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What do you mean throw out the food guide pyramid?

Many initial stories misunderstand new dietery reference report

University of Vermont

The barrage of news coverage surrounding the Sept. 5, 1,000-page Dietary Reference Intake Report issued by the National Academies' Institute of Medicine has people even more confused about what to eat and what not to eat to maintain good health.

Media misinterpretation over what the report means, adds to mainstream Americans' growing quandary over how much (and what kind of) fats, carbohydrates, sugars, fiber and protein keeps people in the range of good health.

"Americans are exposed to so many conflicting ideas about low fat, low carbohydrate, high protein and exercise that there is concern they'll give up an already difficult struggle to chose a diet that promotes good health," says Rachel Johnson, Ph.D. R.D., professor of nutrition and acting dean of the University of Vermont's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a contributor to the Institute of Medicine's report. Johnson was among a panel of US. and Canadian scientists who produced the report.

"These reference values were established for practitioners like registered dieticians who set healthy diets for groups of people. They are not really meant to be recommendations for consumers to use to sit down and figure out their own diets," Johnson clarifies. "Consumers currently can't even tell how much added sugars there are in a food or beverage by reading a nutrition facts label."

Numbers such as that added sugars (those added to food during processing and production) should be no more than 25 percent of total calories "is far from a recommendation, it's saying that this is the maximum amount people can consume before there is a significant decline in the intakes of essential nutrients like calcium and vitamin A," Johnson says. "We carefully looked at the data and when added sugars exceed 25 percent of energy you see a clear drop-off of vitamin and mineral intake.

"People should not exceed 25 percent, but this does not say that a healthy diet contains 25 percent. In fact, it can be difficult to meet recommendations like three servings of dairy products and day and five servings of fruits and vegetables a day at this level of added sugars intake."

"Personally, I think people should aim for an added-sugars intake of 10-12 percent of total calories." Another important point that this report makes is that "added sugars in the diet either adds calories or displaces other nutrients, or both," she adds.

Other key points in the report:

    • As for the recommendations on fats: "We are not saying eat more fat," Johnson emphasizes. "We are saying get most of your fats from mono- and polyunsaturated fats such as olive oil, nuts and seeds." The report actually says, "Because saturated fat and cholesterol provide no known beneficial role in preventing chronic diseases, they are not required at any level in the diet."

    • "The whole way of looking at energy intake is new," says Johnson. Recommendations used to be based only on age, height and weight. "Now we're looking at age, height and weight in the context of physical activity levels.

    • And about that hour of exercise a day... This report "is a whole paradigm shift on how we see our activity. Johnson points out that it's all simply a matter of needing to balance our energy output with our food intake. "Americans are so sedentary that their recommended calorie levels are really low - so low that it can be very difficult for people to meet their nutrient needs and still maintain energy balance. Calorie intake is just too low. So, the answer to that is exercise more. Be active enough to enable yourself to have an energy (calorie) intake that provides for a balanced diet and lets you enjoy your food!"

"The Food Guide Pyramid is not all wrong, as a result of this new Dietary Reference Intake Report, but it could use some tinkering," admits Johnson. The likelihood of that happening anytime soon? "Very slim."


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