The most recent update to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans was released earlier this month. This is the latest attempt to provide us with information about what we should eat—and not eat—to stay healthy. The new guidelines, and why they may be difficult for many people to follow, are the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.
Like past updates, there is some debate about the recommendations in the current guidelines. Uncertainly about the role that specific foods and nutrients (saturated fat, for example) play in promoting health and political influence from segments of the food industry are causes for criticism of these guidelines.
Despite the controversy, the guidelines do provide some good advice for us to follow. For example, they recommend that we eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, something that almost everyone agrees is healthy. Refined and processed grains should be limited in favor of whole, unrefined grains. Furthermore, added sugars should be avoided. There is good support for these recommendations, and the distinction is a welcome one. The recommendations for fat are a bit less clear, but the guidelines steer us toward “healthier” fats from plants, including nuts and seeds.
No doubt, everyone could experience some health benefits from eating more fruits and vegetables, favoring whole grains over refined, and limiting the consumption of processed foods containing added sugars. In my mind, the problem isn’t the recommendations themselves (although I might make some changes), it’s the fact that following them is challenging, if not impossible, for many people.
First, access to fresh fruits and vegetables is limited for many people, either by availability or by cost. The well-meaning advice to shop the perimeter of the grocery store avoids many of the unhealthy processed foods that are found in the center aisles of most stores, but it also results in a cart filled with more expensive produce, dairy, and meat. Many people simply can’t afford or shop this way, so the prepackaged, processed foods and meals are practically a necessity.
Second, making smart decisions in the grocery store and in restaurants requires that you have some nutrition knowledge. At the very least, reading food labels is essential. Unfortunately, the “label language” used to make nutrition claims on the front of packages and the less-than-complete information on the Nutrition Facts panel makes this challenging. Claims like “fat free” and “no high-fructose corn syrup” may seem to indicate a healthier choice, when in reality these foods are often no better than the alternatives on the next shelf.
Even though interpreting and following the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans can be challenging, it is still important to try. Making real food, as opposed to processed, prepackaged “food,” your first choice whenever possible will go a long way toward making your diet healthier. This will certainly involve putting more thought into what you eat, and you may find yourself preparing more meals at home rather than eating out.
And try not to worry too much about the debate about which foods and nutrients are the healthiest. If you select food that is as close to its natural state as possible you are likely to make good choices. For example, choose plain beef, poultry, and fish as opposed to flavored, cured meats. The same is true for dairy products like yogurt—watch out for lots of added sugar!
Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. But it doesn't have to be that way. What can I help you with? firstname.lastname@example.org | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr