New dietary guidelines: What’s good, what’s bad, what does it all mean to me?

foodRemember when eggs were bad? And coffee – really bad. Caffeine in general, cholesterol, you had to avoid it.

That was so … early 2015.

New dietary guidelines to be formally adopted later this year will represent a “paradigm shift” in our thinking on nutrition, said Kara Meeks, a dietitian at Augusta Health in Fishersville.

The new Dietary Guidelines currently undergoing review in Washington will set the tone for national food policy on food labels, school lunches and more.

The most noticeable change will come in how the guidelines view cholesterol.

“For years and years and years, we’ve heard that cholesterol is a bad guy, and actually, in more recent years, what the research has shown is that dietary cholesterol has very little impact on our own cholesterol. What really affects our own cholesterol is what our liver produces,” said Meeks, who foresees a return to good graces for foods like eggs, lobster, shrimp, and other foods high in cholesterol that ended up on the bad-guy list.

Caffeine equivalent to what you’d get in three to five cups of coffee per day is also on the good list now, the thinking now being that caffeine can reduce the risk of Type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and also protect against Parkinson’s disease.

The link between foods and mental and cognitive health is a new emphasis point in the dietary guidelines, said Meeks.

“We seem to connect food to chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure and diabetes, and we jump there immediately. But we don’t think about the foods we eat and how it could affect our cognition,” said Meeks, pointing to research that suggests a link between diet and Alzheimer’s and dementia.

“What we’re finding is generally the same recommendations that apply to limiting the other chronic illnesses also apply to the mental illnesses. So a diet that is high in vegetables and fruits, and low-fat dairy, and seafood and nuts, and lower in alcohol and lower in red and processed meat, and lower in sugar, this seems to be the best diet for our mental health,” Meeks said.

The push in the new guidelines will be on whole foods.

“What does that mean for us? Well, more vegetables, more fruits, more whole grains, low or nonfact dairy, seafood, nuts,” Meeks said. “What I often tell clients is, if it has a list of ingredients the size of your arm, that’s typically not a whole food. If you know that this came from a plant or animal, and it doesn’t have tons of added ingredients, you’re on the way to a whole food.”

Not that it’s going to be easy to change our thinking in terms of how we go about eating.

“We’re all accustomed to the grab-and-go foods because they are convenient,” Meeks said. “We’re seeing now that, wait a minute, maybe this isn’t the way to go, when half of us have one or more preventable chronic diseases, and more than two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese. Something’s not working, so maybe it is time to take a step back and say, OK, maybe I do need to plan my meals ahead. Maybe I do need to buy that crockpot, start thinking about how I can get more whole foods into the diet. That’s a big shift for a lot of us.”

So, eggs and caffeine, good, natural foods, good, processed foods, bad. Sugar … good?

“About 200 calories a day in added sugars is the recommendation,” Meeks said. “What that would look like is a 16-ounce soda, or three-quarters of a glazed doughnut.”

That’s saying, no, not good, for added sugars. Not sugars in fresh fruits, but the processed sugars in soft drinks and off-the-shelf snacks.

“Unfortunately if you look at our diets right now, a lot of our foods are so highly processed that sugar is not a sometimes food for many of us,” Meeks said. “Getting people to start reading those labels and looking for those words and thinking, hey, wait a minute, the first ingredient in this is actually sugar.

“That’s a shift for people’s brains. We look at a label and will see something like, low-fat and cholesterol-free, but then you turn it over, and the first ingredient is sugar. Not necessarily the best way to go.”

One other shift in thinking will be in the area of meats. The new guidelines recommend a diet lower in red and processed meat, which has raised a bit of a political controversy, not surprisingly, from the beef industry.

“I think what we need to understand with that statement is lower in red and processed meat, not no, not completely void of,” Meeks said. “And when we talk about processed meat, we’re talking about your sandwich meats, your sausages, things that have a lot of additives, and specifically have a lot of sodium.

“We’re not saying no red meat, just less, and to look at the cuts you’re choosing, looking for lean red meats, loins, rounds, which tend to be lower in fat. Specifically the saturated fat is the focus.”

– Story by Chris Graham

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