The news-waves are constantly abuzz about what types of foods to either consume or avoid. I wanted to get back to the basics and sort through all the information to find out what the latest research tells us about what we truly should be consuming or avoiding in the diet. I am not a nutritionist, just an average person concerned with fitness and nutrition. It can be difficult to determine what information is based on solid research and what is based on more spurious claims from companies attempting to cash in on the health and fitness market. I therefore turned to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ ” 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans ” to review the fundamentals of nutrition and to find out what the government’s latest recommendations are for incorporating a diet that is most nutritionally sound and based on valid research.
This article is one in a series on “Dietary Guidelines” that reviews the main components of proper nutrition and the fundamentals of a healthful diet. In this article we will discuss the main points of chapter 3 of the “2010 Dietary Guidelines” called “Foods and Food Components to Reduce.” I have also made use of more detailed information presented in the excellent and comprehensive “The American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide” by Roberta Larson Duyff (3rd edition, 2006).
The types of foods that the dietary guidelines recommends individuals reduce in their diet include sodium, cholesterol, saturated and trans fats, added sugars, refined grains, and alcohol. It is no coincidence that many of these food components are listed prominently on the Nutrition Facts label, since they are components that individuals need to be especially vigilant of in their diet. According to the “2010 Dietary Guidelines,” a very low percentage of Americans currently follows a diet that is aligned with the government’s dietary recommendations, and many people consume excessive amounts of the following food components, which could pose significant risks to health. The dietary guidelines therefore recommends that individuals strive to reduce their intake of the following food components for better nutrition and to lower the risks of serious diseases and other health ailments.
Sodium is an essential nutrient that the body requires in small quantities. Like potassium and chloride, it is an electrolyte, which means it is involved in the transport of nutrients to cells. Sodium also helps to maintain proper fluid balance and regulate blood pressure. According to the dietary guidelines, however, almost all Americans consume too much sodium in their diet. High sodium intake, the majority of which is from salt, is associated with higher blood pressure (hypertension). Statistics provided by the dietary guidelines makes this clear: roughly 34% of people suffer from hypertension and about 37% have high cholesterol, each of which significantly raises the risk for heart disease and other cardiovascular ailments.
To reduce their sodium intake, the dietary guidelines recommends that individuals prepare more fresh, at-home meals and use less salt when they cook or season foods. Individuals can gradually reduce the amount of salt they use to flavor foods, since taste buds naturally adjust to lower salt levels, according to the American Dietetic Association. People should also read nutrition labels carefully when buying prepared foods. A label that lists a Daily Value (DV) for sodium of 5% or less is considered low, while a DV of 20% or more is considered high. People should also be conscious of what foods they consume when dining out. Most of the sodium in the U.S. diet (about 77%) comes from prepared foods, and roughly just 11% comes from table salt, according to the American Dietetic Association.
Some foods known for their high sodium levels include cured and processed meats, pizza, canned foods, chicken and chicken mixed dishes, cheese, pasta dishes, and salty snacks. In addition, some condiments such as mustard and catsup have high levels of sodium.
The dietary guidelines tells us that the average daily intake of sodium in the U.S. is about 3,400 mg a day. This is well above the recommended level of no more than 2,300 mg a day. Certain populations considered to be more sodium-sensitive, including African Americans, those with high blood pressure, and anyone over 51 years of age, are advised to lower their sodium intake even further to 1,500 mg per day. In reality, all individuals would benefit from reducing their sodium levels to this lower amount.
Cholesterol, a substance found only in animals, is used by the body for important physiological functions, including building cells. The body, however, produces enough cholesterol on its own and has no need for additional (dietary) cholesterol. High blood cholesterol has been linked to cardiovascular conditions such as heart attack and stroke.
Although often thought of as a fat, cholesterol is actually a separate substance that performs different actions within the body. To add further confusion, people often mix up the two types of blood cholesterol: HDL is the “good” cholesterol, while LDL is the “bad” cholesterol.
Foods high in dietary cholesterol include eggs, chicken and chicken mixed dishes, beef and beef mixed dishes, and all types of beef burgers. To reduce cholesterol levels, individuals can reduce their consumption of these and other animal foods. When preparing eggs, people can limit their cholesterol by using egg substitutes or using just the egg whites (which are cholesterol-free) and not the egg yolk.
Americans currently consume an average of about 350 mg of cholesterol a day, which exceeds the recommendation of no more than 300 mg a day, according to the dietary guidelines.
Even though the body responds similarly to both natural and added sugars, the dietary guidelines strongly recommends that individuals cut their consumption of foods and beverages that contain added sugars, because these foods and beverages contribute little or no nutrients while promoting weight gain. Natural sugars include the fructose found in fruits and the lactose found in milk and milk products, but, as the dietary guidelines points out, most of the current sugar consumption comes from added sugars, which make up about 16% of one’s daily calorie intake.
Foods that are high in added sugars include sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks, sugar-sweetened fruit drinks, cookies and other grain-based deserts, dairy-based deserts, and candy. Note that “natural”- looking sugars such as raw sugar, date sugar, honey, or maple syrup are not any more healthful than other sugars.
Individuals can work to reduce their consumption of added sugars in a few different ways. First, people should replace the “empty calories” they get from sugar-added foods with more nutrient-dense calories from all types of food groups, including fruits and vegetables. Individuals can also limit their use of added sugars when preparing meals.
Saturated and Trans Fats
Saturated fats and trans fats are two categories of fats that the dietary guidelines recommends be brought down to the lowest levels possible. Because the body produces enough saturated fat on its own for structural functions, there is no need to add more saturated or trans fat from dietary sources. Instead of trans fats and saturated fats (the word “saturated” indicating more solid at room temperature), the dietary guidelines recommends that individuals use the more healthful monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are mainly derived from plant-based cooking oils, such as olive, canola, and safflower oil.
Just like added sugars, saturated and trans fats provide an overabundance of calories with little nutrient value and no dietary fiber. When the calories from these types of fats and added sugars are combined, it equals nearly 800 calories a day in the American diet, or roughly 35% of one’s total calorie needs, according to the dietary guidelines. Saturated and trans fats are both detrimental to the cardiovascular system because they raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.
Foods that are high in saturated or trans fats include pizza, full-fat cheese, cookies and other grain-based deserts, dairy-based deserts, chicken and chicken mixed dishes, sausage, franks, bacon, and ribs.
Refined grains are grains that have had some portion of the grain removed during processing. Although most refined grains replace (or “enrich”) some of the vitamins and minerals lost during processing, some nutrients are not recovered, and much of the dietary fiber is lost. The dietary guidelines recommends that individuals replace some of their refined grain consumption with more whole grains so that at least half of total daily grain consumption comes from whole, not refined, grains.
Americans consume more than twice the amount of recommended refined grain products per day, 6.3-ounce-equivalents compared to the 3 ounces or less that is recommended. Since refined grain products are foods that are often high in solid fats and added sugars as well (consider cookies, donuts, and other deserts), individuals gain twofold by reducing their refined grain intake.
Some major sources of refined grain products include yeast breads, pizza, cookies and other grain-based deserts, tortillas, burritos, and tacos.
Studies have shown that alcohol, consumed in moderate amounts, can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. The dietary guidelines, however, does not recommend non-drinkers become drinkers simply for this purpose. The health risks related to higher than acceptable alcohol consumption can outweigh the heart-healthy benefits. And besides providing calories, alcohol does not supply much in the way of nutrients, and as such it can easily lead to weight gain from these excessive “empty” calories. In addition, alcohol can inhibit nutrient absorption and interfere with many medications.
The dietary guidelines recommends that drinkers keep within the moderate level of alcohol consumption, which is up to 1 drink a day for women and up to 2 drinks a day for men. One drink is equivalent to 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled liquor. Women’s alcohol level is set lower because females tend to have a lower percentage of water in their bodies, in addition to a less-active enzyme for metabolizing alcohol.
The dietary guidelines defines heavy or high-risk drinkers in the following manner: men who consume more than 4 alcoholic drinks in one day or more than 14 in one week and women who consume more than 3 drinks a day or more than 7 in one week. Binge drinking is defined as consuming within a 2-hour time period 5 or more drinks for men or 4 or more drinks for women.
Many Americans consume too much alcohol, according to the dietary guidelines. Approximately 50% of adults are regular drinkers and 14% are infrequent drinkers. Roughly 9% of men drink an average of more than 2 drinks a day and 4% of women consume an average of more than 1 drink a day. Perhaps the greatest health risk comes from the roughly 29% of drinkers who report binge drinking within the past month, often on a number of occasions.
Excessive alcohol intake is linked to about 79,000 deaths a year, more than half coming from binge drinking. Even at the moderate level, alcohol is linked to increased risk of breast cancer, drowning, injuries, violence, and car crashes. Heavy drinking is associated with a higher risk of cancer, such as cancer of the liver, mouth, throat, or esophagus, a risk that is multiplied if one is a smoker. No safe amount of alcohol consumption has been established for women during pregnancy, but there has been some indication that consuming moderate to heavy amounts of alcohol during pregnancy may increase the risk of birth defects.
U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. ” Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 .” 7th Edition, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2010. PDF.
Duyff, Roberta Larson and American Dietetic Association. “American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide.” 6th Edition. Hoboken: Wiley & Sons, 2006. Kindle.