WASHINGTON, Jan. 7 (UPI) — New dietary guidelines released by the United States government suggest people cut their sugar and salt intake in half, and increase intake of fruits, vegetables, fiber and whole grains — none of which is a great departure from previous recommendations.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released the new guidelines, which are revised every five years with the goal of adjusting to new scientific research and health concerns for Americans.
The most significant suggestions are for healthier eating patterns, including a focus on variety of foods, nutrient density and portion control, which are applied across most food groups.
The guidelines are barely followed by most people — three-fourths of Americans don’t eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables and the percentage of some age groups following the recommendations are in the single digits — but they are considered important for nutrition and health professionals.
“About half of all American adults have one or more preventable, diet-related chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and overweight and obesity,” officials wrote in the executive summary of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines. “However, a large body of evidence now shows that healthy eating patterns and regular physical activity can help people achieve and maintain good health and reduce the risk of chronic disease throughout all stages of the lifespan.”
Some of the notable changes include: Suggesting sugar intake be no more than 10 percent of daily calories, or about 12 teaspoons; dropping suggestion to avoid cholesterol by reducing foods such as eggs; suggesting limiting coffee to three to five cups per day; and suggesting reduced daily salt intake of 2,300 milligrams from its current average of 3,440.
Changing guidelines on meat and protein brought debate, as they have for decades, as the agencies adjust their thoughts on cholesterol, saturated fats and meat itself, which had a rocky 2015 as the World Health Organization said processed meat can cause cancer.
The committee considered recommending Americans cut back on red and processed meats, but backed off that specific advice after a vigorous response from the meat industry, NPR reported.
Instead, advice on meat is more subtle, pointing out that men and boys consume significantly more red meat than they should, and emphasize a “shift toward other protein foods,” including more nuts, seeds, and seafood. Other recommendations include reducing saturated fat intake and cholesterol, which have an effect on reducing meat in the diet as well.
“The message to eat more seafood, legumes and other protein foods really does mean substitute those for red meat,” Tom Brenna, a professor at Cornell University and member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, told NPR. “So I think the message is more or less there, it’s just not as clear.”
While the United States struggles with an epidemic of obesity, and other conditions related to diet and weight, some criticism of the new guidelines suggests not enough is being done to help people improve their health.
“Given the same advice, it’s not clear why we should expect different outcomes, especially when consumption data shows that over the past decades, Americans have, in fact, followed USDA advice,” said Nina Teicholz, a board member at the Nutrition Coalition, a group that advocates for changes to the development of government dietary advice, told the Washington Post.
Federal officials said, however, the basics of the guidelines — eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains while reducing saturated fat, sodium and sugar — have not changed all that much in the decades since the government started producing them.
The changes in this year’s update are meant to be gradual and start improving American diets based on national health statistics and research showing just how bad most people’s diets are in the United States.
“We want to make things easier and simpler for consumers,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell told NBC News. “One of the things we are steering people to is small changes.”