In an effort to curb the ballooning obesity problem and rein in chronic illness, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services Monday announced the new 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The new guidelines, recommendations that will help build a new "next generation" food pyramid in the coming months, do not vary dramatically from previous recommendations, and seem to tiptoe around the real issues that could whittle down waistlines but might offend the food and industrial agriculture sectors, such as cutting out processed foods and cutting down on meat. After reading the new nutritional guidelines, David Katz, MD, MPH, director and cofounder of the Yale Prevention Research Center, says a famous Albert Einstein quote came to mind: "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
Dr. Katz adds: "It's still telling us to eat more fruits and vegetables, but nobody's doing that. There's been no progress for decades."
The details: While many nutritional experts say the guidelines fall short of giving Americans the practical tools they need to curb the obesity epidemic, the new dietary guidelines do offer some dramatic changes, most notably in slashing the recommended maximum salt intake in a day. Currently, Americans take in a whopping 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day, on average. The new dietary guidelines slash the maximum to 2,300 milligrams, or even lowerâ€1,500 milligramsâ€for African Americans or anyone living with high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease.
Here are other major focuses of the new dietary guidelines:
The revised guidelines do not recommend eating organic food, even though the President's Cancer Panel recommended just that.
"These new guidelines don't differ dramatically from the last version. We all know we should eat mostly vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy while limiting saturated fat, sugar and salt," says Joy Manning, nutrition editor of Prevention magazine. A change in the guidelines for salt seems to be the most notable difference, she says. "There is an increased emphasis on sodium reduction in the 2010 guidelines. It's worth remembering that the vast majority of sodium in our diet comes from processed foods. Simply replacing packaged and fast food with whole food will go a long way to keeping sodium in check."
What it means: Although some aspects of the new guidelines are certainly good for the general public, such as cutting down on sodium and added sugars, nutrition experts voiced concerns over the vague language in the guidelines, a lack of practical advice that busy people need to make smart decisions on the fly, and the appearance of the government not wanting to come down too hard on food makers and factory farms. "The government is always trying to strike a balance between making the food industry happy and protecting the public," says Manning. "I wish the recommendations came out and said we should eat less packaged and processed food, and that wholesome, home cook food is best. But there's that conflict between being business-friendly and protecting public health, again."
Here's an example of vague recommendations. The new dietary guidelines suggest cutting down on "solid fats" and saturated fats, but they don't explicitly say eat less meat, particularly ground beef and fatty cuts of steak or other meats. (Eating less meat is associated with a variety of health benefits, including longer lifespans.) Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and USDA secretary Tom Vilsack are former governors of Kansas and Iowa, respectively; two states that produce a lot of meat as well as the grains livestock animals typically eat in industrial systems. Beyond that, there was no clear call to avoid eating processed foods. Instead, the guidelines issue statements like "use oils to replace solid fats" (translation: use olive oil instead of butter.)
Here are no-nonsense, easy-to-understand ways to make sense of the new dietary guidelines:
Eat less meat. While the new guidelines do call for eating less "solid fats," most people don't know what that actually means. Solid fat meats include ground beef, fatty cuts of steak and other types of meat, chicken skin, sausage, and bacon. To ease into a less meat-intensive way of living, start off by trying Meatless Mondays. Vilsack said that beans (dried beans are better than canned beans) are another great, affordable way to put healthy protein on the plate, but he did not explicitly say people should eat less meat.
Follow this salt-busting strategy. Is it realistic to ask people to tally their milligrams of salt intake throughout the day? Dr. Katz doesn't think so. Of course, avoiding processed foods like soups and frozen meals is a great way to cut back on salt; it's also important to look at the hidden sources of salt, found in things like bread and sauces. "What you could say is to hit the sodium target, choose foods with no more milligrams of sodium per serving than the number of calories," suggests Dr. Katz, who notes that the guidelines provide a lot of "what to do's" but not "how to." A soup that is 300 calories with 900 milligrams of sodium per serving should send up a red-flag warning.
Eat the right kind of seafood. Vilsack said in a news conference that the new dietary guidelines' suggestion to eat more seafood implies that people should eat less of the other types of meat. However, not all seafood and fish boast the same health benefits for humans. Check out this superfish list that highlights sustainable options that are best for people. Examples: Wild-caught Alaskan salmon, mackerel, and anchovies are choices that have higher omega-3 levels.
Cook! The call to eat more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables means that to be healthy, parents need to cook more instead of turning to processed foods that are often laden with sugar, fat, and salt. Check out the Rodale Recipe Finder for meal ideas based on your needs.
Turn kids into detectives. Kids are constantly told to eat better, but with so much advertising and so many confusing labels, it's hard. That's why Dr. Katz created the free Nutrition Detectives program that teaches elementary-school-age children become more food-savvy, saying no to foods with chemicals like artificial colors and flavors, and eating foods that are closer to nature. Another tip? Avoid cereals with a long ingredients list, and ones that list sugar as the first ingredient.