Updated U.S. Dietary Guidelines Omit Recommendations to Further Restrict Sugar, Alcohol Intake

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January 7, 2021


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The U.S. government has issued new dietary guidelines that keep existing limits on “added sugars” and alcohol consumption — despite stricter recommendations from an advisory panel.

Last year, the government’s scientific advisory committee, consisting of 20 academics and doctors, had recommended tightening the limit for added sugars in the U.S. diet to 6 percent of daily calories, down from 10 percent in the current guidelines.

In its recommendation, the committee cited the worsening U.S. obesity epidemic, and resulting health issues such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancers. The committee also recommended lowering the limit for alcoholic beverages for men to one drink per day from two, matching the guidance for women. The committee cited studies linking higher alcohol consumption to a greater risk of death.

In a news release, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) stated that the evidence reviewed to did not merit the recommended changes to the caps on added sugars and alcohol consumption. “Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 carried forward the committee’s emphasis on limiting these dietary components (added sugars and alcoholic beverages), but did not include changes to quantitative recommendations, as there was not a preponderance of evidence in the material the committee reviewed to support specific changes, as required by law,” the USDA stated.

No Added Sugars Kids Under Age 2

The U.S. dietary guidelines are updated every five years. The new guidelines did follow one of the committee’s recommendations — that children under age 2 consume no added sugars at all. This is the first time the U.S. guidelines have included guidance for babies and toddlers.

The American Heart Association (AHA) suggests an added-sugar limit of no more than 100 calories per day (about 6 teaspoons or 24 grams of sugar) for most women and no more than 150 calories per day (about 9 teaspoons or 36 grams of sugar) for most men.

“Much of the time, we may be taking in way more add sugar than even the dietary guidelines are recommending, let alone what the AHA is recommending,” explains Amy Kimberlain, registered dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator and Care Specialist (CDCES) with Community Health at Baptist Health South Florida. “So, begin to cut back – that’s the clear message. Find the sources of added sugar – beverages and foods – that you’re eating in order to be able to begin to cut back.”

No Nutritional Benefit from Added Sugars

Ms. Kimberlain adds that food nutrition labels now have “added sugars” listed to make it a little easier for consumers. “The first step is identifying where the added sugar you’re taking in is coming and from, and start to find alternative foods and beverages with the aim of cutting back. There’s no nutritional need or benefit that comes from eating added sugar.”

Nearly half of the added sugars in U.S. diets come from sweetened beverages, such as sodas and sports drinks. Added sugars are also found in processed foods, including ready-to-eat cereals, candy, cookies, and a range of other food products that are packaged or canned. Added sugar also includes those sugar packets you open to sweeten your coffee or tea.

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) supports the new guidelines for its endorsement of a “dietary pattern rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks.” But the Institute was disappointed with its treatment of alcohol.

AICR states that the USDA and HHS should have reduced the two-drink-a-day limit for men. Reducing the limit to one alcoholic beverage on days when alcohol is consumed was suggested by the advisory committee.

“In regards to the alcohol – I usually recommend some of the same discussion as I do with sugar,” says Ms. Kimberlain. “Know how much you’re taking in – especially during the pandemic when we’ve seen an increase in the consumption of alcohol, and at times alcohol can be paired with sugary beverages.”

Here are the key takeaways for the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

  • Focuses on dietary patterns and a lifespan approach
  • Included recommendations for children 2 and under, including certain nutrient needs (for the first time)
  • Included recommendations for pregnant and lactating women, including certain nutrient needs
  • Included dietary considerations like preferences, culture, and budget
  • ‘Make Every Bite Count’: choose variety and nutrient-dense foods/beverages.  Pay attention to portion sizes.

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