Added sugars and alcohol are not good for you, but diet guidelines unchanged

This week’s release of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans came with less build-up than normal. But, the guidelines are drawing reactions from mild to wild.

The 5-year update, a joint production of the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS), was carried out without all the usual personal contacts because of the pandemic.

“During the unveiling of the dietary guidelines, USDA and HHS data showed the sad reality that Americans’ eating habits haven’t changed for the better, despite decades of similar guidelines,” said Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the United Fresh Produce Association. “But today’s reality facing the COVID-19 pandemic brings greater urgency than ever before.

“We know that diet-related conditions such as obesity and diabetes put people at greater risk of severe dieting leading to long-term chronic diseases. Now, we see clearly that healthy eating is a critical defense against communicable diseases such as coronavirus.”

First issued in 1980, Stenzel says the updated dietary guidelines “mostly repeat what we already know about healthy eating.” He says now is the time for the political will to implement the advice in federal food programs.

Jessi Silverman, policy associate at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) expressed disappointment that USDA and HHS failed to make greater cutbacks in added sugars as the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended.

“While it is disappointing that this edition of the dietary guidelines misses the mark on added sugars, people in the U.S. ultimately need much more than advice;” says  Silverman. “CSPI urges the incoming administration to remove barriers to healthy eating in our stores, restaurants, and institutions, and to implement policies that actually help Americans eat according to the guidelines.”

The advisory committee recommended that individuals more than 2 years of age should consume less than 6 percent of their total calories from added sugars, but the 2020-25 dietary guidelines stick with 10 percent from earlier editions.  

“There is no question that individuals would benefit from reducing their intake of added sugars to less than 10 percent, but they would benefit more by consuming less than 6 percent,” Silverman added.

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) liked the new guidelines for its endorsement of a “dietary pattern rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks,” but AICR was disappointed with its treatment of alcohol.

AICR leaders accuse USDA and HHS of bowing to “industry pressure” by not reducing the two-drink-a-day limit for men. Reducing the limit to one alcoholic beverage on days when alcohol is consumed was suggested by the advisory committee.

“The scientific report from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee found that the current evidence justifies tightening the alcohol guideline for men to no more than one drink per day, to match the recommended limit for women,“ AICR’s reaction statement says. “AICR recommends that, for cancer prevention, it list not to drink alcohol.”

AICR also favored the lower intake of added sugars and choosing unprocessed meats as diets high in red and processed meats come with the risk of colorectal cancer.

Meanwhile, the Boston-based organization known as Government Accountability is also critical of the reversals of recommendations on added sugars and alcohol for adults but holds its biggest criticisms for the process. It says scientists with ties to industry groups like the International Life Sciences Institute got nominated to the Guidelines advisory committee. It also contends that draft recommendations were “seemingly informed, in part, by a plethora of industry comments” and that the range of special interest lobbying will only become known when disclosure reports are filed.

“The political, special interest swamp can’t be allowed to continue making the United States a junk food haven and public health disaster,” says Ashka Naik, Government Accountability’s research director. “It’s time to radically reform how D.C. operates to favor scientific integrity, eliminate conflicts of interests and revealing doors, and put our health first.”

The group claims 75 percent of the advisory committee had industry ties and that it failed to reach conclusions on 24 of 80 topics.

For the first time, the 2020-25 dietary guidelines included recommended healthy diets for infants and toddlers.

“At USDA and HHS, we work to serve the American people – to help every American thrive and live healthier lives through access to healthy foods and providing nutrition recommendations,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. “With the release of the dietary guidelines, we have taken a very important step to provide nutrition guidance that can help all Americans lead healthier lives by making every bite count.”

Dietary Guidelines for Americans is the nation’s trusted resource for evidence-based nutrition guidance. The guidelines are designed for use by healthcare professionals and policymakers for outreach to the general public and provide the nutritional foundation for federal nutrition programs. The dietary guidelines should not be considered clinical guidelines for the treatment of disease.

The science tells us that good nutrition leads to better health outcomes, and the new dietary guidelines use the best available evidence to give Americans the information they need to make healthy decisions for themselves and their families,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar. “USDA and HHS have expanded this edition of the dietary guidelines to provide new guidance for infants, toddlers, and pregnant and breastfeeding women, helping all Americans to improve their health, no matter their age or life stage.”

As always, the new guidelines build on the previous editions and were informed by the scientific report developed by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, along with comments from the public and input from federal agencies. USDA and HHS thanked the committee for its work and dedication during the past 15 months, providing the departments with a comprehensive scientific review and proposal of overarching recommendations, a highly regarded step of critical importance in dietary guidelines development. USDA and HHS also made transparency a priority in this edition and expressed appreciation for the many public comments that were received throughout this process.

The new guidelines provide the public with the most up-to-date evidence on dietary behaviors that promote health and may help prevent chronic disease. Reportedly “steeped in scientific evidence,” the key recommendations look similar to those of the past and address two topics that garnered much attention throughout the development of the guidelines – the issues involving added sugars and alcoholic beverages.

Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 carries forward the committee’s emphasis on limiting these dietary components but did not include changes to quantitative recommendations, as USDA and HHS reported there was not a preponderance of evidence in the material the committee reviewed to support specific changes, as required by law.

The MyPlate graphic was developed by government as a tool-at-a-glance for meal planning.

As in previous editions, limited intake of added sugar and alcoholic beverages is encouraged. In fact, this sentiment remains prominent throughout the policy document and complements the four overarching guidelines, which encourage Americans to “Make Every Bite Count” by:

  • Following a healthy dietary pattern at every life stage.
  • Customizing and enjoying nutrient-dense food and beverage choices to reflect personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgetary considerations.
  • Focusing on meeting food group needs with nutrient-dense foods and beverages from five food groups – vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy and fortified soy alternatives, and proteins – and staying within calorie limits.
  • Limiting foods and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, and limiting alcoholic beverages.

For consumers, USDA’s MyPlate translates and packages these principles of dietary guidance for Americans in a way that the government claims is handy and accessible. To share these messages broadly, USDA offers the Start Simple with MyPlate campaign and a new MyPlate website to help individuals, families, and communities make healthy food choices that are easy, accessible, and affordable, in addition to helping prevent chronic disease. For more information,  visit www.myplate.gov.

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