For all you health-conscious eaters who have your eggs and coffee with a side order of guilt, get ready to celebrate the latest government advice: It's OK to eat foods rich in cholesterol, drink as many as five cups of joe daily and enjoy a range of long-disparaged fats.
That pronouncement is part of the new federal dietary guidelines released Thursday, the first update in five years.
But before you whip out your knife and fork, keep in mind that the guidelines also urge the nation to cut back on favored foods like sugar, red meat and salt. In their place should be fruits and vegetables, lean protein and oils derived from plants.
Essentially, the latest edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans nudges the country's nutritional policy toward a traditional Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes consumption of fruits and vegetables, nuts and legumes drenched in such fat sources as olive, nut, canola and soybean oils.
A stark contrast to a “Western diet” heavy on red meat, high-fat dairy and simple carbohydrates, the Mediterranean diet calls for moderate fish and chicken consumption, reliance on whole grains and little added sugar. Research comparing populations that follow the two dietary patterns consistently find that adherents of the Mediterranean diet have longer life spans and lower rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers.
The nutritional advice from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services represents a science-based approach to healthful eating that is aimed at reducing rates of obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and other chronic conditions.
The guidelines are the first ever to recommend a hard limit — 10% of daily calories — on the amount of added sugars Americans should consume. They also say that saturated fats should account for no more than 10% of a person's daily caloric intake, putting steak, butter and other high-fat dairy products in a category of foods to be eaten sparingly.
And they hold the line on calling sodium a “nutrient of concern.” Americans ages 14 and older should limit their intake to less than 2,300 milligrams a day, the equivalent of a single teaspoon of table salt. Targets for kids are even lower.
The new guidelines stopped short of advising people to shun processed meats, which were recently deemed carcinogenic by the World Health Organization, or red meats, which the WHO called “probably carcinogenic.”
But the guidelines' fine print singles out teenage boys and men as a group that needs to “reduce their overall intake of protein foods” by eating less meat, poultry and eggs.
Changing the way Americans eat may seem like a daunting task, but it's doable, said Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell.
“By focusing on small shifts in what we eat and drink, eating healthy becomes more manageable,” she said. “We may not be able to make broccoli taste like ice cream. But we can help make nutrition choices more understandable so families can make the best decisions for their health.”
Issued every five years since 1980, the Dietary Guidelines set nutritional standards for state and federal programs such as school lunches, food stamps and programs benefiting children and pregnant women.
Increasingly, the recommendations are expected to translate the latest scientific evidence on diet and nutrition into everyday guidance for Americans. That's a tall order, since many of the scientific findings remain controversial, and their complexity often defies efforts to simplify.
This time around, the scientific panel that advised the government broke new ground by drawing a link between the planet's health and that of Americans. Adoption of diets lower in animal protein and richer in fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts, the scientific advisors had argued, would lower rates of disease as well as ease pressure on the environment.
Of all the recommendations contained in the new guidelines, the one that poses the toughest challenge for Americans is the limit on sugar, said Tom Brenna, a professor of chemistry and human nutrition at Cornell University who served on the scientific advisory panel. Currently, about 13% of Americans' daily calories comes from added sugar, a proportion that rises to 15% to 17% for children and teens.
Driving those levels down to 10% would require steep reductions in consumption of sugary snacks and sodas, Brenna said. It could prompt manufacturers of processed foods — a source of much hidden added sugar — to reformulate their products, he added.
The goals for sodium won't be easy either. A report issued Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that even before any salt is added at the table, more than 90% of children and 89% of adults ages 19 and older consume sodium well in excess of the limits advised by the new guidelines.
The ideal amount of sodium in the American diet has been a topic of growing debate in public health circles. Some researchers and health organizations have advocated for limits even lower than 2,300 milligrams per day. But others have argued that lower limits could hurt some Americans, including those with heart failure.
Other aspects of the new guidelines are likely to spark debate as well.
By removing dietary cholesterol as a “nutrient of concern for overconsumption,” the guideline authors bowed to research suggesting that foods rich in the fatty substance contribute only marginally to levels of cholesterol circulating in the bloodstream.
Taking medications such as statins, getting regular exercise and controlling one's weight are now considered to be more effective ways to improve worrisome blood-cholesterol levels.
The American College of Cardiology took pains Thursday to tamp down exuberance about the new view on cholesterol.
“People do not need to obtain cholesterol through diet and should eat as little as possible,” said Dr. Kim Allan Williams, president of the medical group.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a group that advocates for plant-based diets, went so far as to file a lawsuit Wednesday against the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services.
The group's suit alleges that egg industry interests powerfully influenced the research underpinning the new advice on cholesterol, with as many as four of the 14 outside experts on the scientific advisory committee hailing from institutions that received substantial funds from egg producers.
Coffee, the beloved beverage long viewed with suspicion by physicians, got a surprising boost in the new guidelines.
The committee's scientific advisors cited mounting research showing that daily consumption of the amount of caffeine contained in three to five cups of coffee is not only safe, but also appears to reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease in adults. Caffeine may even protect against Parkinson's disease, the evidence suggests.
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