5 ways the US government just changed its recommendations for what you should (and shouldn't) be eating

  • The government released its latest edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans on Tuesday, setting standards for how to eat and drink for good health. 
  • For the first time, officials looked at diet during pregnancy and during different life stages, from infancy to older adulthood.
  • Even though scientists looked at low-carb diets and "intermittent fasting," they concluded they didn't have enough research to make a recommendation about them. 
  • On consuming alcohol, one big change is that the guidelines now say that "drinking less is better for health than drinking more."
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The federal government is dishing out a new set of dietary guidelines just as millions of Americans prepare to make New Year's resolutions about their health. 

They lay out for the first time what to eat during pregnancy and give older adults advice on what to eat so their bones can stay strong. There are recommendations that drinking less alcohol is the healthiest way to go. 

But the guidelines sidestep questions about fad diets, leaving people in the dark about whether severe limits on certain food is healthy even if it helps them maintain their weight.  

The guidelines that came out Tuesday are part of a regular update that the federal government does on nutrition advice every five years, dating back to 1990. They have a huge influence on what Americans consider to be healthy and also affect the bottom lines of the food and beverage industries, food nutrition labels, and government programs such as school lunches and food stamps. 

The Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services put out the guidelines together. When deciding whether to make changes, officials consider advice from an outside panel of 20 scientists, as well as from public comments. There's also a furious amount of lobbying that goes on behind the scenes. 

Some of the latest recommendations about healthy eating in the guidelines are longstanding and obvious, such as encouraging diets rich in fruits and vegetables and limiting sugar. But there were several changes to the latest edition. For instance, the government for the first time looked at eating healthy at different ages. 

"It is never too early or too late to eat healthfully," according to the guidelines. 

The latest set of dietary advice comes as Americans struggle with the health effects of poor eating patterns, with many having a lack of access to healthy food. 

Nearly three quarters of Americans are categorized as overweight or obese, and heart disease, often linked to poor nutrition, is the leading cause of death in the US. People with weight problems are also more likely to have severe illness from the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Now that the long-awaited guidance is out, here are five big takeaways to chew over:

What's healthy when eating for two

There's no shortage of advice online about what foods to avoid during pregnancy, but in the past the dietary guidelines have only touched on the issue. 

That's changed since the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, a law signed by then-President Barack Obama that mandated federal officials give more specific dietary guidelines for pregnant people, infants, and toddlers. Before that, the guidelines didn't break out these different ages and life stages. 

The latest guidelines aren't exhaustive. They don't spell out every food to avoid and embrace when pregnant, and they don't explicitly talk about whether certain types of food are associated with miscarriage. 

They do recommend asking healthcare providers about caffeine during pregnancy, but say moderate amounts (meaning two to three cups of coffee a day) won't hurt babies when moms are breastfeeding. The advice also says not to consume unpasteurized juice or milk, raw sprouts, or soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk, because these foods have a higher risk of food poisoning. 

On top of that, they recommend pregnant people get 150 minutes of aerobic exercise every week. Part of the bigger goal put out in the guidelines is to help people achieve a healthy weight before and after becoming pregnant. Data show half of US women gain too much weight during pregnancy, an issue the guidelines will help draw attention to.

What's healthy during the early stages of life 

The US guidelines say that infants should be breastfed exclusively for the first six months after birth, and then to continue breastfeeding for at least the first year.  

The guidelines contrast with the World Health Organization and UNICEF, which recommend breastfeeding for up to two years. 

Still, the guidance says families can breastfeed longer if they wish, but should start introducing other types of food six months after birth. This includes foods infants might otherwise grow up to be allergic to, such as peanut butter. 

For toddlers, there are different sections on how to have them eat a healthy vegetarian diet. 

The new guidelines also recommend that children under age 2 consume no added sugars. This refers to food from yogurt to cereal and cake, and not foods like fruit that naturally have sugar in them. 

What's healthy as you age 

The guidelines have a chapter about what adults should eat when they're 60 or older, saying that too many people gain weight later in life and also face changes in their bone health. 

They also say older adults have to make sure they're eating enough protein given that they naturally lose muscle mass as they age. According to the guidelines, about half of older women and 30% of men 71 and older don't hit protein intake recommendations from foods like seafood, meats, eggs, and nuts. 

The guidelines recommend older adults get 150 minutes to 300 minutes of moderate exercise a week. 

'Drinking less is better for health than drinking more' 

Guidance on alcohol has evolved significantly during the past decade. 

Up until the 2010 edition of the Dietary Guidelines, the guidelines said that moderate drinking — defined as no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two drinks a day for men — was good for heart health. That language was removed from the guidelines 10 years ago. 

And now, in the 2020-2025 edition of the guidelines, officials have added a new phrase explicitly saying that "drinking less is better for health than drinking more." 

But the federal officials rejected a more controversial recommendation from the outside scientific panel tasked with advising them about the guidelines. The panel had recommended a change to say that men, just like women, should have no more than one drink a day for good health. That would have upended 30 years of dietary guidelines, and the alcohol and restaurant industries fought it. 

In a surprise, the latest edition unveiled Tuesday maintains that men can have two alcoholic drinks a day, or less, and still maintain good health. People who don't drink should continue abstaining, the guidelines say. 

Read more: Holiday buzzkill: The Trump administration is weighing new guidelines advising men to cut off at one alcoholic drink a day

No nods for the low-carb or intermittent fasting crowd

The latest guidelines still say that Mediterranean and vegetarian diets are healthy, but they don't talk about low-carb diets such as Atkins or keto, even though US officials had said they'd take a look. 

There had been a huge push by outside groups to endorse these diets, which involves reducing intake of foods like breads and pastas and worrying less about saturated fat, which is in butter and meat. 

The outside scientific panel had concluded that they didn't have enough research on how low-carb diets affect not just weight but diabetes, and didn't make a specific recommendation. 

There's also no information in the latest guidelines about whether the typical American "three meals a day" approach to consuming food is the best way to go. The outside panel took a look at eating frequency on health, but didn't make recommendations to federal officials. 

So the guidelines don't address what has become popularly known as "intermittent fasting" — a period of not eating or skipping certain meals — or whether eating late at night is bad for health. They also don't address to what extent "grazing," meaning snacking throughout the day, affects weight. 

 

 

 

 

 

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