Every few years, the federal government comes out with advice about one of the most important things you do every day—eating. The new recommendations came out last month in the form of an update to the official Dietary Guidelines, and they include some big changes that are meant to help Americans make smarter choices about the food they eat in order to lower their risk of obesity and chronic disease.
“People whose diets match these guidelines stay healthier than those whose diets don’t,” says Nancy Copperman, RD, assistant vice president of public health and community partnerships for Northwell Health (formerly North Shore-LIJ Health System). “And as our understanding of nutrition gets more sophisticated, those guidelines get tweaked based on the strongest and most recent science.”
While many of the government’s suggestions will seem familiar (yes, you still have to eat your veggies), you may be surprised by some of the other recommendations in the new guidelines. One of the most important changes: Limit added sugar.
Dietary experts have cautioned for years against eating too much of the sweet stuff, but for the first time they’ve singled out added sugar, meaning sugar that doesn’t occur naturally in whole foods like an apple or glass of milk (although milk doesn’t taste sweet, it naturally contains a sugar called lactose). Americans should consume less than 10 percent of their daily calories from added sugar, say the new guidelines; for someone who eats about 2,000 calories a day, that’s just 200 calories.
“That’s equal to about 12 teaspoons of sugar, total,” says Copperman. “Most of us currently consume about 22 teaspoons a day, so we need to basically cut that in half.” The easiest way to do that is to read labels, she says; choose foods with less than 5 grams of sugar per serving. If the label lists anything over that level, the item probably contains added sugar. “That should make you think twice about whether that snack is really worth it,” Copperman says.
Worry less about cholesterol
Research has shown that cholesterol in food isn’t a major factor in raising the cholesterol level in our body. Instead, the new guidelines suggest limiting saturated fat. How? Try reducing your intake of fatty cuts of meat, and increasing chicken, fish and plant-based proteins like beans and nuts.
Get pickier about protein
Dovetailing with the above, another of the new guidelines says that many of us—specifically, many teen boys and adult men—eat more than the recommended 26 ounces of protein from animal sources per week. The problem is, a body can process only so much protein at a time, says Copperman. Anything it doesn’t use is stored as fat.
And while the guidelines single out guys, Copperman says that most of us (of either gender) can benefit from eating less animal-based protein. “Choosing smaller portions and filling our plates with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains instead is never a bad thing,” she says. “That’s advice that has stood the test of time.”