Dietary Guidelines help you control your weight, improve your health

By Terese Scollard, M.B.A., R.D., L.D., regional clinical nutrition manager for Providence Nutrition Services

Eat more seafood; fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables; switch to fat-free or low-fat milk; nix the sugary beverages; watch the sodium; and enjoy your food, but less of it – these are some of the key recommendations of the newly updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Produced collaboratively by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, the Dietary Guidelines are updated every five years based on the most current scientific evidence about diet and health. (Skeptical? The USDA's online Nutrition Evidence Library is a terrific new feature that lets you explore specific topics and see the evidence for yourself.)

The 2010 update, released Jan. 31, 2011, offers an evidence-based road map for how to eat if you want to be leaner, healthier, and less likely to develop heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other serious diseases. It focuses on two essential concepts: balancing calories (eating no more calories than you can burn in a day) and eating more "nutrient-dense" foods (making sure that the calories you do consume are rich in high-quality nutrition). Here is a summary of the recommendations:

Keep your calories in balance

Maintaining your current weight requires an even balance between the number of calories you take in each day, through food and beverages, and the number of calories you expend, through exercise and your normal daily activities. When you eat more calories than you use, you tip the balance toward weight gain. To lose the extra weight, you need to tip the balance the other way, by eating less and exercising more, eventually bringing your "calories in" and "calories out" back into an even balance.

The Dietary Guidelines offer these suggestions to help achieve calorie balance:

  • Avoid oversized portions: serve smaller amounts at home, and share entrées in restaurants. (Another idea: use smaller plates when dishing up at home.)
  • Choose nutritious foods: eat foods that deliver more nutrition and fewer calories (covered in the next section).
  • Exercise: get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week. (For great ideas on how to incorporate more activity into your daily life, read Get up and march.) For kids 6 and older, the recommendation is to get at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day.
  • Sit less, move more: reduce the amount of time that you and your kids spend in sedentary activities. Limit screen time – on TVs, computers and video games – to an hour or two per day.

Eat more nutrient-dense foods

Americans get way too many – more than one-third – of our calories from solid fats, added sugars and refined grains. These foods supply a lot of calories with very little nutrition. They either replace the foods we should be eating, resulting in poor nutrition, or are eaten in addition to healthy foods, resulting in too many calories taken in.

For better health, weight management and calorie balance, the Dietary Guidelines recommend eating fewer foods that are high in calories and low in nutrition, and more nutrient-dense foods – foods that pack in lots of nutrition without unnecessary "empty" calories. Specifically:

Eat more of these foods:

  • Vegetables and fruits – they should take up half your plate, and should include a wide variety, especially dark-green, red and orange vegetables, and legumes such as black beans, pinto beans, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), split peas and lentils.
  • Low-fat dairy – switch to fat-free or low-fat (1 percent) milk, yogurt, cheese and other dairy products. (Although 2 percent milk sounds low in fat, one cup of 2 percent is the equivalent of a cup of skim milk plus a teaspoon of butter.) If you prefer soymilk, choose a fat-free or low-fat option.
  • Whole grains – at least half of the grains you eat should be whole grains. Great choices include brown or wild rice, quinoa, bulgur, oatmeal, whole-grain pasta, and breads and cereals that list "whole wheat" or "whole grain" as the first ingredient. (Beware of phrases like "multi-grain" and "100 percent wheat," which sound healthy, but may not include any whole grains. When in doubt, check the Nutrition Facts label – the best whole-grain foods deliver at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.)
  • Lean proteins – to minimize saturated fat, choose lean sources of protein, such as seafood (see next item), leaner cuts of meat, poultry without skin, eggs, beans and peas (the dried kind, not the green kind), tofu and other soy products, and nuts and seeds (unsalted).
  • Seafood – fish contains oils rather than solid fats, and it provides beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, so eat a wider variety of seafood, and eat it more often in place of some meat and poultry. Aim for at least 8 ounces per week. Good choices include salmon, anchovies, herring, sardines, trout, Pacific oysters, and Atlantic and Pacific mackerel (but not king mackerel, which may contain high levels of mercury). Fried fish does not count as a healthy choice!
  • Healthy fats – use oils, such as olive oil and canola oil, instead of solid fats, such as butter and lard, whenever possible in cooking. Many plant foods, such as nuts, seeds, olives and avocados, also supply healthy unsaturated fats while adding flavor, texture, and important vitamins and minerals to your meals.
  • Foods that deliver potassium, fiber, calcium and vitamin D – many Americans don't get enough of these nutrients. They can be found in many of the foods already recommended, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains and fortified milk products.

Eat less of these foods:

  • Sodium – Americans consume far too much sodium in the form of table salt and the sodium found in processed and cured foods. Sodium increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and kidney disease. People 50 and younger should cut their intake to less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium daily. The new guidelines further recommend cutting sodium to 1,500 milligrams daily for people 51 and older, African Americans of all ages, and people with high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney problems. To reduce sodium, read the Nutrition Facts labels on soups, frozen dinners, other prepared foods, breads and pastries – the sources of most dietary sodium. Choose those with the least sodium, and pay attention to your daily total – it adds up quickly. Eat more fresh foods and home-cooked meals, and keep added salts to a minimum – table salt, sea salt and other gourmet salts all contain sodium in a concentrated form.
  • Sugary drinks – sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks, juices and sweetened fruit drinks account for nearly half of the added sugars in the American diet. Drink water instead, and say goodbye to hundreds of unnecessary calories every day.
  • Saturated fats – less than 10 percent of your calories should come from saturated fats, the kind found mainly in animal products such as fatty cuts of meat, bacon, sausage, ribs, poultry skin, butter, lard, whole milk and other high-fat dairy products. Check the Nutrition Facts label, and keep saturated fat to a maximum of 12 to 20 grams total per day, depending on your personal calorie needs – figure about 1 gram for every 100 calories.
  • Trans fats – avoid trans fats as much as possible by eliminating foods that contain partially hydrogenated oils. These oils are found often in packaged crackers and cookies, fried foods, donuts and pastries.
  • Other foods that contain solid fats – rounding out the fatty foods already mentioned, these may include baked desserts, pizza, full-fat cheese and fried potatoes.
  • Foods that contain added sugars – in addition to sugary beverages, these include cookies, cakes, pies, candy, ice cream and other sweetened desserts, as well as many sweetened cereals. Limit these foods to about 100 to 150 calories per day, depending on your total personal calorie needs.
  • Dietary cholesterol – found in animal products such as eggs (specifically, the yolks), chicken and beef, dietary cholesterol should be limited to less than 300 milligrams per day. (One egg a day is fine for healthy people.)
  • Refined grains – limit white bread, white rice, white pasta, and especially refined grains that contain solid fats, added sugars and sodium. For maximum health benefits, replace refined grains with whole grains as often as possible.
  • Alcohol – if you consume alcohol, limit it to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.

I know that's a lot of information, but don't let it overwhelm you. Look at it as something to work toward, rather than to take on all at once. Choose a few strategies, sample them in small bites, try new things over time, and gradually build a better, healthier way of eating that works for you and your family.