The New Dietary Guidelines: What Do They Mean for You?

January 28, 2011

food pyramidAs they do every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services will soon be releasing new dietary guidelines based upon the latest research in nutrition.

Perhaps you remember the old Four Food Groups model or have seen the more recent Food Pyramid recommendations for how Americans should eat. Like them, this new recommendation, expected January 31, will attempt to simplify the complex science of nutrition into an easy-to-understand model of how Americans should be eating.

The changes aren’t expected to be dramatic, but will likely include some key improvements such as recommending people eat less red meat, more seafood, more whole grains, less refined and processed foods, more fiber, more plant-based foods like beans, more vegetables and fruit; lower their sodium intake by nearly half; and limit their intake of solid fats and added sugars, dubbed SoFAS.

In years past, powerful lobby groups have aimed to influence these recommendations in their favor, and some would say they have succeeded. I hope this time the government recommendations will be based solidly on the nutritional science and what truly is the very best way for people to eat for their health.

The reality is obesity is costing our government and society a lot of money in increased medical bills, not to mention individual suffering. But will changing the dietary guidelines really change how Americans eat?

Of course I hope it does, but I suspect it won’t. In order for these dietary guideline changes to really take hold, I believe the government and private industry will need to educate people on why these guidelines matter, and then to make eating this way as easy, affordable, and accessible as eating junk food or fast food.

It’s a tall order and it would take a combined effort. Political forces, school systems, businesses, public policy makers, and others would all need to work together to make the big changes needed in the way America currently eats to turn the obesity epidemic around.

If it were up to me, I’d probably take the recommendation even further than the government likely will. For example, I would recommend:

  • Limiting red meat intake to no more than once a week.
  • Making lean proteins like seafood, poultry, beans, and soy the daily protein sources.
  • Replacing refined grains (white bread, pasta, and rice) with whole grains (100 percent whole wheat bread, whole grain pasta, brown rice).
  • Replacing regular dairy products with low-fat milk, cheese, yogurt, and the like.
  • Replacing butter and animal fats with plant-based oils like olive oil.
  • Replacing frozen, canned, and boxed foods with foods prepared fresh and from scratch.
  • Replacing all soft drinks and 5 or 10 percent fruit juices with water.
  • Eating fried foods rarely, if at all.
  • Replacing salt with herbs and other sodium-free seasonings.
  • Eating more fresh and in-season fruits and vegetables.

In short, I’d recommend eating the way that they do in areas of the world where they have the lowest obesity rates and the lowest rates of diet-related health problems. It’s often called The Mediterranean Diet, and it’s the way people have eaten for well over 3,000 years.

In addition to recommending these dietary changes as a way to curb obesity and increase health, I’d also like to see people add the non-exercise approach to physical activity recommended by researcher James Levine, MD, called NEAT, or Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, into their daily lives.

The concept is simple. Instead of looking for the easiest way to do things, choose the hardest. Park in the furthest spot in the parking lot. Take the stairs. Carry groceries into the house one bag at a time. Walk across the office and talk to a co-worker in person instead of sending an email. These and the thousands of other small changes Levine recommends can add the equivalent exercise of 30 minutes on a treadmill to a person’s day without ever stepping foot in a gym!

Stay tuned to see what changes the government will recommend to the current dietary guidelines but don’t wait until then to start making changes in your own life to lose weight, move more, and live a healthier life.

Dr. Michael Kaplan

Founder and Chief Medical Officer

The Center for Medical Weight Loss

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