Here's the gist on three crucial changes you should know about.

By Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD
January 07, 2016
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
Credit: Getty Images

The Dietary Guidelines, a collection of recommendations released from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) every five years, are always a bit controversial. They’re basically the government’s thoughts on how Americans should be eating, and while the premise is that the advice is research-driven and nutrition-focused, the guidelines aren't free from politics.

Every time a new set is released, many experts question whether they’re on track with current science for one reason or another. For example, the World Health Organization triggered a media frenzy this year with its classification of bacon and other processed red meats as carcinogens, yet the Dietary Guidelines don’t suggest limits for these foods at all. But that's not the only controversy; here's the gist of what you should know about three noteworthy changes.

Cut animal protein

Probably the most surprising thing in the report for many is the idea that Americans need to cut back on protein. But this recommendation is only for men and teen boys, and is based on data that show American men and teen boys really are overdoing it on protein—and perhaps not eating enough produce as a result.

The report states, “Some individuals, especially teen boys and adult men, also need to reduce overall intake of protein foods by decreasing intakes of meats, poultry, and eggs and increasing amounts of vegetables or other underconsumed food groups.” This is based on an analysis of the average intakes by age and sex, compared to the ranges of recommended intake.

If you typically eat eggs or meat at every meal, but veggies and fruit are often missing (e.g. eggs for breakfast, a turkey sandwich or burger for lunch, chicken and rice for dinner), you would likely benefit from reining in the protein and pumping up the produce.

Cut added sugars

The amount of added sugar (the kind put in food by you, like sugar in your coffee, or a manufacturer, like sugar in cookies, candy, or sweetened yogurt) in the American diet has been linked to rising rates of heart disease and obesity. The report advises limiting added sugar to no more than 10% of total calories. For a woman who needs 1,600 calories a day that’s 160 calories worth, or the equivalent of about 40 grams or 10 teaspoons worth. While the Dietary Guidelines advise slashing sugar consumption significantly compared to the current average intakes, some experts believe 10% is still too much.

This amount is in fact higher than the what the American Heart Association recommends: no more than 100 calories of added sugar per day for women and 150 for men, about 6 and 9 teaspoons worth respectively.

Another issue is that, because the amount of added sugars in a given product is not listed on a nutrition label, it's hard to know how much you're getting, and the report doesn’t offer a lot of specific advice about how to meet the target or put foods and meals in perspective. (The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is currently considering a rule for food manufacturers to include the amount of added sugar on food labels, but it hasn't happened yet.)

Finally, the guidelines also do not advise omitting artificial sweeteners. While they do note, “…questions remain about their effectiveness as a long-term weight management strategy” they do not mention anything regarding the potential impact of artificial sweeteners on say gut health or belly fat.

No need to limit cholesterol

For the first time the Dietary Guidelines do not recommend a daily limit on the intake of cholesterol. Previously they suggested capping it at 300 mg per day.

However, the guidelines go on to state, “…but this change does not suggest that dietary cholesterol is no longer important to consider when building healthy eating patterns…individuals should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible while consuming a healthy eating pattern.”

That’s confusing, but what it means is that you should look at which foods your cholesterol is coming from, and what else you’re eating with them. For example, a veggie omelet with avocado and a side of fruit may provide more than 300 mg of cholesterol, the previous max, but the overall nutritional value of the meal is way healthier than a cholesterol laden bacon cheeseburger or pepperoni pizza.

Bottom line: While cholesterol itself no longer has a daily cap, this is not a license to eat high-cholesterol foods without considering portion sizes, frequency, and nutrients.

My advice

Despite these issues, and others not included, such as sustainability or environmental health, the primary message of the report is pretty good: focus on establishing an overall healthy eating pattern. This means regularly including a variety of colorful vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, whole grains, and better-for-you fats in your diet.

While I believe the nitty gritty details are important, the big picture of what most of your meals and snacks look like on a daily basis is really the key. So if you’re still pretty far off from those basics, start there.

Think about veggies first when deciding what to make or order, make fruit and nuts your snack instead of something processed, trade white rice for brown rice or quinoa, and use olive oil and balsamic or tahini on salads instead of ranch. Once the framework is in place for you to make healthier choices, the nutritional nuances, like not eating too much sugar, cholesterol, or protein, tend to work themselves out.

What’s your take on this topic? Chat with us on Twitter by mentioning @goodhealth and @CynthiaSass.

Cynthia Sass is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Yankees, previously consulted for three other professional sports teams, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Sass is a three-time New York Times best-selling author, and her brand new book is Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast. Connect with her on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest.