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2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for America: A Review
By Gary F. Zeolla
Every five years, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) issues its “Dietary Guidelines for America.” I previously reviewed the ones for 2005-2010 (see 2005-2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans: A Review). In December of 2015, the USDA released its 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for America. The link is to the website with the full text of the Guidelines. It is designed as an online book, with an introduction, three chapters, and 14 appendixes. I read through the entire website and will review it in this article. All quotes are from this website.
The Introduction to the Guidelines begin with a description of the state of health of Americans in regards to “chronic diet-related diseases,” and this state is not good.
About half of all American adults—117 million individuals—have one or more preventable chronic diseases, many of which are related to poor quality eating patterns and physical inactivity. These include cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and poor bone health. More than two-thirds of adults and nearly one-third of children and youth are overweight or obese.
It is not surprising that these health difficulties are related to the poor eating patterns and lack of exercise on the part of the majority of Americans.
The Introduction then overviews the methodology used in developing the Guidelines. In a nutshell, the best available scientific studies are reviewed and analyzed. Thus these Guidelines are not ad hoc, but based on the best available research. It is apparent that every step was taken to ensure these Guidelines are evidence-based and not based on opinions or personal experiences. And there is no evidence they were influenced by special interest groups, despite many claims to the contrary. In this writer’s opinion, the USDA has done its job in thoroughly and honestly reviewing the research.
Once the research is evaluated, it needs to be developed into specific guidelines. Then recommendations need to be made for implementing those guidelines. There are thus three steps to the Guidelines: 1. Review of the scientific evidence. 2. Development of the actual Guidelines. 3. implementation of the Guidelines.
The first chapter of the Guidelines is “Key Elements of Healthy Eating Patterns.” This is a summary of the available scientific research. It begins:
Over the course of any given day, week, or year, individuals consume foods and beverages in combination—an eating pattern. An eating pattern is more than the sum of its parts; it represents the totality of what individuals habitually eat and drink, and these dietary components act synergistically in relation to health. As a result, the eating pattern may be more predictive of overall health status and disease risk than individual foods or nutrients.
The term “eating pattern” is used throughout the Guidelines. It indicates that what is being evaluated and recommended is not foods to eat for one meal or a day but what people eat over a long period of time, a pattern. And it is very true that it is not what people eat on occasion but regularly that has greatest effects on their health. That is why I called my book on nutrition and the Bible God-given Foods Eating Plan. The idea behind an “eating pattern” or “eating plan” is the same: long-term eating habits.
This chapter then presents some general guidelines:
Individuals should aim to meet their nutrient needs through healthy eating patterns that include nutrient-dense foods. Foods in nutrient-dense forms contain essential vitamins and minerals and also dietary fiber and other naturally occurring substances that may have positive health.
By “nutrient-dense forms” the USDAS means foods that do not have the density of their nutrients diluted by the presence of added sugars, added refined carbohydrates (carbs), and/ or large amounts of added or naturally occurring saturated fats. There is also recommendations to limit sodium and trans fats. In my Eating Plan book, I recommend consuming whole, natural foods as closely as possible to the forms in which God gave them to us. These two recommendations are basically the same. They are both saying to eat mostly unprocessed, not processed foods.
The USDA gives the following specific recommendations for the unhealthy aspects of foods:
Consume less than 10 percent of calories per day from added sugars
Consume less than 10 percent of calories per day from saturated fats
Consume less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day of sodium
I discuss the scientific evidence for the problems caused by excess added sugars (and refined carbs in general), saturated fat, and sodium in my article Adjusted Values for Macronutrients, Electrolytes, and Water. I am sure the USDA had access to far more research than I did in writing that article, but we came to similar conclusions.
Most authorities would agree that excessive added sugar and refined carb intake is unhealthy, but some are now questing the restrictions on sodium and saturated fat. I won’t repeat all that I say in that article here, but I will say, there is some evidence that some people could consume high amounts of sodium without adverse effects and that too low of an intake is unhealthy, but the average per day intake of Americans of 3,440 mg per day cited on this website is more than is necessary and can be unhealthy for many people as such amounts elevate blood pressure.
Even more so, many today try to claim that saturated fats are not unhealthy. But as I explain in that article, such people are misreading the evidence. What it actually shows is there is no benefit to replacing saturated fats with processed carbs, which is what most people do by eating processed low fat foods. But there is benefit to replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats, which is what the Guidelines recommend. I also believe there is benefit to replacing saturated fat with unprocessed carbs, but the evidence is not there as yet as with unsaturated fats.
Guidelines for Specific Food Groups
Chapter One next gives guidelines for each food group. It begins with vegetables:
Healthy eating patterns include a variety of vegetables from all of the five vegetable subgroups—dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy, and other. These include all fresh, frozen, canned, and dried options in cooked or raw forms, including vegetable juices. The recommended amount of vegetables in the Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern at the 2,000-calorie level is 2½ cup-equivalents of vegetables per day. In addition, weekly amounts from each vegetable subgroup are recommended to ensure variety and meet nutrient needs.
Note that “Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern” is what the USDA is calling its recommended diet. But as with me and the title of my book, the word “diet” is being avoided as most people think “weight loss” when they hear “diet,” which is usually something that is followed for a period of time and then abandoned. But an eating pattern or plan is the ongoing way people eat over a lifetime, regardless of bodyweight goals
That said; vegetable intake is without a doubt the most important aspect of a healthy eating plan, so the USDA is very correct in recommending the consumption of a copious amount of a wide variety of vegetables. But I have a couple of minor caveats.
The first would be the inclusion of canned vegetables. There is always some loss of nutrients when foods are canned and salt is usually added; though I admit I regularly use two canned vegetables, namely, legumes and tomato products. But that is because it is so time-consuming to prepare legumes from dried beans, and in the winter, fresh tomatoes are terribly expensive. It is also far easier to buy canned salsa than to make it myself. But for other vegetables, it is much healthier and not much more expensive or time-consuming to buy fresh for frozen vegetables and to cook them yourself.
The second caveat would be vegetables juices. Processing vegetables into juice is just that, processing, with the concurrent loss of nutrients, and if store-bought, often the addition of an excessive amount of sodium.
The next food group is fruits:
Healthy eating patterns include fruits, especially whole fruits. The fruits food group includes whole fruits and 100% fruit juice. Whole fruits include fresh, canned, frozen, and dried forms. The recommended amount of fruits in the Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern at the 2,000-calorie level is 2 cup-equivalents per day. One cup of 100% fruit juice counts as 1 cup of fruit. Although fruit juice can be part of healthy eating patterns, it is lower than whole fruit in dietary fiber and when consumed in excess can contribute extra calories. Therefore, at least half of the recommended amount of fruits should come from whole fruits. When juices are consumed, they should be 100% juice, without added sugars. Also, when selecting canned fruit, choose options that are lowest in added sugars.
After vegetables, fruit is the next most important item to include in a healthy eating plan. But again, I would caution about canned fruits and fruit juices. They are less healthy than their fresh fruit counterparts.
Some are leery about fruits due to their sugar content, but the presence of copious amounts of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants makes fruits beneficial not deleterious. And the high fiber and water content of whole fruits moderates the blood sugar response from the sugar. But fruit juices can cause blood sugar problems, as the fiber has been removed. The same goes for dried fruits due to the loss of the fluid content. And even with whole fruits, due to the sugar content, they cannot be eaten as freely as vegetables, which is why the USDA recommends a smaller amount of fruit than of vegetables.
The next food group is grains:
Healthy eating patterns include whole grains and limit the intake of refined grains and products made with refined grains, especially those high in saturated fats, added sugars, and/or sodium, such as cookies, cakes, and some snack foods. The grains food group includes grains as single foods (e.g., rice, oatmeal, and popcorn), as well as products that include grains as an ingredient (e.g., breads, cereals, crackers, and pasta). Grains are either whole or refined. Whole grains (e.g., brown rice, quinoa, and oats) contain the entire kernel, including the endosperm, bran, and germ. Refined grains differ from whole grains in that the grains have been processed to remove the bran and germ, which removes dietary fiber, iron, and other nutrients. The recommended amount of grains in the Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern at the 2,000-calorie level is 6 ounce-equivalents per day. At least half of this amount should be whole grains …
This whole paragraph contains very sound advice, until the last sentence. After describing the immense difference between whole grains and refined grains, the USDA only recommends that “at least half” of grains consumption should be whole grains. “All” of at least “almost all” would be more in line with what was just said.
That said, many would disagree with this recommendation in that they think any form of grains, whether whole or refined, is unhealthy. These are mainly those who advocate low-carb or Paleolithic types of diets. But such people ignore the wealth of scientific research that whole grain consumption is beneficial. I cite many such studies in my Eating Plan book, and I am sure the USDA had access to much more such research.
There are also many today who have jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon and thus avoid wheat, rye, and barely. But for the vast majority of people, this is a misguided fad. Only a very small percentage of the population actually has a problem digesting gluten. Thus for most people such self-imposed dietary restrictions are unnecessary. Details on this are found in my article Cold Cereal: Healthy or Unhealthy?
The next food group is dairy:
Healthy eating patterns include fat-free and low-fat (1%) dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, or fortified soy beverages (commonly known as “soymilk”).… The recommended amounts of dairy in the Healthy U.S.-Style Pattern are based on age rather than calorie level and are 2 cup-equivalents per day for children ages 2 to 3 years, 2½ cup-equivalents per day for children ages 4 to 8 years, and 3 cup-equivalents per day for adolescents ages 9 to 18 years and for adults.
There are two different groups of people who would disagree with this recommendation. The first would be the “no milk” crowd. These people think that dairy consumption of any type and in any form is unhealthy, as they claim it is “unnatural” for adult mammals to consume dairy. I address such concerns in my Eating Plan book. Moreover, as the Guidelines detail, dairy foods contain a wealth of nutrients, namely, “calcium, phosphorus, vitamin A, vitamin D (in products fortified with vitamin D), riboflavin, vitamin B12, protein, potassium, zinc, choline, magnesium, and selenium.”
The second opposing group would be those who do not think saturated fat is problematic. They thus would disagree with the recommendation to consume low-fat or fat-free versions of dairy; instead recommending whole milk products. But again, the actual evidence shows that saturated fat is unhealthy. Plus, low-fat and fat-free dairy contains the same amount of nutrients at a much lower caloric “cost” than their whole fat counterparts. Thus more of these foods can be consumed without excessive caloric consumption.
The next food group is protein foods:
Healthy eating patterns include a variety of protein foods in nutrient-dense forms. The protein foods group comprises a broad group of foods from both animal and plant sources and includes several subgroups: seafood; meats, poultry, and eggs; and nuts, seeds, and soy products. Legumes (beans and peas) may also be considered part of the protein foods group as well as the vegetables group…. Protein also is found in some foods from other food groups (e.g., dairy). The recommendation for protein foods in the Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern at the 2,000-calorie level is 5½ ounce-equivalents of protein foods per day.
This guideline to consume protein from a variety of sources is very well-founded. Each of the mentioned foods contain different nutrients, so consuming some of each provides a well-rounded nutrient intake. The USDA goes on to provide some more important guidelines about these foods.
When selecting protein foods, nuts and seeds should be unsalted, and meats and poultry should be consumed in lean forms. Processed meats and processed poultry are sources of sodium and saturated fats, and intake of these products can be accommodated as long as sodium, saturated fats, added sugars, and total calories are within limits in the resulting eating pattern…
These guidelines are due to the benefits of restricting saturated fat and sodium. But it is interesting that the USDA seems a little lenient in regards to processed meats. But what they are demonstrating is that even these less healthy forms of meat can be included in a healthy eating plan, as long as they are in limited amounts and the high sodium and saturated fat content are allotted for in the overall eating plan.
This section goes on to recommend consuming at least eight ounces of seafood a week due to its omega 3 (EPA and DHA) content. Cautions are also given about mercury, with recommendations to consume fish that is less likely to be contaminate with it, namely “salmon, anchovies, herring, shad, sardines, Pacific oysters, trout, and Atlantic and Pacific mackerel (not king mackerel, which is high in methyl mercury).”
My only caveat in this group would be with the recommended amount of 5-1/2 ounces a day total. That is not much in my opinion. I probably consume at least twice that. But then I am bias towards protein intake due to being a powerlifter. There is strong evidence that strength athletes need far more protein than non-athletes. But then elsewhere in the Guidelines, the USDA recommends that all people engage in at least an hour of strength training each week, so a higher protein intake would be warranted for all such persons.
The next food group is oils:
Oils are fats that contain a high percentage of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and are liquid at room temperature. Although they are not a food group, oils are emphasized as part of healthy eating patterns because they are the major source of essential fatty acids and vitamin E. Commonly consumed oils extracted from plants include canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean, and sunflower oils. Oils also are naturally present in nuts, seeds, seafood, olives, and avocados. The fat in some tropical plants, such as coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and palm oil, are not included in the oils category because they do not resemble other oils in their composition. Specifically, they contain a higher percentage of saturated fats than other oils…. The recommendation for oils in the Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern at the 2,000-calorie level is 27 g (about 5 teaspoons) per day.
Some of the recommended oils I personally am not a fan of as they are not natural, namely canola, corn, and safflower. It takes lots of processing to attain oil from these low in fat items, which are not really foods to begin with. Much more natural is attaining oil from high fat foods like olives, nuts, and seeds. I discuss this issue at length in my God-given Foods Eating Plan book.
Now some would disagree with the caution about tropical oils due to the saturated fat content. This disagreement is not only because some do not believe saturated fat is unhealthy, but they claim the type of saturated fat in these food is different from that in animal foods. In fact, some even claim almost magical benefits from these fats. But there is little evidence to support such claims.
2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans: A Review - Part Two
2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans: A Review. Copyright © 2016 by Gary F. Zeolla.
Disclaimers: The material presented in this article is intended for educational purposes only. The author is not offering medical or legal advice. Accuracy of information is attempted but not guaranteed. Before undertaking any diet, exercise, or health improvement program, one should consult your doctor. The author is in no way responsible or liable for any bodily harm, physical, mental, or emotional, that results from following any of the advice in this article.
The above article was posted on this site February 7, 2016.
It originally appeared in the free email newsletter FitTips for One and All.
Nutrition: General Nutrition
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