The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have released the eighth iteration of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a set of recommendations for healthy eating habits Americans should adopt to prevent development of hypertension, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes, among other conditions.
The new guidelines, effective through 2020, highlight the importance of eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy products, while staying away from processed foods heavy in saturated fats, sugar, and cholesterol as much as possible. The difference between this and earlier editions of the guidelines, the health agencies say, is to promote the importance of a wider variety of foods Americans should be consuming, rather than focusing on just a few isolated foods that should be integrated into an otherwise inadequate diet.
“Protecting the health of the American public includes empowering them with the tools they need to make healthy choices in their daily lives,” Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia M. Burwell said in a statement. “By focusing on small shifts in what we eat and drink, eating healthy becomes more manageable. The Dietary Guidelines provide science-based recommendations on food and nutrition so people can make decisions that may help keep their weight under control, and prevent chronic conditions, like Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.”
The American Medical Association voiced their support of the new guidelines, saying that they are “extremely pleased that the new recommendations call for significantly reducing the amount of added sugars and sugar sweetened beverages from the American diet.” Similarly, the American College of Cardiology issued a statement saying that the existence of “a source of clear science-based information about diet” is more important than ever for Americans in the face of increasingly omnipresent and often confusing information available; the college also lauded the recommendations to limit the intake of added sugars, saturated and trans fats, and sodium. The American Heart Association released a new Authoritative Review of data on the topic of nutritional balance as it related to chronic diseases.
While the recommendations may seem common sense and geared more towards patients and laymen, they are of equal importance to health care providers. Dr. Carolyn Lopez – a Chicago-area family physician and adjunct professor of medicine at Northwestern University – called the guidelines an important resource for physicians, with several elements that will be of particular benefit to physicians and clinicians looking to improve the quality of care given to their patients.
“People [should] understand that while individual food choices are important, the pattern of eating is paramount,” Dr. Lopez explained in an interview. “It’s not impossible to bring vegetables into breakfast – veggie omelettes are great – but it’s hard to imagine bringing a vegetable into the whole grain cereals with skim milk breakfast.”
As a family practitioner, however, Dr. Lopez stressed the difficulty of any doctor having a significant enough amount of time with each patient to really go in-depth into what needs to be done to enact meaningful nutritional and lifestyle changes. “These guidelines can only be effective if the whole team is talking to patients,” she explained. “On its own, it would be extraordinarily difficult [or] impossible to accomplish.
Dr. Nazrat Mirza, a pediatrician who is medical director of the IDEAL Pediatric Weight Management Clinic at Children’s National Health System, Washington, said in an interview that the guidelines are “significant in that they are leading us even closer to healthier dietary living – and from my pediatric perspective, healthier children who will grow into healthier adults. We must keep in mind that these guidelines are not prescriptive – but generalized to relatively healthy people. In particular, the recommendation to reduce sugar intake with specification of an upper limit of 10% of calories from added sugar factored into the suggested daily nutritional intake is an excellent update. Added sugar consumption is linked to diabetes, so any reduction in recommended intake will steer people away from potentially developing diabetes.”
She continued, “In my clinic and day-to-day counseling of patients, being able to point to helpful resources such as these guidelines is crucial. These guidelines will continue to serve as yet another way to reach parents and affect the daily dietary habits they practice at home. I was happy to see resources such as MyPlate.gov referenced in the guidelines; that is a tool I use regularly. When educating families on what a healthy plate looks like, I’m able to point directly to the MyPlate.gov posters hanging in the clinic. Comprehensive resources such as these guidelines, [which] give parents actual examples of foods, and deliver the information in a clear, concise, implementable way, are the best methods to reach parents and kids.”