With every new year, come new New Year’s Resolutions, which typically involve our desire to get in better shape. To that end, the new Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020 published last week by the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion make a lot of sense and present some easy-to-grasp “do’s” and “don’ts” for everyone seeking to nurture health through nutrition. The new guidelines are aimed at reversing national and local trends toward obesity, diabetes, fatty liver, and diseases of the heart and blood vessels.
Since the human species has been consuming eggs for 200,000 years, the guide’s more liberal attitude toward their consumption makes sense. The suggestion to rely less on meat and more on beans, nuts, seeds, and eggs for protein also makes sense, at least to anyone who knows the relative costs of these food items. Finally, the recommendation to reduce intake of both sugar and salt presents a very clear and targeted way for all of us to improve our health in a focused manner.
The invitation to eat more eggs comes as welcome news while at first sounding a bit counterintuitive. For years experts in cardiovascular medicine believed that cholesterol was the main ingredient that clogged blood vessels and caused strokes and heart attacks. Since eggs are high in cholesterol, the long-prevailing view has thus been that eggs should be a very limited part of our diets.
In recent years however, scientists have shown that there is no such direct link between egg cholesterol and blood cholesterol. So at long last, we can sit back, enjoy some huevos rancheros, and thank a scientist.
On the other hand, the recommendation to shift our sources of proteins from meat to fish, eggs, beans, nuts, and seeds is a bit more subtle and controversial. Some health experts have said this recommendation should be more aggressive to limit the consumption of red and processed meats.
“I am disappointed that the USDA once again is cutting out recommendations to truly limit red meat intake,”Barry Popkin, a nutrition researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told NPR.
While the powerful beef lobby may have something to do with that, the takeaway remains one that most Texans would probably rather not hear: eat less meat. It’s time to mix in some fish tacos and red snapper Veracruzana and leave the bacon out of our charro beans.
The guide’s focus on sugar reduction is quite timely as Bexar County is one of many counties engaged in efforts to reduce consumption of sugary drinks. Since 1980, obesity has doubled while morbid obesity and type II, or adult, diabetes have quadrupled. These epidemic trends are paralleled by a huge increase in sugar consumption.
The average U.S. diet now includes 80 pounds of added sugar per person per year. One half of it flows in the form of liquid sugar – soda and other sugary beverages. The new dietary guidelines recognize this phenomenon and, for the first time, urge that sugar be limited to no more than 10% of total calorie intake, which is about 200 calories per day, 12 teaspoons or the amount of sugar contained in a regular soda.
Thus, if you drink one soda every day, any additional sugary treat such as a muffin, an ice-cream cone, most breakfast cereal, or pan dulce, will push you over the recommended limit. Although the guidelines don’t spell it out, the solution is obvious: consider kicking the can. Take a look at how much sugar is in your favorite beverages. Then ask yourself: “Is my drink sugar-packed?”
Kicking the can is especially relevant right now in San Antonio. Earlier this month at a Bexar Sugary Beverage Coalition press conference hosted by Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, Dr. Bryan Alsip of University Health System reported that after the dramatic improvements a few years ago, 64% of San Antonians still drink soda every day and obesity has shot back up to 34% of the adult population.
Dr. Robert Ferrer, president of the Bexar County Health Collaborative, called on the entire community to get engaged in reducing consumption of sugary drinks. Judge Wolff suggested very concretely that we should either “go small” and substitute water for at least one soda per day, “go big” and cut out soda completely, or go somewhere in between, like he is doing by limiting himself to no more than three sodas per week.
San Antonio residents can learn more about how much sugar is in their drinks by visiting www.sugar-packed.com and using the interactive sugar calculator, and can join the conversation on Twitter at #sugarpackeddrinks. I was recently hired as medical director at Interlex, a marketing and communications firm that produced the Sugar Packed campaign.
Over the past few decades, traditional diets have been replaced by thousands of unhealthy food and drink products, available everywhere and heavily marketed to the poor, poorly educated, and children, as well as to Hispanics and African-Americans through targeted media and celebrity endorsements.
Life expectancy in the U. S., after 150 years of increase, is starting to decline. Billions of dollars are being wasted on treating preventable chronic diseases. About 20% of male military recruits, and 40% of female recruits, are rejected for being too heavy. Highly diverse cities like San Antonio are most adversely affected because of the disproportionate disease burden shouldered by our majority Hispanic community.
Our species is evolving in reverse. The time to act is now. The new Dietary Guidelines can help direct our shared efforts to become healthier as individuals and as a community, bringing a common-sense approach to achieving a healthier balance in what we eat and drink.
*Top Image: Baked eggs with toast from Rosella Coffee. Photo by Scott Ball.