The federal government issued its highly anticipated "dietary guidelines for Americans" on Monday; they issue a new version every five years, as mandated by Congress, though this 2010 one is a bit late.
I'm not sure why there was a delay, though, given that the latest recommendations hardly shift much from the 2005 ones. "They're not terribly different," says Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center. "And I think the impact on Americans' eating behaviors has been negligible in the past and will be negligible again."
The biggest revision -- though big is relative here -- is that the guidelines now "recommend" reducing sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams per day for about half of Americans: those who are over 50; all African Americans since they're prone to developing high blood pressure; anyone who already has high blood pressure, kidney disease, or diabetes.
Those 2005 guidelines said these groups should "aim to" limit their sodium to that amount, whereas now they absolutely, positively should do that rather than just try. Hardly a sea change.
The other half of Americans are still told to limit their sodium intake to 2,300 mg per day, nothing new there.
And regardless of the recommendations, the average American consumes nearly 3,500 mg per day, according to the American Heart Association, since we're often not aware of how much salt is hidden in foods.
Some experts, though, say the overall tone of the new guidelines has shifted away from its previous disease focus to one of obesity prevention. "The big message is that we really need to get our body weight down," says Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietitian at Boston University.
The recommendations emphasize consuming fewer calories and getting more activity. They also focus on the need to eat nutrient dense foods while limiting trans and saturated fats, sugar, and refined grains. We're told to increase fruit and vegetable intake; consume at least half of all grains as whole grains; increase our intake of fat-free or low-fat milk products; choose a variety of protein foods like seafood, lean meat, poultry, eggs, beans and unsalted nuts.
"Unfortunately, the dietary guidelines tell us what to eat, not how to eat," says Katz, "Most Americans don't have the skill set to build nutritious meals."
For example, many of us may choose that cereal that's labeled a "good source of whole-grains" without also checking to see if it's got too much sugar and salt. "The food industry often picks a particular attribute their product has," Katz says, "and plays that up."
Far more useful, perhaps, would be a standard ranking system to assess the overall nutritional value of foods. Britain has traffic light labeling telling consumers which foods to limit and which to go for, and Katz says he's trying to get American supermarkets to adopt a similar ranking system to score foods.
One such system is called NuVal, which Katz helped create, that ranks more than 90,000 different foods based on nutrition. It's now in close to 1,000 supermarkets across the country, including Big Y and Price Chopper in Massachusetts. But it may take a while for standardized food rankings to really become widespread.
General guidelines, it seems, are far easier to issue -- even if they're not that effective. Only a tiny percentage of Americans eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables every day even though recommendations to eat more produce have been in place for decades.
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