Dietary Guidelines for Americans; No-Nonsense Advice for Healthy Eating

Advice on what Americans should or should not be eating to be healthy is as abundant–perhaps as overabundant–as the food supply in the United States. The public’s dilemma was summed up in a recent speech by Sanford A. Miller, Ph.D., director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and applied Nutrition when he noted: “Consumers are bombarded constantly from many sources with an overload of information and misinformation about nutrition and health. Realistic, reliable guidance is critically needed to help the public sift and weigh this barrage of information, to make intelligent nutrition choices among the thousands of attractive foods in supermarkets, and to select food in the many places where it is consumed away from the home.”

The latest “Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” made public in September by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, are intended to provide healthy Americans with sensible, uncomplicated guidance on the kinds of foods they should be eating. Basically, their advice to Americans is: Concentrate on eating a balanced and varied diet that provides the nutrients essential to good health, increase consumption of starch and fiber, but reduce fat, sugar, sodium and alcohol. A nine-member committee of nutrition experts reviewed the latest scientific data before making its recommendations to the two federal departments. The committee stressed that current scientific evidence does not support more specific advice for the general public.

The 1985 guidelines differ little from those announced by USDA and HHS in February 1980. The advisory committee concluded that no recent nutrition research was persuasive enough to warrant any major changes. Not enough is known to describe an “ideal” diet for every individual because nutrition needs vary according to a person’s sex, age, health, body size, and other factors. So the guidelines are aimed at those Americans who are in good health. They do not apply to people with diseases or conditions that affect nutritional needs.

A healthy, pregnant woman, for example, has special dietary needs. A person suffering from a chronic ailment–heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other conditions–may also have special diet requirements. Nutritional requirements also can be influenced by medications.

More than 40 different nutrients–in the form of vitamins, minerals, amino acids (from proteins), essential fatty acids (from fats and oil), and calories from carbohydrates, fats and proteins–are needed for good health. However, no one can be expected to keep track of all of them. Instead, most people generally can expect to satisfy their nutritional requirements by eating a variety of foods.

The guidelines do not suggest specific goals for such substances as fats and dietary fiber because of the need for more research. Instead, the guidelines state that “for the U.S. population as a whole, increasing starch and fiber in our diets and reducing calories (primarily from fats, sugars, and alcohol) is sensible. These suggestions are especially appropriate for people who have other risk factors for chronic diseases, such as a family history of obesity, premature heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol levels, or for those who use tobacco, particularly cigarette smokers.”

Nutritionists are able to offer more specific advice about requirements for energy (calories), protein, and certain vitamins and minerals through the Recommended Dietary Allowances that are updated periodically by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences. Food product labels, in many instances, also provide consumers with valuable nutrition information, as well as a listing of ingredients used in food.

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