January 31, 2011

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans were finally released today. They’re a bit late, and at first blush they seem surprisingly low-key.

Today’s guidelines are based on a big report that was submitted by 13 experts to the government last summer. Last year’s report was couched in the language of crisis, calling America an “obesegenic environment.” In other words, America is a place that promotes obesity, and it’s killing us. The report pointed out that two thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, and said the committee “considers the obesity epidemic to be the single greatest threat to public health in this century.”  

It went on to single out “SoFAS”—solid fats and added sugars—as dietary villains because they pour calories and bad fats into the diet without contributing much in the way of good nutrients. (Solid fats are most commonly found in meat and high-fat dairy products. Sugars are added to many processed foods and restaurant foods.)

Seeing the SoFAS acronym in last year’s report, we wondered if a new buzz phrase was about to enter the nutrition wars. 

That didn’t happen. The language of the report was toned down in the Guidelines. The introduction now calls this a time “of rising concern about the health of the American population.”

In other words, the policy makers and politicians sounded less alarmed today than their advising scientists did six months ago.

What the Guidelines say

The recommendations themselves are largely reasonable, and at their heart tell Americans what to eat less of, what to eat more of, and how to try to do that. A few highlights:

Eat less:

• Salt. Cut sodium to 2,300mg daily, about a teaspoon, and cut to 1,500mg sodium if you’re over 51 or in a group at high risk for hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease—which is about half the population.

• Added sugars. These are sugars added to foods during processing, cooking, or at the table.

• Solid saturated fats. Cut these—mostly found in meat and dairy—to less than 10% of your daily calories from fat. Replace with plant oils, most of which contain more “good” fats.

• Trans fats. Avoid anything with partially hydrogenated oils on the label.

• Refined grains. And eat more whole grains.

Eat more:

• Plants. And eat a bigger variety of these fiber- and nutrient-rich sources while you’re at it.   

• Low-fat and fat-free dairy products, as well as fortified soy products.  Doing this gets more calcium, vitamin D, and potassium into the diet.

• Fish and seafood. This gets more healthy fats into the diet, including omega-3 fatty acids.  Aim for 8 or more ounces per week, about double of what most Americans eat now.

Salt is singled out

The most controversial topic may be salt. The last set of dietary guidelines, in 2005, recommended that Americans at risk of high blood pressure drop their sodium (salt) consumption from 2,300mg per day to the much lower level of 1,500mg. The 2010 report pointed out that so many Americans are at risk that this lowered goal should be applied to the population in general. There was much speculation about whether the Guidelines would take a hard line on salt. Two weeks ago, the American Heart Association called for all Americans to cut their salt to 1,500mg.

But the Guidelines pulled back from that, applying that daily 1,500mg limit only to Americans over 51 and all high-risk groups such as African-Americans (which admittedly adds up to a huge chunk of the population). For the rest, no more than 2,300mg per day is the recommendation.

At Cooking Light, we tend to agree with the Guidelines’ more conservative view on salt, because we’re skeptical that 1,500mg (about ¾ teaspoon) is a realistic goal. We feel the focus shouldn’t be as much on very low sodium levels as on the need for clearer labeling of foods to which salt is added.

The bottom line

The rise in obesity rates in U.S. states is dramatic (see the time-lapse CDC obesity map). What role dietary guidelines have served, or can serve, to slow that rise is a big question. The Guidelines report notes that fat consumption, for example, hasn’t changed since 1990, despite a lot of bad publicity. Are government charts and pamphlets simply toothless against the complex factors—including poverty—that combine to make so many Americans obese?  

After reading last year’s report, we expected the government to throw down the gauntlet, singling out fats and sugars with new rigor, telling Americans to get off their TV-watching butts more often, warning that failing to do so brings serious consequences (to health as well as healthcare costs), and begin pressuring food processors and fast-food restaurants to improve their labeling and serve up more healthy offerings.

Reading the new guidelines, we’re less convinced that the government—despite First Lady Michelle Obama’s efforts—is ready to enter a period of increased nutrition activism.

We encourage you to download a copy of the Dietary Guidelines for America and tell us what you think.

By Scott Mowbray and Sidney Fry, MS, RD

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