A food pyramid doesn’t work for everybody.
That’s the philosophy behind the final 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans released today by the federal Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Agriculture.
The recommendations are similar to those proposed last February by a guidelines advisory committee.
Sure, there are calls in the report for Americans to ingest less sugar, salt, and saturated fats as well as to eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meat.
But federal health officials are also taking a look at overall eating habits and telling people to adapt the guidelines to fit their lifestyles.
“All food and beverage choices matter,” the guidelines state. “Choose a healthy eating pattern at an appropriate calorie level to help achieve and maintain a healthy body weight.”
It also urges Americans to help each other.
“Everyone has a role in helping to create and support healthy eating patterns in multiple settings nationwide from home to school to work to communities,” the report states.
The guideline authors said the new approach is necessary because while medical advances have made improvements in treatment of diseases, there are still a rising number of diet-related chronic ailments in the United States. The authors state that roughly half of the U.S. population has one or more of these diseases, which includes obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Rebecca Blake, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., the senior director of clinical nutrition at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York, likes the new approach.
“It is much less heavy handed,” she told Healthline. “You usually don’t get good results when you tell people exactly what you think they should do.”
What’s Good to Eat
The guidelines are used to develop federal programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). They’re also intended to guide professionals who counsel people on diets as well as consumers looking for healthier ways to eat.
They’re updated every five years. This latest version replaces the 2010-2015 dietary guidelines.
The report recommends Americans eat more vegetables, especially those that are dark green, red, and orange, as well as more fruits, especially whole fruits.
It also urges people to eat more grains, especially whole grains, as well as fat-free and low-fat dairy products, including yogurt, milk, and cheese. The dairy recommendations aren’t supported by all nutritionists. Some feel a moderate amount of full-fat dairy diet is healthy and can help absorb vitamin D.
The guidelines also suggest that protein come from a variety of sources, including lean meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts, and oils.
The report does not make a specific recommendation on red meat, but it does encourage limiting the daily amount of saturated and trans fats. That guideline would reduce meat consumption in most diets.
Blake said this is important, especially for men and teenagers who consume a larger quantity of meat than other segments of the population. Blake said large servings of steak and other cuts of meats as well as over-sized hamburgers aren’t necessary.
“We don’t need such enormous portions of protein,” she said.
Her comments were also echoed by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“Eating less red meat is good for all of us and good for the planet. We have long known that meat has supersized impacts not only on our health but on the environment,” Erik Olson, the senior strategic director of the council’s health program, said in a statement.
In October, the World Health Organization released a report linking processed meat to cancer.
The new dietary guidelines also strongly urge a reduction in salt and sugar. Blake said the sugar recommendations are perhaps the most important in the guidelines.
She said many people are aware of the obvious sources of sugar such as candy, cookies, and sodas. However, they may not know that sugar is often used as a preservative in foods such as baked goods and even tomato sauce.
“Tomato sauce doesn’t need sugar to taste delicious,” Blake said.
Why Is It so Hard to Eat Healthy?
With guidelines that are so specific, why is it so difficult for people to adopt healthy eating habits?
Blake said there are a number of reasons. One is simply short-term gratification.
“People like what they like,” she said. “The idea they might be deprived of something is disturbing to them.”
Fear is another motivation. Blake said in her two decades in the nutrition industry, she has concluded that people are afraid they will be hungry and they want to avoid that feeling.
“I tell them that being a little hungry is not the end of the world,” she said.
There is also the cultural aspect of food. It’s used as a centerpiece for family gatherings, holiday celebrations, and other events.
“We all love food. Food is more than just fuel,” Blake said.
She also said it’s easier to eat unhealthy. Fast food and packaged food is easier to obtain. It’s also, in many cases, cheaper than healthy food.
“However, I think we can only blame that to a certain extent,” Blake said.
If people are willing to take a little extra time and spend a little extra money, there are plenty of healthy options, she noted.
It’s cheaper in the long run, she added, than expensive medical bills and paying for transportation because you are no longer mobile.
Blake hopes the guidelines will not only encourage people to make better choices but also encourage food manufacturers to reduce the amount of sugar, salt and other additives in their products.
“I hope we can recalibrate how sweet things need to be in order to be tasty,” she said.