They've Got To Be Kidding!
The US Dietary Guidelines don't seem to do a lot for Americans. Twenty-five years ago, the government began issuing these guiding principles to keep us healthy and fit, yet today we are flabbier than ever. This past January, the government took another crack at whipping us into shape, and, for the first time, emphasized weight control as well as healthy eating. The new guidelines recommend that we eat lots more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat milk... lay off the sugar, salt and trans fats... and exercise for as much as an hour-and-a-half a day. Nothing too new here, other than the exercise advice... and since I'm one of the most dedicated exercisers I know and find it hard to squeeze in just one half-hour daily -- my reaction to the recommendation was, "They've got to be kidding." To get some expert advice on the new guidelines, I spoke with Loren Cordain, PhD, a professor of health and exercise science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, and Wayne Westcott, PhD, exercise physiologist at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Massachusetts.
What to Eat and Do...
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
What the new guidelines say: Five a day is not enough. The new guidelines stress the need for nine daily servings of fresh fruits and vegetables. Examples of one serving...
One medium-sized fruit, 1/2 cup raw, cooked, frozen or canned fruits (in 100% juice) or vegetables
3/4 cup (6 ounces) 100% fruit or vegetable juice
1/2 cup cooked, canned or frozen legumes (beans and peas)
1/4 cup dried fruit
1 cup raw, leafy vegetables.
Our experts respond: Excellent advice. Although this may seem like a lot of fruits and veggies to pack into one day, it's easy to do if you make fresh produce a part of every meal. Sprinkle berries or sliced bananas on your whole-grain breakfast cereal... for lunch, enjoy a hearty salad... snack on baby carrots or red pepper strips... whip up a smoothie using a frozen banana instead of ice... and at dinner, sneak more fresh vegetables into a pasta or stir fry.
What the new guidelines say: Consume three or more 1-ounce servings of whole grains daily. Generally speaking, at least half the grains you eat each day should be whole grains.
Our experts respond: Whole-grain products are clearly a healthier choice than products made from refined white flour. This means opting for brown rice instead of white rice, whole-grain instead of white bread, oatmeal or ready-to-eat cereal that lists a whole grain as its first ingredient rather than processed breakfast cereals. That said, Dr. Cordain believes that we generally place too great an emphasis on grains in the American diet and should focus more on eating fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meat and seafood. Choose "alternative carbs" from beans, seeds, nuts and legumes.
What the new guidelines say: Consume three cups a day of fat-free or low-fat milk, or an equivalent amount of yogurt or cheese.
Our experts respond: According to Dr. Cordain, there is way too much lobbying power behind the famous milk mustache, and dairy products are both overtouted and overrated. He notes that milk is less nutrient-dense than fresh fruits and vegetables (a better dietary choice all around) and difficult for many people to digest. Thus, calcium and magnesium are not easily absorbed and there is virtually no nutritional benefit. In a recent study at Colorado State University, healthy young people who drank a glass of milk experienced an insulin surge identical to that from eating a slice of white bread. (Read more about this research in an upcoming article.)
What the new guidelines say: Exercise at a moderate to intense level for at least 30 minutes most days of the week. To prevent weight gain or sustain weight loss, the new guidelines up the ante even further to 60 minutes to 90 minutes daily.
Our experts respond: How many people realistically have the time or inclination to fit in that much exercise? Dr. Westcott has a better solution. Noting that intensity and effort count as much as the duration of exercise, he points out that the harder you work, the more calories you burn. For example, 90 minutes of walking and 30 minutes of running burn the same number of calories (about 600). Do not overlook the importance of strength training in your workouts. Thirty minutes on the Nautilus circuit burns more calories (about 240) than walking for 30 minutes (about 200). Dr. Westcott recommends that you fit in three 30-minute sessions of strength training weekly as well as at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise daily. Keep in mind that other activities -- using the stairs instead of the elevator, walking instead of driving, cleaning the house and mowing the lawn -- all add up.
One other consideration with regard to the new exercise recommendations for those who need to lose weight: Losing weight is a simple equation. If you eat more calories than you burn each day, you gain weight. Eat fewer and lose weight. So, it stands to reason that the 60/90 minutes of exercise recommended for weight loss can be softened by watching your caloric intake as well. WHAT TO AVOID
What the new guidelines say: Choose and prepare foods and beverages with little added sugars.
Our experts respond: There's not a lot of muscle here, and our experts are not alone in seeing the fine hand of the sugar industry behind this relatively toothless recommendation. On the other hand, the final recommendation is actually stronger than the one in the preliminary advisory committee report, which said only to choose carbohydrates wisely. Soft drinks are among the worst sugar culprits, and you are best off replacing them whenever possible with a tall glass of good old-fashioned water.
What the new guidelines say: Limit your intake of saturated and trans fats, and keep your total fat intake to 20% to 35% of calories. Most fats should come from sources of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, such as fish, nuts and vegetable oils.
Our experts respond: Dr. Cordain believes that the guidelines could have been much clearer about outlining the differences between good fats and bad fats. In particular, most nutritionists go much further and recommend the complete elimination of trans fats -- those artery-clogging partially hydrogenated oils that are nearly ubiquitous in foods from chicken nuggets and french fries to cookies and crackers. Dr. Cordain also would have liked to see more emphasis placed on the importance of healthy fats in the diet -- for example, a recommendation that we eat omega-3-rich deepwater fish, such as salmon and mackerel, at least twice a week.
What the new guidelines say: Consume less than one teaspoon of sodium a day. Choose and prepare foods with less salt.
Our experts respond: If you're at risk of high blood pressure and are salt sensitive, it's a good idea to limit salt. Check the sodium content of any processed foods you eat -- you'd be surprised at how much salt sneaks into your body by that route. But remember, consuming too little salt can be lethal. Don't assume that less is better.
In short, Americans have a long way to go to get back into shape. Flawed though they may be, the new guidelines are a step in the right direction.