January of 2005 brought not only a new year, but also a positive update for those of us who live a healthy lifestyle every day: We're on the right track. The United States Department of Health and Human Services released new Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which simply restated what many of us have considered our mantra for years―eat smart, be fit, and live well. The 84-page document details the nutrition and physical activity recommendations designed to promote optimal health and prevent chronic diseases. Since a healthful reminder never hurts, we asked Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, and exercise researcher Steven Blair, P.E.D., president of the Cooper Institute in Dallas, to help us translate key changes in the guidelines into simple how-tos that you can put into practice now.
Be Calorie Smart
Between 1971 and 2000 in the United States, the average daily calorie intake for women jumped by 335, and for men by 168. Unfortunately, those excess calories usually aren't nutrition packed. According to the new guidelines, most of us fall short on several key nutrients, including calcium, vitamins A, C, and E, and fiber. The take-away message: Lower your overall calorie intake, and replace empty calorie choices with low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods.
How to make it happen: A few simple changes each day is all it takes to shave off calories and take in more nutrients. For example, trading a blueberry muffin for one cup of fresh blueberries provides 387 fewer calories with 14 more milligrams of vitamin C, 19 percent of the daily recommendation.
Know Your Fats
In addition to keeping your total fat intake between 20 and 35 percent of your total calories, the new guidelines recommend consuming less than 10 percent of your daily calories from saturated fat and taking in as few trans fats as possible. Too much of either increases the risk of heart disease.
How to make it happen: A smart strategy is to include a small amount of healthy fats at each meal. This will ensure that roughly a third of the calories will come from fat. Choosing plant-based fats, such as vegetable oils, nuts, or sliced avocado, can help you keep saturated fats within reason. "To avoid trans or hydrogenated fat, choose processed foods, such as packaged cookies and cakes, less often," Blatner says.
Being active plays a key role in reducing the risk of several diseases and improving mental well-being. The new guidelines include specific recommendations for physical activity based on three goals. 1) Preventing chronic diseases and maintaining health requires 30 minutes of moderate activity most days of the week. 2) To prevent weight gain, adults should engage in 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity daily. 3) In order to maintain weight loss, 60 to 90 minutes of moderate activity daily is advised.
How to make it happen: You may already be doing enough. "Thirty minutes of activity about five days a week is the fundamental recommendation, not the minimum," says Blair, citing decades of research that show a half-hour of exercise provides substantial health benefits and can also prevent weight gain. "Each person must determine what works for them," he says. Do whatever you feel comfortable doing―walking or swimming, for example―or whatever your schedule allows. As long as you're moving your body regularly, you'll reap health rewards.
Be Physically Active
Focus on Healthful Foods
Both food quantity and quality are emphasized in the guidelines, with produce, whole grains, and dairy taking center stage. The number of cups of fruits and vegetables suggested is tied to daily calories, which ranges from 1,000 to 3,200, depending on age and activity level. For example, an adult who needs an average of 2,000 calories daily should aim for two cups of fruit and two and a half cups of vegetables each day. Three servings each of whole grains and low-fat dairy products are also recommended.
How to make it happen: "You're only as healthy as your last grocery cart," says Blatner, who adds that the first step to meeting the guidelines is to have healthful foods on hand. For the average adult, a tennis ball-sized apple or orange at breakfast meets one fruit serving, and one cup of grapes as a snack meets the other. A small handful of spinach on a sandwich at lunch and a side salad at dinner takes care of the veggie quota. "Enhance vegetables with healthy fats to bring out flavor," Blatner advises. Oil-based salad dressings, low-fat cheeses, such as Parmesan and feta, and chopped nuts are delicious and healthful options. Whole-grain cereal with skim or low-fat milk at breakfast helps meet both the dairy and whole-grain recommendations.
Be Savvy About Sodium
The guidelines advise that you consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, the amount in one teaspoon of table salt. Higher intakes may lead to high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease.
How to make it happen: Keep in mind that many foods naturally contain sodium (one cup of skim milk has 103 milligrams), and it's added to processed foods (one cup of canned chicken noodle soup contains 1,106 milligrams). Blatner advises skipping the salt shaker in favor of herbs and other seasonings, plus reading labels to find packaged foods with 500 milligrams of sodium or less.
Choose Carbs Carefully
The guidelines advise selecting more high-fiber grains, fruits, and vegetables, and fewer foods made with added sugars, such as candy and soda. Total daily fiber intake should be 28 grams for the average adult. Fiber-rich diets are linked to a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and fiber supports a healthy digestive system.
How to make it happen: One cup of fresh fruits or vegetables provides two to three grams of fiber, so simply meeting the guidelines' produce recommendations can put you to the halfway mark. Beans and whole-grain versions of cereals, breads, and pastas are also good sources of fiber and low in added sugars. But even the most health-conscious person doesn't reach for whole grains and produce all the time. The guidelines allow what is referred to as discretionary intake, meaning that for an average adult, a few extra calories per day is OK―so don't feel guilty about savoring a slice of homemade pie for dessert.