy way to trim intake is to choose lower-fat cuts of meat. Trade your rib-eye for flank steak or strip steak and look for ground beef that’s 90%-lean or leaner. For pork, lean choices include tenderloin, trimmed chops and cutlets. When picking poultry, opt for white meat without the skin. Also watch your portions: a healthy serving of cooked meat is 3 ounces (about the size of a deck of cards).
You can also trade saturated-fat-laden sources of animal protein for vegetable proteins, such as beans, peas and nuts. "For the first time we made a very concerted effort to provide guidance for people who want to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet or simply one that emphasizes more plant foods," says Cheryl Achterberg, Ph.D., Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee member and dean of the College of Education and Human Ecology at Ohio State University. Try subbing beans for half (or even all) of the meat, chicken or pork in chili, burritos, pasta dishes or stir-fries. The new Dietary Guidelines now also give a nod to soyfoods as a good source of protein and fortified soymilk as an alternative to dairy.
Related Link: Heart Healthy Dinners
When it comes to grains, most of us could do a whole lot better. We gobble twice as many refined grains as we should, which may explain why the Dietary Guidelines tell Americans to "limit the consumption of foods that contain refined grains." Additionally, half of Americans are eating less than half an ounce of whole grains a day, which equates to half a slice of whole-wheat bread or ¼ cup of brown rice or ½ cup of 100 percent whole grain cereal. Upping your whole-grains intake could lengthen your life, suggests an Archives of Internal Medicine study published earlier this year. Researchers suspect a reduced risk of death from cardiovascular, infectious and respiratory diseases is due to the fiber from whole grains.
"Half your grains should be whole grains—such as brown rice, oats and 100 percent whole-grain cereal, bread and pasta," says Achterberg. And while you should limit sources of refined grains like cookies, breakfast bars and pastries, having some enriched refined grains—such as pasta, bread and unsweetened cereal—is OK and may even add some iron and folic acid to your diet. A 2005 study reported that we get nearly half of our iron and about a quarter of our folic acid from foods containing enriched white flour, such as white bread, pasta and cereal. Another way to get these nutrients is, of course, through lean meats (iron), legumes (iron and folate) and vegetables and fruit (folate).
Related Link: High-Fiber Whole Grain Recipes
Here, the Dietary Guidelines are pretty clear: "Increase the amount and variety of seafood… [to] an intake of 8 (or more) ounces per week." Fish isn’t just low in calories and packed with protein—it’s also a source of the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA, which have been shown to improve heart health and reduce risk of dying from heart attack, says Dariush Mozaffarian, Dr.P.H., M.D., an associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. Seafood may also help you slim down. A 2009 Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Disease study found that people who ate a 5-ounce serving of seafood five times a week for eight weeks lost nearly four pounds more than people who ate the exact same number of calories but no seafood. Yet most of us eat less than half the weekly recommendation.
Don't let concerns about mercury scare you. Truth is, most mercury is found in five fish species: swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel, shark and, to a lesser degree, some canned albacore tuna. "As long as you eat a variety of seafood, the benefits greatly outweigh the risks," says Marisa Moore, M.B.A., R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "Just be sure to avoid the biggest mercury offenders (swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel and shark) and limit albacore tuna to six ounces a week."
If you're not a fish fan, try it mixed into dishes (linguine with clam sauce, grilled fish tacos or sushi rolls) and experiment with milder fish like tilapia, trout or shrimp.
Related Link: Quick Fish RecipesKaren Ansel, M.S., R.D., is a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and co-author of The Baby & Toddler Cookbook (Weldon Owen, 2011).