Nutrition Guidelines: Are People Paying Attention?

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March 9, 2016


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If there were guidelines developed by health professionals that would help you maintain good health (which could also result in a healthy body weight), would you follow them?

Many Americans don’t realize that earlier this year the federal government released important dietary information which, if followed, would have a major impact on our health and well-being.

Published in January, these recommendations, which have been updated every five years since 1980, are based on the latest research and input from a range of health experts. This year, for the first time, the government added to its previous warnings, specific limits on consumption of sugar, sodium and saturated fat. Yet with obesity in America at epidemic proportions, is anybody listening?

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, more than two-thirds of Americans are overweight. Some 35 percent of adults over 20 are obese. Meanwhile, 20 percent of kids 12-19 and 17.7 percent of children age 6-11 are obese. Critics, including the American Cancer Society, argue that the federal guidelines are not strong enough or amount to “too little too late,” resulting in the most Americans continuing dangerous eating habits linked to diseases from diabetes and cancer to heart disease.

Guidelines are Not Always Clear or Consistent

Are people paying attention to these guidelines? The answer is yes, people are listening — sort of. However, the messages we hear are not always clear, consistent or helpful enough to cause us to change for the better, say dietitians and nutrition experts. In addition to federal guidelines, other factors impact our food choices, including food industry marketing, environment (restaurants that offer enormous portions), competing information from research studies and our own individual psychology. Counter these factors with clear, specific, evidence-based education, they say, and we may begin to make a dent in those troublesome obesity statistics.

“The actual guidelines themselves are just that, guidelines,” says Lucette Talamas, registered dietitian, who focuses on community health with Baptist Health South Florida. “They are intended for health professionals and policy makers, and not for individuals to read on their own. With that said, we cannot expect behavior changes just from the guidelines.”

Distilled from a comprehensive scientific report, “the guidelines look at all the science that’s out there collectively so that we’re not going by one study,” she says. “It’s a body of evidence.”

Dietitians and health professionals and organizations are ultimately tasked with delivering the message. In March, which is national Nutrition Awareness Month, nutrition professionals hope to reach as many people as possible. Educating patients and the community includes explaining the guidelines in a way that people understand, Talamas says, correcting misinformation, and delivering a message of urgency. Talamas sees the public confusion and individual struggles over food choices and nutrition.

Community Health Reaches 200,000 People

She is part of Baptist Health South Florida’s Community Health Department, a branch of Outpatient Services. The department takes on the task of educating the community, a job once reserved primarily for government agencies. Community Health works with local governments and community organizations, and provided nearly 400 free education programs that reached more than 200,000 people in both Miami-Dade and Broward Counties in 2015.

The guidelines focus on population health and good nutrition, she says, “outlining what a healthy diet should look, to include all the correct nutrients, vitamins and minerals. It’s not necessarily geared to weight loss, and it’s not geared toward chronic disease.”

“Because 60-plus percent of the population is overweight or obese, you would think the guidelines would have a little clearer direction toward the population at risk,” says Natalie Castro, chief wellness dietitian for corporate wellness at Baptist Health South Florida. “At the same time the guidelines tend to address trends so unfortunately health data comes out about five years after the fact.”

Even though adherence to healthy eating can result in a healthy weight, a person who is suffering with obesity or associated health challenges needs more help. “That’s where specifics come in, tailored nutrition education specific to each person’s health needs,” Castro says.

Not Very User Friendly

New more specific recommendations are not very user friendly, Castro adds. While the guidelines limit sugar to 10 percent of daily calories in a 2,000 calories diet, people have to be able to visualize what that looks like (about 12 teaspoons or the amount in an average can of soda). In addition, most women would require closer to 1,400-1,600 calories a day for good health, she says, which would further decrease their sugar intake.

The food industry arguably plays an even bigger role in defining the American diet with millions in advertising. The industry, says Castro and Talamas, pays close attention to the federal dietary guidelines, using them to market to consumers. But the industry sometimes misses the mark. Ironically,  the industry’s focus on unhealthy processed foods — promoted as low sugar and low fat — was supposedly geared towards consumers’ goals of better health and weight loss — stemming at least in part from its understanding of the federal guidelines.

What advice do dietitians give consumers?

“We can get all complicated, delving into the specifics and guidelines,” says Talamas. “But when you get down to the basics, most adults and children are not eating enough fruits and vegetables every day. It’s such a basic place to start. Whether they have a chronic conditions — diabetes, hypertension — the impact of fruits and vegetables on health, prevention and treatment is incredible.”

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