New Dietary Guidelines Crack Down On Sugar. But Red Meat Gets A Pass

Jan 7, 2016
Originally published on January 7, 2016 4:49 pm

With January comes lots of diet advice.

And today comes the official advice from the U.S. government: The Obama administration has released its much-anticipated update to the Dietary Guidelines.

The guidelines, which are revised every five years, are based on evolving nutrition science and serve as the government's official advice on what to eat.

One concrete change: Americans are being told to limit sugar to no more than 10 percent of daily calories.

As we've reported, lots of Americans consume up to 22 teaspoons a day. To meet the new 10 percent target, they'd need to cut their sugar intake by nearly half — to no more than 12 teaspoons a day on a 2,000-calorie daily diet.

Over the past five years, a growing body of evidence has linked high levels of sugar consumption to an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, even among Americans who are not overweight or obese.

Much of the dietary advice included in the new guidelines will sound very familiar and remains unchanged from 2010. For instance, there's a focus on consuming more fruits and vegetables, more fiber and whole grains, and less salt.

Top administration officials within the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, who were tasked with writing the guidelines, decided not to include some of the recommendations made by a Dietary Guidelines advisory panel that reviewed the latest nutrition science.

For instance, the advisory committee had recommended including sustainability as a factor in making food choices. But administration officials nixed that idea.

The committee had also advised telling Americans to cut back on red and processed meats. But that recommendation sparked a vigorous challenge from the meat industry, and the final dietary guidelines do not include any specific advice to cut back on these sources of protein.

The recommendation "was certainly controversial," says Tom Brenna, a nutrition professor at Cornell University and member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.

"The red and processed meat recommendation, I think, has morphed a bit into a different kind of message," Brenna tells us. "A little bit like turning a coin over, in a sense, where if you eat less red meat, one is eating more of other protein foods."

Instead, the guidelines emphasize a "shift towards other protein foods" — including more nuts and seeds and about 8 ounces of seafood per week, based on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet.

The suggestion to limit meat intake comes in more subtle form. For instance, the guidelines point out that many teen boys and adult men consume more than the recommended 26 ounces a week of protein from animal sources, so they should "reduce overall intake of protein foods by decreasing intakes of meat, poultry, and eggs."

There's also an overall recommendation — unchanged from 2010 — to reduce saturated fat intake to less than 10 percent of daily diet, a shift that could, in practice, require limiting intake of red meat.

"The message to eat more seafood, legumes and other protein foods really does mean substitute those for red meat," Brenna says. "So I think the message is more or less there, it's just not as clear."

That message to cut the red meat should have been stated more directly, says Barry Popkin, a nutrition researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "I am disappointed that the USDA once again is cutting out recommendations to truly limit red meat intake," he tells us in an email.

The other major change to the government's nutrition advice: dietary cholesterol. The new guidelines drop a longstanding recommendation to limit cholesterol from foods to 300 milligrams a day.

As Alice Lichtenstein, vice chairwoman of the the expert panel that advised the government on the guidelines, told us last February, there isn't strong evidence that limiting cholesterol-rich foods lowers the amount of artery-clogging LDL cholesterol that ends up in the blood.

The guidelines also call on Americans to cut sodium to no more than 2,300 milligrams per day. Most of us consume far more — about 3,440 milligrams daily on average — much of it in the form of foods like pizzas, soups, breads and cured meats.

The Dietary Guidelines have clear implications for federal nutrition policy, influencing everything from the national school lunch program to the advice you get at the doctor's office. But they are written for nutrition professionals, not the general public.

Indeed, one has to wonder whether most Americans are even listening. As the Dietary Guidelines report points out, three-fourths of Americans don't eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. In some age groups (think teens), the percentage of people following the guidelines is in the single digits.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's that time of year when lots of us are resolving to eat healthier. I know I am. And this morning, there is new dietary guidance out from the federal government. The U.S. dietary guidelines are updated every five years and are considered the government's official advice on what Americans should be eating. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now to talk about them. Good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So tell us what has changed in these new guidelines? What's different than five years ago?

AUBREY: Well, a key issue is right here in front of me. It's sugar. Americans eat way too much of it. I've got...

MONTAGNE: Wait. Wait. You're holding yogurt there.

AUBREY: Yes, right. I've got this little tub.

MONTAGNE: That's healthy.

AUBREY: Right, we consider yogurt a healthy food. But I'm looking at the label here. This has nearly 20 grams of sugar, which is five teaspoons - about five teaspoons. So a key recommendation out today in these new guidelines is to eat less. Now, this may not seem new. We've already been given this advice to, you know, cut back. But many Americans are eating, by some estimates, an average of about 22 teaspoons a day. And over the last five years, there's been a lot of new scientific evidence showing that this amount increases the risk not only of type 2 diabetes but also of heart disease, even among people who are not overweight or obese.

MONTAGNE: And how much - or really, how little sugar should we be eating?

AUBREY: Right, how little is the key. The new guideline calls for limiting sugar to no more than 10 percent of our daily calories. So that translates, depending on how many calories you eat a day, to about 10 to 12 teaspoons a day. So this means for many Americans cutting sugar consumption in half. Now, I should be clear here that we're not talking about intrinsic sugars, those that are found naturally in fruits and milk and vegetables. It's all the sugar that gets added to foods.

MONTAGNE: OK, less sugar.

AUBREY: That's right.

MONTAGNE: What else from these new and presumably different guidelines?

AUBREY: That's right. Well, one noticeable change is that these new guidelines really focus on healthy patterns of eating and emphasize getting more variety into your diet. So for instance, instead of coming out and saying, eat less red meat, the message now in these new guidelines is to make small shifts. They use that phrase a lot, to make small shifts to alternative sources of protein, for instance, seafood, beans, nuts. Now, I have to say, this is a bit controversial because last year, the advisory committee of nutrition experts that was tasked with sort of making recommendations on what to include in these guidelines, this committee came out and said, Americans should be told to eat less red meat. But this is not what the guidelines say. There's no specific recommendation to cut back on red or processed meats. Now, of course, the meat industry is pleased with this. Their reaction this morning is that these new dietary guidelines are, quote, "affirming that meat is part of a healthy diet." But on the other hand, I've already heard from two researchers this morning who are disappointed. They say the guidelines should have included specific limits on red and processed meats.

MONTAGNE: Well, how likely are Americans, do you think, to pay attention to any of this advice?

AUBREY: Well, you know, if past is prologue, I don't think that too many Americans are going to be paying a lot of attention. If you look, for instance, at the recommendations on fruit and vegetable consumption, which is to eat, you know, several cups' worth every day, the percentage of Americans following this advice is very low. For some age groups - for instance, teenagers - it's in the single digits. Americans also way over-eat refined carbs or refined grains but don't get enough of the whole grains. So as a culture, you know, we have a long way to go. But I think that this doesn't mean that the dietary guidelines are not important. The guidelines help shape federal programs, such as the school lunch program and the WIC program that helps feed at-risk mothers and their children. And I should point out that these guidelines are only a small part of a much bigger public health effort to get people to eat healthier.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks very much.

AUBREY: Thanks, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.