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5 Science-Backed Takeaways for Healthy Eating

A wooden bowl filled with white sugar cubes sits on a dark wooden surface. Several sugar cubes are scattered around the bowl on the table, illustrating the visual impact of added sugars often discussed in healthy eating guidelines. The wood grain of the table adds texture to the background. MyFitnessPal Blog
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Earlier this month, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans were officially released. A team effort between the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services to distill the latest scientific evidence on nutrition research, the recommendations are meant for Americans age 2 and older, and they’re intended to advise policymakers and health professionals when they write new laws or create new programs.

So, what’s up with the new guidelines? To help you understand the changes, here are five things to know:

1. They stress eating patterns.

Compared with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, there is less emphasis on individual foods and nutrients. Instead the spotlight is on having a healthful “eating pattern” at an appropriate calorie level. In my mind, this translates to establishing good eating habits so that you choose nutritious foods most of the time. Unsurprisingly, the guidelines state that a healthy eating pattern includes vegetables, fruit, grains, low-fat dairy, protein and plant-based oils.

PRO: No one food or nutrient is the key to good health, so focusing on eating patterns is a better approach. Additionally, foods can’t be eaten in isolation of each other, so it’s more helpful to have a holistic pattern.

CON: There’s less focus on calories, portion sizes and energy balance, which isn’t to say they’re not important. In the context of maintaining a healthy weight and reducing disease risk, calorie quantity still matters.

2. They acknowledge there’s no one road map toward good health.

In fact, the new guidelines describe three different healthy eating patterns:

  • Healthy U.S.-Style: This pattern is what we’re used to seeing from health professionals in the U.S. As a dietitian, it’s what typically comes to mind when I think “well-balanced, varied diet”: fruit, vegetables, whole grains, dairy and lean protein.
  • Healthy Mediterranean-Style: This pattern is like the U.S.-style, but it contains more fruit and seafood and less dairy. It’s likely included because of strong evidence from numerous large studies that a Mediterranean-style diet is protective against major chronic diseases including heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s.
  • Healthy Vegetarian: This eating pattern eliminates meat and seafood, and it is higher in plant-based protein sources (think: legumes, nuts, seeds and soy products) and whole grains. Dairy and eggs are included but can be omitted for vegans. It’s likely included due to growing public interest in plant-based diets, and because there’s ample evidence that vegetarians tend to have lower BMI’s, cancer rates and chronic disease risks.

PRO: Nutrition is not one-size-fits-all but varies for each individual; therefore, acknowledging several eating patterns is a step in the right direction. It’s highly likely a number of healthful eating patterns exist outside these three, but at the moment, science has abundant and meaningful evidence to support these three eating patterns.

CON: If you were already confused about what healthy eating looked like, the new guidelines won’t help narrow it down for you. But, then again they are dietary guidelines (not food rules) for a reason. If it helps, all three eating patterns limit added sugar, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium, which we’ll discuss at length.

Similar to past guidelines, the advice on what we should eat more of is phrased in food (think: fruit, vegetables and whole grains), while advice on what we should eat less of is phrased in nutrients. Many experts, among them consumer activist and author Marion Nestle, Ph.D, M.P.H., chalk this up to the political influence of industry. Even if the 2015 Dietary Guidelines are more veiled than you’d like, they have some very useful takeaways:

3. They urge us to cut back on added sugar.

Previous dietary guidelines also recommended limiting added sugar intake, but the 2015 Dietary Guidelines give an actual daily cap: no more than 10% of daily calories (about 12 teaspoons) from added sugar. Added sugar – especially in the form of sugary drinks – has been under fire since many studies find that it is associated with higher body weight and increased risk for metabolic syndrome and Type 2 diabetes.

PRO: It’s a sweet victory for many nutrition experts and organizations like the World Health Organization that have been gunning for a minimum on added sugar consumption. In fact, many feel that cap on added sugar should be lower than 10% of daily calories.

CON: The major downside? We lack the info that makes it easier to par down on added sugar. Currently, “added sugar” is not listed separately from “sugar” on the Nutrition Facts panel. While we can avoid foods with high sugar grams per serving altogether, remember we don’t want to eliminate fruit and dairy foods. They contain natural sugars in addition to important vitamins and minerals.

USEFUL TAKEAWAY: Drink fewer sugary beverages (think: soda, juice, sweetened coffee and tea) – they’re still the No. 1 source of added sugar in the typical American diet.

4. They omit the minimum cap on cholesterol.

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines do away with the previous recommendation on dietary cholesterol of 300 milligrams per day. However, they maintain that strong evidence from prospective cohort studies show that a diet low in dietary cholesterol decreases risk for heart disease and obesity. Since cholesterol is mainly found in animal-based foods (think: egg yolks, shellfish, meats), it’s hard to isolate its effect from that of saturated fat. New studies have emerged citing a lack of correlation between eating cholesterol and it showing up in your blood.

PRO: Egg and seafood lovers, rejoice! We’ve long ostracized high-cholesterol foods out of fear that they’ll adversely affect our blood cholesterol. Include eggs and seafood in your eating pattern – just don’t go crazy.

CON: You’d be hard-pressed to find a health professional who’ll comfortably vindicate dietary cholesterol. New evidence constantly emerges from the nutrition world, and there just isn’t enough strong, steady evidence at this time. I’d say, though, that eliminating the cap on dietary cholesterol is kind of a telling move.

USEFUL TAKEAWAY: If you’re a healthy individual, don’t avoid foods like eggs and seafood just because they’re high in dietary cholesterol. Still unsure? Check with your doctor or dietitian to get perspective for your particular scenario.

5. They maintain the cap on saturated fat, sodium and trans fat.

These science-based recommendations center on reducing your risk for heart disease. The daily caps are:

  • Eat less than 10% of calories from saturated fat. The guidelines maintain that strong evidence supports swapping saturated fat with unsaturated fats (aka heart-healthy fats). Why? Because it helps decrease risk for heart disease by improving your good cholesterol (HDL) and lowering your bad cholesterol (LDL).
  • Eat less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium. Americans eat an average of 3,440 milligrams of sodium daily, which is nearly 50% more than the recommended level. High-sodium diets are linked to higher blood pressure, which in turn increases the risk of developing heart disease.
  • Eat little to no trans fat. This recommendation came about because strong evidence exists linking trans-fat consumption with increased risk for heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes.

PRO: Limiting saturated fat and sodium while nixing trans fat is sound dietary advice.

CON: You have to read between the lines to know what foods you should eat less of in order to meet the caps for saturated fat, sodium and trans fat.

USEFUL TAKEAWAY: Here’s the food translation:

  • Eating less saturated fat means limiting your meat consumption.
  • Replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat means choosing more plant-based fats such as avocados, olive oil, canola oil and so forth.
  • Eat less sodium and no trans fat means choosing fewer junk foods – especially those made with a lot of salt, seasonings and hydrogenated fats.
  • Eat no trans fat also means steering clear of packaged foods whose ingredients include hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fat (think: frozen desserts, cookies, margarine)

To learn more, read the 2015 Dietary Guidelines: http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015

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