Released this Jan. 7, the long awaited 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), issued by USDA and the Dept. of Health and Human Services (DHHS), provide recommendations on how to achieve a healthy diet. While it's hoped they influence the diets of millions of Americans, they most definitely affect foods selected for the school lunch program and various government sponsored food assistance programs.
Based in part (but not entirely) on recommendations from the 15-member 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the latest edition of the DGAs claim about half of all adults in this country − 117 million people − have one or more preventable, chronic diseases, many of which are related to poor-quality eating patterns and physical inactivity. These rates continue to escalate.
In one example, the estimated cost of diagnosed diabetes was $245 billion in 2012, according to the report message from USDA secretary Tom Vilsack and DHHS secretary Sylvia Burwell.
Americans' dietary intake of vegetables, fruit, grains, dairy, protein and healthy oils are generally less than the recommendations, while the intake of sugars, saturated fats and sodium are far greater. There are also some important inclusions and exclusions in the 2015 DGAs, although not too many shakeups from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines. The DGAs are updated every five years.
The 2015 guidelines recommend:
- Limit saturated fat to less than 10 percent of calories and replace it with unsaturated fat (olive oil) and avoid trans-fat − the same recommendations from 2010. To stay within this 10 percent limit, consumers should choose polyunsaturated (safflower, grapeseed and flaxseed oils).
- Limit added sugars to 10 percent − this is new. The 2010 DGAs advised reducing added sugars, but the 2015 version specifically limits them to 10 percent a day, or 10 percent of daily energy intake. For a 2,000 calorie diet, this means cutting back to roughly one 16-oz. bottle of soda.
- Caffeine is OK. While offering no real nutrition value, experts acknowledge caffeine's widespread use and recommend a daily upper limit of 400mg. One standard 8-oz. cup of coffee contains anywhere from 95 to 200mg of caffeine.
- Limit sodium (especially salt) to less than 2,300mg of sodium per day – that's no change from 2010. Consumption below this level is advised for those younger than 14 and for people who have pre-hypertension or hypertension. The DGAs ask manufacturers to reduce sodium in their products and ask consumers to replace salt with herbs and spices to help control blood pressure.
- More fiber is again encouraged, which should fuel grain-based food developments incorporating whole grains, pulses, fruit inclusions and whole-grain flour. The new rulings advise making at last half of grain intake whole grains, and list fiber as "a nutrient of public health concern," because we're not getting enough of it. The guidelines also emphasize calcium, potassium, dietary fiber and vitamin D as being "critical nutrients for health." Low intakes are directly linked with health problems.
- Oils are enjoying a renaissance. Where earlier DGA reports categorized them as "discretionary," oils high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (rather than solid fats) "may be used in food preparation where possible." This could bolster whole foods like nuts, seeds and avocados and products (spreads, salad dressings, dips) that use "healthy" oils such as olive oil and tropical oils.
- Eat a variety of fruit and vegetables and more of them, a recurrent federal dietary standard that still ranks front-and-center in the new guidelines. While consumers are eating more fruit as a better-for-you snack, they're not eating as many vegetables as they should.
Also of note: Chicken is now grouped with meats and limited (depending on calories advised) along with lean beef. Eat plenty of fish as long as it's low in methyl mercury. Limit processed meats to no more than 10 percent of a day's calories and make sure they have no more than 1,500mg of sodium.
What's not included
- Dietary cholesterol − The longstanding limits here were dropped. The new DGAs no longer consider dietary cholesterol something to limit to prevent cardiovascular disease. The latest science points more to the intake of saturated fat as having a significantly larger impact on blood cholesterol levels. Yet the document leaves a lot of room for interpretation, as it confusingly adds "this change does not suggest dietary cholesterol is no longer important to consider when building healthy eating patterns, and individuals should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible while consuming a healthy eating pattern."
- Artificial sweeteners – Judging by discussion at the advisory committee hearings and a spike in consumer concern last year, there was some speculation aspartame would be called out in some way; instead the guidelines reports note "aspartame in amounts commonly consumed is safe."
- Environmental/sustainability considerations – Some studies show meat and dairy animal agriculture is a climate change factor. The DGA advisory committee's report recommended this consideration as a further motivation for a plant-based diet, but the federal departments felt environmental concerns should not be a part of dietary advice.
What processors are saying
Processors have much to say about the updates. "We are pleased to see the recommendations on added sugar, sodium and the benefits of whole grains," says Anthony Guerrieri, director of external affairs at Mars Chocolate North America, McLean, Va. However, "We were disappointed that the report did not reflect our recommendations to include the oral health benefits of chewing sugar-free gum after meals, which, based on 40 years of scientific research, helps to reduce the risk of cavities."