National Consumers League

Dietary Guidelines annotated: Where do your calories come from?


ali.jpgWith the National Nutrition Month upon us and the release of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, now is a good time to take an updated look at the American diet.

CDC statistics provide signs that some Americans may be improving their habits when it comes to physical activity and diet. 49.5 percent of U.S. adults met the federal physical activity guidelines for aerobic activity in 2015, which is up from approximately 41 percent in 2007. In addition, the number of new diabetes cases in the U.S. has been on a steady decline since the diabetes rate spiked in 2008. Notwithstanding, the nation remains focused on healthy eating habits and being more conscious about what we put into our bodies. 

Americans’ top sources of calories, according to a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), are pizza, mixed dishes, calorically-sweetened beverages and sweets, and snacks, which include many tasty foods, such as cakes and cookies. The problem could be that some Americans are not aware of–or pay too little attention to–their calorie needs or are unaware of the calories contained in the foods they eat. 

To help consumers become more diet-conscious, the Dietary Guidelines make five overarching recommendations on healthy eating patterns, including:

  1. Choose a healthy eating pattern at an appropriate calorie level (Appendix 2 provides estimated calorie needs, which range between 1,000 and 3,200 cal.) based on age, sex and physical activity);
  2. Focus on variety, nutrient density, and amount;       
  3. Limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats and reduce sodium intake;
  4. Choose nutrient-dense foods and beverages across and within all food groups in place of less healthy choices;
  5. Support healthy eating patterns in multiple settings nationwide, from home to school to work.

With the aim of shifting to healthier foods, the Guidelines suggest an intake limit of 10 percent total calories per day from added sugars. Chocolate and candy lovers should take note, the Guidelines do not say no added sugars. The Guidelines appear to take an approach consistent with NCL’s longstanding diet motto: “everything in moderation.” A 10 percent limit on added sugars means that you can indulge your sweet tooth from time to time with your favorite treat, just not all the time.

Ten percent may sound like a reasonable level, but Americans average 13 percent or more calories from added sugars per day. Per the Guidelines, high fructose corn syrup-sweetened beverages is the first place to look for added sugars–beverages account for almost half (47 percent) of all added sugars consumed by the U.S. population. Be conscious of soft drinks, fruit drinks, sweetened coffee and tea, and flavored waters. To the surprise of many, candy contributes just six percent of added sugars in the average American diet, or about one teaspoon of sugar per day. Most Americans enjoy candy about twice per week, averaging less than 50 calories per day from confectionery items–according to the most recent NHANES data, that’s only 1.9 percent of total energy. 

To reduce calorie intake from added sugars, the Dietary Guidelines provide practical suggestions, like choosing beverages with no added sugars (e.g. water), reducing portions of sugar-sweetened foods and beverages, and drinking these beverages less often. It should be noted that replacing added sugars with high-intensity sweeteners may reduce calorie intake in the short-term, yet questions remain about their effectiveness as a long-term weight management strategy.

So choose a healthy eating pattern at an appropriate calorie level, limit calories from added sugars, and choose nutrient rich foods.  But, also remember the Guidelines recognize that healthy eating patterns are “not a rigid prescription,” and should be adaptable so individuals can enjoy foods that meet their personal, cultural, and traditional preferences, including occasional treats.

In addition to moderation, NCL recommends watching portion sizes and looking at nutritional facts labels.  Food labels provide consumers with the amount of calories per serving and help us monitor and control caloric intake per the Guidelines. In fact, many food companies are responding to these needs by voluntarily putting nutritional information on the front of the label and developing new portion-controlled products. In addition to healthy eating, regular physical activity is one of the most important ways that Americans can stay healthy.

Have a happy and healthy National Nutrition Month.