The 2015-2020 dietary guidelines were released earlier this year and although I do think that Americans are becoming more conscious of improving their eating habits, we have a long way to go. Not surprisingly, the report concluded that Americans are:
- Not eating enough fruits and vegetables
- Consuming too many calories
- Exceeding recommended intakes of salt, saturated fat and added sugars
- Not consuming enough healthy fats and calcium rich foods
The consequences of under-consuming nutrient-dense foods and over-consuming foods high in empty calories usually lead to a variety of health conditions including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension…just to name a few. What can we be doing differently and how can we make these adjustments in a fast-food world?
I’ll start with fruits and vegetables. We all know they are good for us, but we don’t eat them often enough (shocking, I know). Why? I could write an entire post on the excuses people give me for not eating fruits and vegetables. They don’t taste good. They’re too expensive. I don’t have time to prepare them. Fruit is too high in sugar. I’m not a rabbit. The list goes on…however it is resulting in very poor intakes across Americans. Over 80% of the population isn’t getting the recommended amount of vegetables in their diet (2-4 cups per day for most adults, depending on caloric need). Vegetables play a huge role in overall health, including reduced risk of many chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease and may even be protective against certain types of cancer. This is largely due to the phytochemicals vegetables contain, which are health promoting nutrients (in a nutshell). These beneficial nutrients are also found in fruits- another food group that is under-consumed by Americans. The only population that is currently meeting the recommended amount of fruits daily is young children- and sadly this is largely in the form of fruit juices. Although 100% fruit juice is considered a fruit, I don’t recommend it. Most juices are high in added sugars, not as filling as an actual piece of fruit, and lack the fiber and phytochemicals that whole fruit has. Yes, fruit has naturally-occurring sugars but eating fruit does not make you fat, nor is it unhealthy. The nutrients that are occurring in fruit are highly beneficial and if consumed in the recommended amount (1.5-2.5 cups per day based on caloric needs) can be helpful for weight loss (if they are replacing foods high in added sugars and calories).
How can we make shifts to include more fruits and veggies in our diet? Including more veggies in combination dishes is a good start. I like to cut out half the required amount of protein and starch in a recipe and replace with more vegetables. Start serving side salads with dinner. Designate a day of the week (I usually do this the day I grocery shop) to cut up your veggies and place in containers in front of the fridge so they can be easily seen to grab as a snack. If you don’t like eating raw veggies plain try dipping in yogurt-based dressings or hummus. I personally love the frozen steamable vegetables, they are perfect for a busy weeknight! Fruits can be easily increased in the diet by having it replace dessert (try adding a little whipped cream or yogurt dipping sauce if the kids complain- strawberries with a light dark chocolate drizzle is a good option to try as well), blending in smoothie, or having for a snack.
The second concern I mentioned is that Americans are consuming too many calories. Obviously this is an issue, otherwise we wouldn’t have the problem with obesity that we do now. My biggest concern is that this is becoming a problem in children as well…nearly 1/3 of children in the United States are either overweight or obese. I don’t like to classify children by their BMI percentile, and just because your child is in the overweight or obese percentile doesn’t necessarily mean they will be obese as an adult. If your child is overconsuming calories, especially in the form of added sugars and empty calorie foods, then it is very probable these habits will continue on into adulthood and weight (along with various other comorbidities) will be a concern. We need to make a shift to consume more foods that are naturally low in calories (such as fruits and vegetables) and less foods that calorically dense and not nutrient dense (candy, soda, french fries).
The foods we are eating most of are high in what we need less of…sugar, saturated fat and sodium. This is a result of eating too much processed foods, sweetened beverages and fast food. Most are getting their protein needs in the form of ground beef, chicken, pork and processed meats. Intakes of seafood and legumes are below recommended intakes. Animal proteins all have saturated fat, some more than others depending on the type (dark meats and red meat are highest). Getting more protein in the form of vegetable proteins (such as nuts, beans, soy) and fish will decrease saturated fat intake and increase fiber and healthy fat intake. Sodium is found in everything, but is in especially high amounts in processed food and fast food. Stick to those outer aisles when grocery shopping folks, it will save you thousands of milligrams of sodium per week (your heart will thank you too!).
Although we are eating too much saturated fat, we aren’t eating enough healthy fats. Oils shouldn’t be added to the diet but should REPLACE solid (saturated) fats. For example, cooking with canola oil instead of butter. Oils are found in commonly extracted from plants (olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, etc) but are also found naturally in nuts, seeds, seafood, olives and avocado. The fats in these are essential fatty acids and are beneficial to health. Too many people think these fats should be added to what they are already eating (for example eating an entire avocado for a snack, eating a cup full of nuts before bed) but this will only add an exorbitant amount of calories to your total daily intake- most likely resulting in weight gain. Instead, replace fried chicken with grilled salmon, ranch salad dressing with an oil based salad dressing, avocado for cheese when eating Mexican, or a couple tablespoons of nuts for a handful of chips.
And finally…dairy. There are a lot of mixed opinions on dairy, even from dietitians. Although some may not want to include dairy in their diet, whether it’s because they are lactose intolerant or think it’s unhealthy, we do need to consume more calcium-rich foods. Dairy foods do provide a lot of key nutrients that Americans are lacking (Vit A, Vit D, calcium, potassium, magnesium, riboflavin, vitamin B12) but the recommended intakes of these nutrients can be met if you are consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables (especially if you are getting multiple colors of fruits and veggies each week), fish, meat, and whole grains. Calcium can be found in quantities similar to cow’s milk in soy, almond, coconut or rice milk, and can also be found in yogurt, cheese and in non-dairy foods such as collard greens, broccoli, kale and soybeans. Calcium intake is especially important for bone health and if milk or a milk-equivalent is consumed in the recommended amount (2-3 cups per day), it can prevent the onset of osteoporosis. Because osteoporosis is more prevalent in women, teenage girls need to be getting the recommended intakes to build and preserve bone health
Once we start filling our bodies with products of nature and not science, our nation will become much healthier. Unfortunately with all the added salt, sugar and fat that the food industry is putting into their products, real foods no longer stand a chance on the taste scale. Start with simple steps, such as adding more vegetables to your recipes or replacing dessert 3 times per week with a piece of fruit. Making a long term change is hard but can be done if you’re willing to set the short-term goals to get there.