The plant-based diet caps sugar and saturated fats at 10% of calories each.
The new recommendations for healthy eating emphasize diet over individual nutrients and overturn some long-held beliefs.
The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee wants to change the way we think about healthy eating. In a report issued in February 2015, this federal panel of nutrition experts outlined its proposal for updating the nation’s dietary guidelines. The panel encourages us to consider everything we consume in the context of our overall diet, rather than focusing on individual nutrients. To that end, the panel recommends a diet based on plants rather than animal products, citing the Mediterranean diet as a good example.
At the same time, the proposed guidelines lift limits on dietary fat and cholesterol; okay coffee consumption; steer us away from red meat, sugar, and saturated fats; and give another thumbs-up to fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. “Over all, this report is a tremendous accomplishment,” says Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
Although the recommendations are yet to be adopted by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture, they contain a lot of good advice that you can begin to incorporate today. It may be difficult to overhaul your diet in one fell swoop, but you can begin with small changes. Seven suggestions follow.
1 Focus on your whole diet instead of individual nutrients
Why this advice: The panelists emphasize that the foods you eat work in concert to affect your health. They cite scores of studies in which diets low in saturated fat and high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and whole grains are associated with reduced rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and several cancers.
What you can do: This frees you from seeking out specific “good-for-you” foods and enables you to explore a wide variety of foods with an assortment of different nutrients. The guidelines suggest a plant-based diet, but that doesn’t mean you need to go vegan. Instead, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and fats derived from plants should constitute most of your calories. A plant-based diet simply takes meat and dairy foods off the center of your plate and turns them into side dishes to be eaten less frequently.
2 Don’t fret about cholesterol
Why this advice: This is a seismic change if you’ve spent much of your adult life scrutinizing food labels for cholesterol. But the panelists explained that the cholesterol restriction of 300 milligrams a day has been carried forth for decades without substantial data to support it. The panel lifted that restriction because it found no evidence that the cholesterol we eat has much of an effect on the levels of cholesterol in our blood. We make cholesterol in our liver and intestines, and it’s the kind of fat we eat, rather than the amount of cholesterol we consume, that determines whether we make a lot of “good” HDL cholesterol or “bad” LDL cholesterol. The panel acknowledged that there is lots of evidence linking diets high in saturated fat to high levels of LDL cholesterol (which tends to lodge in our arteries) and diets high in unsaturated fats to high levels of beneficial HDL cholesterol (which cleans out our arteries). Heredity, exercise, weight control, and other factors also play roles in determining HDL and LDL levels. But for most of us, dietary cholesterol doesn’t matter much.
What you can do: The relaxation of cholesterol limits isn’t license to binge on cholesterol-laden foods, most of which are meat and dairy products that are also rich in saturated fat. But it does mean that you can enjoy an egg or two more often and eat shrimp or lobster without feeling guilty.
Salmon and lentils are two good substitutes for red meat.
3 Limit saturated fats
Why this advice: While the association between dietary cholesterol and heart disease is very weak, there’s strong evidence implicating saturated fats—most fats in meat, dairy foods, and palm and coconut oils—in atherosclerosis. The guidelines specifically advise limiting saturated fats to 10% of calories—which may translate to an occasional pat of butter or slice of cheese.
What you can do: If you have a “fat tooth,” you can substitute unsaturated fats for saturated fat without a sense of deprivation. Unsaturated fats are actually healthy because they raise the level of HDL cholesterol. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are found in olive oil, safflower oil, corn oil, canola oil, and other oils derived from plants. Tree nuts, peanuts, and soybeans are also good sources.
4 Don’t worry about unsaturated fats
Why this advice: There is no convincing evidence that unsaturated fats, which are derived from plants and fish, contribute to cardiovascular disease or any other problems. Earlier guidelines, which advised limiting total fat intake to 20% to 35% of calories, have been lifted. Studies have shown that substituting fat calories for carbohydrate calories can actually lead to weight loss because foods high in fat promote satiety, while those high in carbohydrates lead to food cravings. “This is a recommendation that has been a long time coming. It’s overdue,” says Dr. Willett.
What you can do: Substitute foods high in polyunsaturated fats for those containing refined carbohydrates; in other words, nuts instead of cookies or crackers. Add flaxseeds, sesame seeds, or sunflower seeds to cereals and salads. Enjoy fatty fish like salmon, trout, and cod.
5 Limit red meat and processed meats
Why this advice: Red meat and processed meats like sausage and hot dogs have been associated with an increased risk of colon cancer. Conversely, diets low in red meat are linked to a lower risk of heart disease and diabetes.
What you can do: Substitute seafood, nuts, seeds, and legumes for red meat as a source of protein.
6 Limit sugar to 10% of calories
Why this advice: Sugar intake over 10% of calories has been linked to obesity, adult-onset diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and dental cavities. “Sugar” refers both to packaged sugars (granulated, powdered, and brown sugar) and sugars added to foods during processing. It also includes other caloric sweeteners like syrups and honey.
What you can do: For most of us, 10% of calories translates to 10 to 14 teaspoons of sugar a day. That sounds like a lot, but when you add the sweeteners you use at the table to those in processed food, it’s easy to exceed the amount. As a check, measure out table sugar, syrup, and honey as you add them to foods and beverages rather than pouring them straight from the container. Read the labels of packaged food carefully. Sugar—as dextrose, maltose, and fructose—has made its way into all sorts of processed foods, including cereals, soups, sauces, and salad dressings, and especially those promoted as low-fat. And don’t replace sugars with low-calorie sweeteners, because the health effects of many artificial sweeteners are still under study. Instead, drink water in place of sugar-sweetened beverages.
7 Limit salt to less than 2,300 milligrams daily
Why this advice: There is strong evidence that blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke increase with sodium consumption, and most people far exceed the recommended limit.
What you can do: One teaspoon of table salt brings you up to the daily limit, so use the saltshaker sparingly, if at all. Check the sodium content of packaged foods, too. It’s rare to find a processed food that is sodium-free, and most have more sodium than you realize. Experiment with a variety of herbs and spices and substitute them for salt in your cooking.