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Overview of the New Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report

By Sharon Palmer, RDN

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) just released their report, and the nutrition world is all aflutter. What's so special about the DGAC report? It's the culmination of America's leading nutrition experts who have pored over the current body of nutrition research to develop their best dietary recommendations for people in our country to achieve optimal health. The report is a big deal, as it sets the tone for nutrition policy in the United States as well as the rest of the world. It will become the basis for federal nutrition policy and programs as well as private settings, such as hospitals and business.

Vital Nutrients
So what does the DGAC report say this time? Americans are underconsuming several nutrients: vitamins A, D, E, and C; folate; calcium; magnesium; fiber; and potassium. And we're overconsuming two nutrients: sodium and saturated fat. In addition, Americans are underconsuming key food groups that provide important sources of these shortfall nutrients: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and dairy. We're also consuming too many refined grains and added sugars. The diet quality in our food system isn't where it should be. There are many opportunities to obtain more of these foods and nutrients in the choices we make, at home meals, restaurants, and schools, but we're not making the most of these opportunities.

Instead of focusing on individual nutrients, the DGAC refreshingly suggests the following three healthful dietary patterns (a full description of the meal plans are available in the report):
• the Healthy US-style Dietary Pattern;
• the Healthy Mediterranean-style Dietary Pattern; and
• the Healthy Vegetarian Dietary Pattern.
The overall body of evidence indicates that a healthful dietary pattern should include more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or nonfat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; alcohol in moderation; and less red and processed meat, sugar-sweetened foods and drinks, and refined grains. These three eating patterns can achieve these eating goals.

Reducing Obesity and Chronic Disease
The purpose of the DGAC recommendations is to reduce the occurrence of obesity as well as the risk of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Our current eating pattern in the United States directly contributes to increasing the risk of these conditions; one-half of American adults have one or more preventable chronic conditions. These guidelines also are in agreement with the American Heart Association and American Institute for Cancer Research dietary recommendations to lower the risk of heart disease and cancer.

In addition, the DGAC discusses the important behavior changes to affect health outcomes, such as decreasing screen time, reducing frequency of eating at fast food restaurants, increasing family shared meals, self-monitoring diet and body weight, as well as effective food labeling and nutrition counseling by qualified nutrition professionals.

Food Insecurity and Sustainability
To that end, it will take a village, says the report, with communities facilitating access to healthful and affordable food choices that respect cultural preferences, especially within low-income areas. The DGAC emphasizes that federal policies must help prevent food insecurity (49 million people in the United States are food insecure) and help immigrants maintain healthful eating habits when they arrive in the United States. The report also focused on settings in which food is available—community food access, childcare, schools, and worksites—and their relationships to dietary intake quality.

For the first time, the DGAC addressed sustainability. The major findings regarding sustainable diets were that diets higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods are more health promoting and are associated with less environmental impact than the current US diet. This also can be achieved by following the three healthful eating patterns. The current US diet is higher in animal-based foods and lower in plant-based foods than in the three suggested dietary patterns.

Caffeine Consumption and Other Hot Buttons
The DGAC also covered a few side issues. When it comes to coffee consumption, it considers moderate intake of three to five cups per day or up to 400 mg of caffeine per day safe and maybe even beneficial, although it warns against the consumption of high-caffeine energy drinks. Aspartame also is safe, according to the DGAC. And it further stressed the need to reduce foodborne illnesses with responsible practices. In addition, it dropped its previous recommendation to decrease dietary cholesterol.

The DGAC reexamined the hot topics of sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars, which have been under public scrutiny since the 2010 guidelines. The bottom line is it encourages consumption of dietary patterns low in sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars. Goals are less than 2,300 mg of dietary sodium per day, less than 10% of total calories from saturated fat per day, and a maximum of 10% of total calories from added sugars per day. This should be accomplished by shifting the dietary pattern to foods, such as replacing sugary foods with fruits, and saturated fat with polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Regular Exercise
Physical activity continues to be important for all people in all life cycles—children, adolescents, adults, older adults, women during pregnancy and postpartum, and individuals with disabilities. The DGAC has requested an update of the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, given the very low physical activity participation rates in the country.

It will take concerted, bold action on the part of individuals, families, communities, industry, and government to make a positive change in Americans' lifestyles, according to the DGAC. The DGAC report offers a wealth of information on a range of subjects, such as healthful eating patterns, top sources of calcium, and prevalence of medical conditions in the United States.

For more information, visit www.dietaryguidelines.gov.

— Sharon Palmer, RDN, is nutrition editor of Today's Dietitian and author of The Plant-Powered Diet and Plant-Powered for Life.