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Why Does Nutrition Advice Seem So Contradictory?

When headlines and expert opinions are mixed, it can be hard to glean what’s relevant. Here’s a guide to translating the hype into healthy choices.

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You’d think what you put in your mouth would be a personal choice, but there are plenty of headlines weighing in about what you should and shouldn’t eat. Last week, when the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DAGC) released a 500-page document containing suggestions for new nutrition standards, media stories on the subject spread like ink on a paper towel. The resulting coverage focused on counterintuitive recommendations sure to drive clicks and conversation, such as looser restrictions on cholesterol and sodium, as well as varying opinions of health professionals.

It’s no surprise that a document such as this would draw attention, but it’s unfortunate that conflicting narratives often fuel consumer confusion and undercut key advice. As a reader it’s tempting to ignore this seemingly contradictory information and go on your way, but it’s important to recognize that neither the message nor the science it’s based on is inherently bad, though it does take some savvy to parlay the headlines into healthy choices. Before you toss your plate in frustration, let’s take a look at some of the most perplexing takeaways and what they really mean for you.

Sugar
The DGAC recommended a maximum of 10 percent of total calories come from added sugars. Got a calculator? Surveys have shown that most people don’t even know what a calorie is, let alone how many they need each day, therefore 10 percent may not mean much to the average person.

These recommendations are based on a 2,000-calorie diet. (For some people, this is way too much, while for others, it may not be adequate—but that’s a story for another article!) Ten percent of 2,000 calories equals 200 calories worth of sugar. Two hundred calories of sugar is equivalent to 50 grams (g). To put this in perspective, a 12-ounce can of regular soda contains 35g sugars. One slice of cake can have 30g. In other words, if you drink sugary beverages and eat lots of sweets, you’ll spend your sugar budget quickly.

Managing sugar intake is not entirely straightforward. It would be helpful if food labels separated natural sugars (from milk and fruit, for example) from added sugars (sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, etc.) to help you better understand what you’re taking in. Another consideration is that food manufacturers may remove sugar from certain products to meet nutrition standards—but what will be swapped in? This could lead to more artificial sweeteners so that sugars on food labels can appear lower. Read more about the different types of sugars in our food here.

Saturated Fat
Often referred to as “solid fats,” saturated fats can be found in meats, cheeses, milk, cream, oils, and butter. The recommended level of saturated fat in your diet will remain at 10 percent of total calorie intake. Here we go with percentages again. In a 2,000-calorie diet, 10 percent is equivalent to 20g saturated fat. A hotdog contains about 5g saturated fat (13g total fat) and a tablespoon of butter has around 7g saturated fat (12g total fat). In the past week, you may have seen articles pointing to saturated fats as the bad guys, and other stories saying butter should be back on the menu.

My recommendation is to use plant-based oils, limit animal fats, and check food labels for saturated and trans fats. Avoid trans fats at all costs by skipping products that contain hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats. Unless you need to watch your weight, your emphasis should be on the type of fat consumed over the amount. For example, foods such as salmon and avocado are high in fat and contain some saturated fat, but they’re also rich in monounsaturated fats, which support heart and brain health and are generally lacking in Americans’ diets.

Cholesterol
Unlike previous recommendations, cholesterol has not been called out as a nutrient of concern for over consumption. The DGAC found “no appreciable relationship” between dietary cholesterol (found in eggs and seafood) and blood cholesterol. Moreover, no specifics were mentioned regarding portion sizes.

How should this recommendation be interpreted? Consumers never understood that dietary cholesterol found in food is not the only contributor to the cholesterol that appears in your blood and arteries. (Body weight and family history are two stronger factors in the likelihood of developing high cholesterol.) If you typically enjoy egg white omelets with veggies, should you opt for yolk? Should you ditch Greek yogurt and oatmeal because eggs, once disgraced for cholesterol content, are now back in the spotlight?

This change is not an invitation to load up on cholesterol-laden foods. The fact is that eggs are, and always were, healthy and delicious. But variety and balance in what you eat is a greater way to ensure that you get enough, but not too much, of anything.

Sodium
There is no single food that provides flavor at such a low price as salt, but if you have or are at risk for heart disease, salty foods could come with a cost. Evidence shows a strong link between sodium and blood pressure, a major risk factor of heart disease. The 2010 nutrition guidelines recommended limiting sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams (mg) daily for those who had or were at risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease, as well as those over age 51 and African Americans. The current suggestion is 2,300mg daily, in concert with the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) recent sodium report.

This change may seem like liberalization, but even 2,300mg is a tough target to hit. According to the IOM, Americans eat an average of 3,400mg sodium per day. A teaspoon of salt packs around 2,300mg sodium, a tablespoon of soy sauce has 1,000mg, and a pickle has 850mg sodium. Since almost 75 percent of the sodium we consume is from restaurant dining and highly processed foods, the best place to shake bad habits is by carefully inquiring about what’s on your menu and in packaged foods.

Balance and Sustainability
Beyond the specific nutrient recommendations, the report also notes the importance of sustainability and overall balance in food choices. A diet that is lower in animal foods and higher in plant-based foods is “more health promoting” and associated with less environmental impact than the current standard American diet. It’s also important to think about food combinations and the synergy between nutrients, as opposed to looking at foods individually. Since no two types of fruits or vegetables are exactly alike, variety is key for a balanced diet.

Keep in mind that the official 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans have not yet been established; this report is a preliminary set of recommendations by an appointed committee. However it provides a good indication of the advice to expect in coming years: Maintain a diet of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, seafood, legumes, and nuts; with moderate amounts of low- and non-fat dairy products and alcohol (among adults); choose lean and less processed meats if you choose red meat; and make sugar-sweetened foods and beverages and refined grains the exception rather than the rule.

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