Every 5 years, the USDA Dietary Guidelines update sparks controversy, and this year’s version is no exception. David Katz, MD, director of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, calls them a “plate full of politics.” He writes:
"Dietary Guidelines for Americans" sure sounds like: Here is what experts think Americans should eat. But that is not true. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report is what experts think Americans ought to eat. The DGs are what politicians think the American Public ought to be told, and do, about what the scientists actually think.1
Dr. Katz makes an excellent point; it’s important to consider the context behind crafting these guidelines. That said, there are still positive messages to glean from them and to weave into our work as well-being practitioners.
Good for Everyone
The actual guidelines are vague; most people need details and practical examples to make everyday choices that lead to better health. With a big shift away from added sugar and toward leaner protein sources, the document’s Key Recommendations are sensible for everyone, and offer specifics to share with wellness participants:
- Choose wisely. Eating a variety of foods rich in nutrients gives you the best opportunity for health and well-being.
- Cut back on sugar. Aim for less than 10% of total calories a day from added sugar. That’s about 50 grams — or 12-1/2 teaspoons — for a daily meal plan of 2000 calories.
- Trim the saturated fat. Aim for less than 10% of total calories a day from saturated fat; that’s less than 22 grams for 2000 calories.
- Slash salt. Limit sodium to less than 2300 mg a day.
A few simple ways to communicate these recommendations to your population:
- Move toward a whole-foods, plant-based diet.
- If you eat meat, choose lean, less-processed varieties.
- Read labels to reduce sugar, saturated fat, and sodium.
- Satisfy your sweet tooth with fresh fruit.
- Prepare more meals at home; use herbs and spices instead of salt.
- Substitute water — or other unsweetened beverages — for sugary drinks.
Nutrition at Work
There’s no doubt about it: nutrition is a popular topic among wellness participants. People eagerly share the latest smoothie recipe on Pinterest or the new 21-day plan that cuts out an entire macronutrient group but promises flat abs in 3 weeks without exercise. You don’t have time to scour nutrition journals every day; how can you encourage food choices that lead to optimal well-being? Keeping it simple is your best strategy — try these tips:
- Focus on produce. If people do nothing more than eat 5 or more daily fruit and vegetable servings, they’ll make huge strides in feeling better now and preventing chronic conditions later. Make this message crystal clear; show participants in practical ways that with a little planning, it’s not that hard to add more produce to their meal plans. For ideas, read our free white paper, Produce First: The Compelling Case for Simplifying Workplace Nutrition.
- Encourage meatless meals. Experimenting with meatless entrees goes hand in hand with a focus on produce. While the guidelines still include lean meats, research is clear that processed meats — many of which are lean — cause cancer2, and we want people to eat fewer carcinogens, right? Resistance to vegetarian and vegan dishes is certainly out there, but many people are pleasantly surprised once they taste a hearty bowl of black bean chili or lentil sloppy joes. Vegetarian potlucks, recipe-sharing challenges, and more meatless entrees in the cafeteria are easy ways to help people sample and assimilate plant-based foods.
- Foster flexibility. Rigid tactics (like obsessively tracking specific nutrients or eliminating added sugar) are popular, but not sustainable. An all-or-nothing mindset leads to all-or-nothing behavior, with participants throwing in the towel after a minor slip. Show people how to work favorite treats into a healthy meal plan with smaller, less frequent portions and how to recover quickly when they get off track.
- Be a myth-buster. Gluten-free diets offer zero benefits to people without celiac disease, gluten intolerance, or gluten sensitivity. Juicing strips produce of fiber and key nutrients, and is not a path to lasting weight loss. High-protein diets are not a healthful choice. The list goes on. Facts are sometimes inconvenient, and nutrition misinformation spreads like wildfire. So include myth-busting messages in your wellness communications at every opportunity.
Understanding and communicating applied nutrition science are vital to our effectiveness as well-being practitioners and the health of the people we serve. Make the most of the latest guidelines by zeroing in on their useful, practical content. Expand your reading list to include a variety of nutrition science resources. And keep the guidelines in perspective — lots of people all over the world who live long, healthy lives have never heard of them.
1 Katz D, What’s That Smell? That Which We Call “Dietary Guidelines,” Huffington Post, January 11, 2016, www.huffingtonpost.com/david-katz-md/whats-that-smell-that-whi_b_8950102.html
2 World Health Organization, Q&A on the Carcinogenicity of the Consumption of Red Meat and Processed Meat, October 2015, www.who.int.features/qa/cancer-red-meat/en/.