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Do New Food Rules Make or Miss the Mark?

A new set of Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) was unveiled on Monday, January 31, 2011. These new food rules, issued every 5 years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), are designed to promote health, prevent disease, and create the foundation for federal nutrition programs. In anticipation of the new guidelines, I asked registered dietitians around the country about their hopes for the new guidelines (read the blog here). Read on to find out what wishes came true, and where the guidelines fall short in the eyes of some experts.

Counting Calories

Karen Ansel, MS, RD, a Syosset, New York-based spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association says “The new dietary guidelines definitely granted my wish! They send a clear message that calorie control is the key to weight loss.”

The new guidelines highlight the fact that to achieve and maintain a healthier body weight, and to be healthier overall, we need to consume only enough calories from foods and beverages to meet our needs. To reduce obesity and overweight, it states the obvious (though something that’s easier said than done)—that we need to cut calories in the diet and at the same time, burn more calories through increased amounts of physical activity.

Not All Sugars the Same

Janel Ovrut, MS, RD, LDN, a Boston-based dietitian, wanted the new guidelines to highlight the difference between natural and added sugars. According to Ovrut, “The guidelines noted that solid fats and added sugars (called SoFAs) make up about 35% of calories in the American diet, but they don’t provide any information about the difference between added and natural sources (for example, added sugars are found in candy, soda, and baked goods, and natural sugars are found in milk and fruit). Most Americans don’t realize how much added sugar lurks in seemingly innocent foods like tomato sauce or bread. While the guidelines recommend cutting back on added sugar, consumers may still not be entirely clear where it comes from in their diets. So I guess my wish didn’t totally come true this time around – and that we dietitians have our work cut out for us when educating clients and consumers about sugar!”

Positive Push for Plants

Hoping to see more of a focus on plant sources of protein, Connie Diekman, M.Ed, RD, LD, FADA,
 Director of University Nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri was not disappointed. “I’m happy to see a section called “Building Healthy Eating Patterns” that lists sources of plant protein and how much is needed in a 2000 calorie eating plan for both vegans and lacto-ovo vegetarians. This is a first step in helping people who want to choose plant proteins know how what and how much to choose” says Diekman, a past president of the American Dietetic Association.

Hoping for more of an emphasis on vegetables, New York City-based registered dietitian Tammy Lakatos Shames said she was quite pleased that vegetables weren’t overlooked. She especially liked that the recommendations went as far as to emphasize consuming a variety of specific colored vegetables.

The new guidelines also encourage us to “make half our plate come from fruits and vegetables” which can go a long way in increasing consumption to about 3.5 to 4.5 cups a day—the amount most of us need daily.

Focused on Fiber

Hope Warshaw, MMSc, RD, CDE, from Alexandria, Virginia, was hoping the new guidelines would reinforce the importance of getting enough dietary fiber primarily through increased intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. She says “The new dietary guidelines recommendation to choose foods that provide more potassium, dietary fiber, calcium, and vitamin D, which are nutrients of concern in American diets comes pretty darn close to making my wish come to life. But what will really make my wish come true is if Americans turn this key recommendation into action one step at a time—for example, by having one more serving of vegetables or another piece of fruit, by choosing whole grain bread, pasta, and cereal, and by sipping one more cup of milk each day.”

A Grainy Situation

Nour El-Zibdeh, RD, from Fairfax, Virginia had hoped the guidelines would recommend only whole grains (instead of whole grains alongside refined grains). The 2005 guidelines asked Americans to make half their grains whole, and El-Zibdeh didn’t think that went far enough in promoting nutrient-dense whole grains.

She says “I’m disappointed that the new guidelines continue to recommend half–not all–the grains we consume to come from whole sources. They do, however, consider fiber to be one of the “nutrients of concern” in the average American diet, and many (though not all) whole grain foods are good sources of fiber.” Although she doesn’t feel the guidelines go far enough, she’s pleased that they ask Americans to limit their intake of foods that contain refined grains, especially since many refined grain foods contain a lot of solid fats, added sugars, and sodium.

Going Vegetarian

New York City based dietitian Rachel Berman, RD, CSR, CDN wanted the guidelines to provide more concrete examples for those who follow vegetarian or vegan diets. She says “The new guidelines outline that they’ve done research on the health benefits of a vegetarian diet, and specifically on the protein-rich foods people need. They also mention that beans and grains are sources of protein. However, all this information is buried deep within the guidelines. In months to come, the government will release more consumer-friendly materials to bring the guidelines to life. Hopefully, messages specific to those who consume vegetarian diets will be more prominent, and that the consumer materials will be marketed in a way that inspires and excites consumers to make real changes in what and how they eat.”

More Power to Potassium

Hoping the guidelines would highlight potassium, Marisa Moore, MBA, RD, LD, an Atlanta, Georgia-based spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, says “Although sodium stole the spotlight, I’m happy to see that potassium made the list of nutrients to increase in the diet. I also like that the guidelines include a user-friendly appendix of food sources of potassium. People need to know that bananas aren’t the only good sources of potassium! Seeing examples of other potassium-rich foods and beverages is the first step to consuming them.”

What are your thoughts about the new dietary guidelines? Check them out here.

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About The Author

Elisa Zied is a nationally recognized and award-winning health and nutrition expert, author, speaker, and spokesperson. A trusted source of food, nutrition, and health information, Elisa has garnered millions of media impressions, lending her expertise and real-world perspective to dozens of TV shows, web sites, news organizations and magazines. She’s the author of four nutrition books. An avid walker, she loves motivating others to #moveitorloseit. A book lover, she recently earned a certificate in children’s literature from Stony Brook Southampton and is currently working on several young adult novels. You can find her previous Food, Fitness & Fiction posts here and connect with her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.