March is National Nutrition Month, a nutrition education and information campaign created annually in March by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. This month, we will focus on various aspects of nutrition on our blog. First up, James Lesley explains the new dietary guidelines.

James Lesley is currently a graduate student at the University of Vermont's Master of Science in Dietetics program.

James Lesley is currently a graduate student at the University of Vermont’s Master of Science in Dietetics program.

Since 1980, a major driving force in the world of nutrition policy has been the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It acts as a way to synthesize current knowledge and strives to communicate that knowledge to the general public.

However, nutrition information is notorious for flip-flopping – what will save you one day may very well kill you the next! And while some information changes with each rendition of the Guidelines, the major principles usually stay the same: moderate food intake, eat a variety of foods, and enjoy the foods you choose to eat. Now in its eighth edition, the Dietary Guidelines strive more than ever before to streamline messages to Americans and provide simple, achievable suggestions to eating a healthier diet.

The Power of “Small Shifts”

The major theme of the new Guidelines can be summed up in one word: Shift. It explores the ways in which small shifts, or changes, in diet and lifestyle can collectively achieve health-improving results. Shifts can be anything from replacing soda for water, brown rice for white rice, and can even include activities like taking the stairs instead of the elevator.

To help Americans make these changes, the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion has developed the “MyPlate, MyWins” tool to help individuals establish goals and track progress. Each successful change made counts as a “win” and can help encourage users to achieve and maintain their goals.

A New “Systems” Approach to Diet

The authors have made a shift in their method of analyzing healthy diets as well. In the new Guidelines, there is a focus on using a “systems approach” instead of a “reductionist approach.” The Guidelines now suggest looking at diet in the grand scheme of things rather than suggest specific foods that provide specific nutrients. There is a growing body of research that suggests this “systems approach” is more helpful than analyzing individual nutrients with regard to predicting diseases like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.1 This is a promising shift because it recognizes that there is no single “correct” way to eat, but rather, there are several ways to achieve a healthy diet.

A New Emphasis on Decreasing Sugar, Salt, and Fat

Where previous versions emphasized increasing consumption of healthy nutrients, the 2015 Guidelines emphasize decreasing consumption of less healthy nutrients. Most notably, they suggest Americans reduce their added sugar, sodium, and saturated fat intake. Specifically, no more than 10 percent of calories consumed should be from added sugars or saturated fat each day.1 For a typical 2,000 calorie diet, that would be 200 calories. This is roughly the amount of sugar in one 12 oz soda or the amount of saturated fat in about four cups of whole milk.

Daily sodium suggestions remain at the 2,300 milligram mark, or about one teaspoon of salt.

Finally, there is not a specific recommendation for cholesterol, which in past versions has been highly scrutinized. The 300 milligram recommendation has been replaced with the suggestion of simply limiting cholesterol consumption.1

Think Big, Think Differently

For nutrition and health professionals, the new Guidelines act as a reminder to think big. Taking a holistic, systems approach to diet and lifestyle will likely become the new norm. One tool practitioners can use to achieve this the social-ecological model. This model emphasizes the importance of multiple influencing factors on the way Americans eat and live their day-to-day lives. By addressing different parts of it, practitioners can better identify barriers people face to achieving their goals and help establish plans to overcome them.

Watch for Changes to Nutrition Facts Labels

For the public, there will also be a few noticeable changes. The most prominent will be on Nutrition Facts labels. If the new legislation passes, the “Added Sugars” line will reflect the new 10 percent of total calorie recommendation laid out in the 2015 Guidelines. With the hopes of making the information easier to use, there will be a percentage next to the “Added Sugars” amount based on the average 2,000 calorie diet. Changes may also be seen in programs that rely on the Guidelines for nutrition education and menu planning purposes such as school lunches, child or adult care facilities, and government assistance programs.

While the main principles of the Dietary Guidelines remain the same, the approach that the authors have decided to take is different than before. With more of a big picture perspective, the Guidelines will hopefully become more meaningful to the public in ways that previous versions were not. After all, the purpose of the Guidelines is to communicate reliable and up-to-date nutrition information to all Americans, not just nutrition professionals.

For the full 2015 Dietary Guidelines Report, visit: http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/

For more about MyPlate, MyWins, and Super Tracker, visit: http://www.choosemyplate.gov

James Lesley is currently a graduate student at the University of Vermont’s Master of Science in Dietetics program. He completed his bachelor’s degree at Colorado State University and has enjoyed learning about Vermont’s unique food and health care systems through his time as a dietetic intern.

References

1) U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/.

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