In an environment that promotes high calorie, nutrient-poor foods with a more sedentary lifestyle, too many Americans are regularly eating too many calories. Hence, the obesity epidemic and the subsequent health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and certain cancers.
To turn this around, Americans must be more tuned in to the dietary guidelines. This means Americans must become mindful eaters — attentively choosing what and how much to eat in the context of their calorie requirements. In addition, Americans must begin eating smaller portions at home and when eating out.
Dietary guidelines: Closing the gap
Today as in the past, a gap exists between dietary guidelines and what Americans actually eat. Although most Americans take in too many calories, they eat too few vegetables, fruits, high-fiber whole grains, seafood, and low-fat milk and milk products.
At the same time, Americans eat too much salt, added sugar, solid fats (major sources of saturated and trans fatty acids) and refined grains.
To address this problem, energy-dense foods — especially foods high in added sugar and solid fats — should be replaced with lower calorie, nutrient-rich vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat dairy products.
Where to cut back
Sodium, solid fats (major sources of saturated and trans fatty acids), added sugars and refined grains are consumed in excess by most U.S. adults and children. In addition, the diets of most men exceed the recommendation for cholesterol.
Even if you aren't overweight or obese, consuming too much sodium, solid fats, saturated and trans fatty acids, cholesterol, and added sugars increases your risk of heart disease and other health problems.
The typical American diet contains excessive amounts of sodium. The consequences of excessive sodium and insufficient potassium include high blood pressure and its consequences, such as heart disease and stroke. Because early stages of blood pressure-related diseases begin during childhood, both children and adults should reduce their sodium intake:
- Limit sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) a day.
- A lower sodium level — 1,500 mg a day — is appropriate for people 51 years of age or older, and individuals of any age who are African-American or who have hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease.
Fat and cholesterol
Certain dietary fats and cholesterol are major contributors to heart disease and diabetes, leading causes of illness and death in America. Yet consumption of these fats and cholesterol has not changed much since 1990. The guidelines reinforce the importance of cutting back on saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol, and recommend that Americans:
- Keep calories from saturated fatty acids to less than 10 percent of total calories by replacing them with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Lowering the percentage of calories from dietary saturated fatty acids to 7 percent can further reduce the risk of heart disease.
- Keep dietary cholesterol to less than 300 mg a day. Cutting back to less than 200 mg a day can benefit anyone at high risk of heart disease.
- Avoid trans fat as much as possible by limiting foods that contain synthetic sources of trans fats, such as partially hydrogenated oils, and by limiting other solid fats.
Some proteins — namely, meat, poultry and eggs — contain solid fats. In contrast, the fats in seafood, nuts and seeds are healthier. The guidelines recommend eating two 4-ounce servings (or one 8-ounce serving) a week of seafood. In addition, Americans are encouraged to:
- Choose a variety of proteins, including seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds.
- Eat fish and plant sources of protein more often and in greater variety in place of some meat and poultry. Doing this will replace proteins that are higher in solid fats with those that are lower in solid fats and calories.
Added sugar and refined grains
If you're sedentary, like most Americans, the guidelines say you should eat fewer energy-dense carbohydrates — especially refined, sugar-dense sources — to balance energy needs and achieve and maintain ideal weight. Cut back on sugar-sweetened beverages, desserts and refined grain products, and instead opt for more whole grains.
Where to ramp up
Although a wide variety of nutritious foods are available in the U.S., Americans don't eat enough vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and milk and milk products. As a result, dietary intakes of several nutrients — potassium, dietary fiber, calcium and vitamin D — are low enough to be of public health concern for both adults and children.
The best way to get enough of these and other nutrients, while still controlling calories, is to consume foods in nutrient-dense forms.
Nutrient-dense foods provide vitamins, mineral and other substances that have health benefits, with relatively few calories. They're lean or low in solid fats, and minimize or exclude added solid fats, sugars and refined starches, as these add calories but few essential nutrients or dietary fiber.
Nutrient-dense foods also minimize or exclude added salt or other compounds high in sodium. Ideally, they are in forms that retain naturally occurring components such as dietary fiber.
All vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, beans and peas (legumes), and nuts and seeds that are prepared without added solid fats, sugars, starches and sodium are nutrient dense.
Boiling it down
So where do you start? The guidelines suggest starting with changes in these three areas:
- Enjoy your food, but eat less.
- Avoid oversized portions.
Foods to increase
- Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
- Limit meat to one-quarter of your plate — make it lean and choose fish or plant proteins more often.
- Choose whole-grain products over processed grain products.
- Switch to fat-free or low-fat milk.
Foods to reduce
- Compare sodium in foods such as soup, bread and frozen meals — and choose the foods with lower numbers.
- Drink water instead of sugary drinks.
Using the dietary guidelines as your map, you can make healthy choices that meet your nutritional needs, protect your health, and help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight.