Making Sense of New Government Dietary Guidelines

Holisti c health coach Stacy Peterson advises a client. Photo: Stacy Peterson

We eat because we are hungry. We eat because we are depressed. We eat because it’s time to eat. We eat because everyone else is eating. We eat because we are stressed. We eat because it tastes good. Whatever the reason, everyone has to eat. Nourishing our bodies keeps us alive. What we choose to eat contributes to how well we live, function, sleep, and stay disease-free.

Last month the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) released updated dietary guidelines that incorporate the latest scientific research to help us understand how to make better food choices. The guidelines “encourage healthy eating patterns to prevent chronic diseases” and reflect advancements in scientific understanding that connect healthy eating choices with health outcomes over a lifetime. They focus on eating patterns as a whole – not on individual nutrients or foods in isolation, but on variety and consistency.

HHS says it wants to empower us through tools we need to make healthy choices. However, the information can be overwhelming. What are healthy eating, nutrient-dense foods, and “good oils”? How do I figure out if I’m eating less than 2,300 milligrams per day of sodium? What do the recommendations mean when they say we should get less than 10 percent of our calories per day from added sugars? Am I getting less than 10 percent of my calories from saturated fat?

I talked to Stacy Peterson, a holistic health coach and nutrition educator on the Hill, about practical ways in which we can apply this guidance. Peterson has an undergraduate degree in kinesiology and a master’s of science in human nutrition and functional medicine. She was a competitive swimmer and a strength and conditioning coach at American University and the University of San Diego.

“You have to figure out what works for you,” she explained – “your genetic makeup, your body type, your goals, your tastes, your lifestyle, and your health needs. It’s about balance and moderation. We can all make small changes that can positively affect our physical and mental health through good food choices.” Simple things, like eating protein for breakfast instead of carbohydrates, “can affect how we feel and function during the day. It’s like throwing a log onto a fire instead of burning paper. The log burns slower and longer.”

Nutrient-Dense Foods

One of the guidelines suggests eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods. “They are foods that have vitamins and minerals in them that allow cells to function optimally,” said Peterson. “They also help eliminate toxins from the body.” For example, she suggested eating dark green leafy vegetables, root vegetables, avocados, tomatoes, and things that are colorful such as peppers, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower. Sweet potatoes are better than white potatoes, she noted, because white potatoes cause a spike in your glycemic index (blood sugar level).

Salt

Do I consume more than 2,300 milligrams of salt per day? I have no idea what that looks like. “I recommend about one teaspoon of salt per day,” Peterson said. “Whether you are eating chips or shaking it onto your eggs it doesn’t take much to get to one teaspoon.” She said because of the high amount of processed foods we are consuming – 80 percent of the salt that we consume comes from processed foods – we are getting the wrong kind of salt. “We need salt. It regulates our blood pressure and helps the brain communicate with our muscles so we can physically move. We don’t want to cut out salt completely.”

However, what kind of salt you are using makes a big difference. “Pink Himalayan salt is precious salt that’s been cured under extreme pressure. It has less sodium chloride and more natural trace minerals such as phosphorus and vanadium which our bodies need – about 15 percent more than table salt, which adds man-made minerals.”

Sugar

When the guidelines recommend consuming less that 10 percent of calories per day of added sugars, it means sugars and syrups that are added to foods or beverages when they are processed or prepared. This does not include naturally occurring sugars in foods such as fruit and milk. “You have to read ingredients lists,” said Peterson. “You would be surprised at what has added sugar.” I took her advice and picked up a bag of potato chips and read the label, which stated “2 grams of sugar.” Salt and/or sugar are added to many foods that are boxed or canned.

Oils and Saturated Fat

Guidelines recommend consuming less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fats that can be found in foods such as whole milk, butter, meats, and tropical oils such as palm and coconut. I was confused. Are these foods not good for us? “Not all saturated fats and oils are equal,” said Peterson. “Not one oil is great for everything.” The question, she said, is, “How are we eating the oil?” For example, olive oil should be cooked on very low heat or no heat. However, butter and coconut oil are good when cooking with high heat. Explained Peterson, “Canola oil, safflower oil, and sunflower oil are not suitable to be used with high heat. They smoke, which is a sign of decomposition, and become rancid. Yet those are the oils used in most processed foods because they are less expensive.”

Proteins

The guidelines suggest eating a variety of protein foods regularly. Not all protein is the same. “Lean meat from animals that are grass fed and/or organic are preferable,” according to Peterson. “If you buy from a local butcher find out where they get the meat.”  

Embracing the connection between nutrition and the prevention of chronic conditions such as obesity, type-2 diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease is a challenge. It requires self-awareness and knowledge of “good” foods. It requires diligence for reading labels and being open to new scientific approaches and discoveries as well as having patience with yourself while discovering the unique way in which to eat healthy.

For more detailed information on the dietary guidelines go to www.dietaryguidelines.gov.

For assistance in developing a personal healthy eating plan contact stacypeterson@accelerationsports.netor call her at 805-704-7193.

Pattie Cinelli is a holistic health and fitness personal trainer and yoga and Pilates instructor who started writing this column more than 20 years ago. She writes about leading-edge health and fitness experts and programs that can assist Capitol Hill residents in living well. You can email her with column ideas or questions at fitness@pattiecinelli.com.


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