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New Dietary Guidelines: More Plant-Based Foods, Less Added Sugars

A U.S. government panel is recommending that Americans further lower their consumption of added sugars, while focusing less on processed offerings and more on “plant-based foods” such as vegetables, fruits and whole grains.

The panel of health and nutrition experts reviewed the most recent medical studies to come up with updated national dietary guidelines. The U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) revise those guidelines every five years.

With more and more studies pointing to processed foods and added sugars as primary drivers of obesity, the panel’s findings are not entirely surprising.

They confirm what primary care physicians and dietitians across the nation are facing: families with dietary habits that can contribute to serious health conditions, such as heart disease and underlying risk factors, including diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol readings.

“The new guidelines properly focus on the unhealthy elements of the American diet, especially the hidden sugar in our food,” says Natalie Castro, chief wellness dietitian for corporate wellness at Baptist Health South Florida. “Most people don’t realize how harmful processed foods and added sugars can be, especially when it comes to controlling weight and chronic diseases as you get older. But it starts by improving the dietary habits of our children. Parents must set the example with improved nutrition.”

More than 75 percent of the food in a grocery store is loaded with added sugar, sodium and artificial ingredients, says Castro.

Chronic Diseases Tied to ‘Poor Quality’ Diets
About half of American adults — 117 million people — have one or more preventable chronic diseases that relate to “poor quality dietary patterns” and physical inactivity, including cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and diet-related cancers, says Barbara E. Millen, the chairperson of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.

“On average, the U.S. diet is low in vegetables, fruit, and whole grains and too high in calories, saturated fat, sodium, refined grains and added sugars,” writes Millen, in an introductory letter to the USDA and HHS referring to the panel’s findings [1]. “Under-consumption of vitamin D, calcium, potassium and fiber are of public health concern for the majority of the U.S. population.”

Americans get about 13 percent of their calories from sugars, with percentages even higher for children and young adults, the panel said.  These experts are recommending that Americans keep their foods and drinks with added sugar to less than 10 percent of their daily calorie intake.

Tufts University professor Miriam Nelson, a member of the panel, told the Associated Press that that 10 percent target was “within reach.” Even low-calorie alternatives, such as sodas with artificial sweeteners, are considered poor choices because there is no solid evidence that “diet” drinks help people lose weight.

Empty Calories’ Provide Few Nutrients
So-called “empty calories,” primarily in the form of solid fats that occur naturally in foods such as meat, dairy and some tropical foods, and sugars that are added to food s either by the consumer or by food manufacturers, are mentioned prominently in the panel’s findings.  These “empty” foods provide calories, but few or no nutrients.

The panel’s guidance on the approximate amounts of solid fats and added sugars that can be part of a healthful diet is as follows:

  • Children ages 2 to 8 years: 120 calories/day;
  • Children 9 to 13 years: 120 to 250 calories/day;
  • Girls ages 14 to 18 years: 120 to 250 calories/day;
  • Boys ages 14 to 18: 160 to 330 calories/day;
  • Adult women: 120 to 250 calories/day;
  • Adult men: 160 to 330 calories/day.
  • Intake limits varies by age and sex and are based on residual calories after all food group intakes are met.

    “The intake limits include solid fats and added sugars from all sources in the diet: from sugar in sugar-sweetened beverages, including coffee and tea, and breakfast cereals, to solid fats in burgers, sandwiches, and pizza, to the combination of solid fats and added sugars in snacks and desserts such as cookies, cakes, ice cream, and donuts,” the panel’s report states.

    The recommendations, which were first published in 1980, will be finalized later this year by the USDA and HHS, and will be open for public comment for 45 days.