Harley Pasternak is a celebrity trainer and nutrition expert who has worked with stars from Halle Berry and Lady Gaga to Robert Pattinson and Robert Downey Jr. He’s also a New York Times best-selling author, with titles including The Body Reset Diet and The 5-Factor Diet. His new book 5 Pounds is out now. Tweet him @harleypasternak.
Since 1980, every five years the government has released a set of updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a joint effort of the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The 2015-2020 guidelines are now in force.
Despite the name of this document, the collaborative effort between the USDA and the HHS suggests an inherent conflict between the two government agencies. While the concern of the HHS is our health and nutrition, the USDA represents the interest of farmers, which nowadays equates primarily to agribusiness. And it’s in the farming industry’s interest for Americans to eat more corn, wheat and other grains.
Not surprisingly, the resulting guidelines are always a hodgepodge. Some recommendations are admirable, but others are outdated or not supported by research, although the group claims to review all recent nutritional research. The wording of some recommendations is vague, presumably to not offend any food industry sector; however, this makes some recommendations not very helpful to consumers who are looking for real guidance what to eat — and how much of it. Nonetheless, there are some items to applaud, even if modestly.
-A slight shift on cholesterol. For the first time, the traditional advice to severely limit intake of foods high in cholesterol, including meat, shellfish, egg yolks and full-fat dairy, has been slightly modified. In place of a specific daily cholesterol intake recommendation equivalent to the amount in a couple of eggs (300 milligrams), the new recommendation is to eat as little as possible to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. While this may appease the egg industry somewhat, it doesn’t seem like much of a change. And let’s not forget that your body makes the lion’s share of cholesterol in your blood — you’re an animal, too! — rather than the accumulating dietary cholesterol from eating scrambled eggs, shrimp or a burger. Secondly, not all cholesterol clogs your arteries; some types are actually health-enhancing.
-Coffee is addressed for the first time. I do love my morning and afternoon cuppa joe, but more importantly, there are significant health benefits associated with the nutrients in coffee and tea. I was pleased to see that the new guidelines allow up to 400 mg. a day of caffeine in coffee, tea or caffeinated sodas. (An 8-oz. cup of black coffee contains roughly 100 mg, depending upon the blend.) This level of caffeine consumption is positively associated with increased alertness and well-being, improved concentration, enhanced mood and reduced depression. Moreover, people who have consumed caffeine over a lifetime are less likely to experience cognitive decline, stroke, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
-The right direction on added sugar. The recommendation is that we cut back on sugar, ideally consuming no more than 10 percent of our daily calories as added sugar from sweeteners and in products. The trouble is, there is no way to currently distinguish added sugars from intrinsic sugars, such as the sugar in strawberry ice cream, for example, on nutrition labels. Nonetheless, this recommendation is long overdue. Added sugar is associated with the epidemics of obesity and diabetes, and high sugar intake has also been linked to cardiovascular disease and some cancers.
However, 10 percent of calories a day is way too much. If you’re consuming about 1,800 calories a day, you’d be taking in 180 totally empty calories from added sugar, the equivalent of a little more than 11 tsp., with the blessing of our government. Think how more nutritious those calories could be in the form of a medium apple (81 calories) and a medium baked sweet potato (103 calories).
-Men and teen boys to cut protein intake. According to the report, males ages 14 to 51 currently are consuming more meat, poultry and eggs than recommended by previous years’ guidelines. This flies in the face of reason — and research. First of all, eating protein-rich meals builds and helps preserve muscle mass even as fat is lost, and provides satiety, enabling weight management. Males in their most active years need more protein than women to maintain muscle mass. Secondly, there is no research that suggests that a moderately high protein diet is undesirable. What would have been a better recommendation in my way of thinking is to encourage men (and women) to diversify their sources of protein sources more. In all age and gender groups, fish and shellfish intake is below the recommended levels. Vegetable protein is also an option.
Let’s hope that five years from now, the Dietary Guidelines will take some giant steps forward.
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