New USDA food guideline: What does it mean for your children?

The federal government released its Dietary Guidelines for Americans earlier this week, a process it goes through once every five years to keep the public informed about the nutritional choices they should be making to stay healthy. And as the nation’s obesity crisis continues, our culture’s need for dietary change was reflected in the unusually blunt tone of the latest edition. Instead of vague terms and polite suggestions, federal regulators are being more direct than ever, explicitly saying that Americans need to consume less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol a day, get no more than 10 percent of our total caloric intake from saturated fats and reduce our daily calorie consumption, especially the “empty” ones often found in heavily processed, prepackaged foods. Some items on the chopping block are sugary soft drinks, fried and processed food, refined grains and processed meats that are high in saturated fat.

(Do you find all these percentages confusing? You’re not alone. See this post from David Ludwig, MD, PhD, where he advocates for whole food dietary recommendations.)

The new guideline also urges Americans to eat more vegetables (as an easy visual guide, it suggests half your plate at every meal should be vegetables) and calls for a drastic reduction in the amount of salt people are consuming. The average American gets up to 3,400 milligrams of salt a day in his diet, nearly 1,100 mg above the recommended limit. It’s suggested that children consume even less salt, so parents should monitor their children’s sodium intake to make sure they’re getting no more than 1,500 mg a day. When talking about salt, it’s important to note that your daily dosage goes far beyond what comes from the shaker. A good deal of the salt we eat is hidden as a preserving agent in packaged food and beverages, especially frozen and canned ones, so it’s important to always check the label to see how much sodium is lurking inside, even if the product in question doesn’t taste particularly salty.

Much of the information in the 2010 guideline may seem obvious, but singling out certain foods as unhealthy, and telling Americans to eat less in general, is actually a big step forward. Previous guidelines have called for less sugar, solid fats and salt, but failed to target the specific foods or let people know which ones had unhealthy additives hiding inside. In contrast, the 2010 guideline clearly defines foods that over-contribute to empty calorie consumption among children ages 2 to 18 (sorry pie, pizza and soda, but according to page 10 you’re the worst offenders), and offers easy to understand advice on making healthier choices for adults and their children.

As obesity continues to lead to more and more health problems—becoming a bigger and bigger drain on the country’s health care resources—eating less may seem like common sense. But believe it or not, this the first time the Dietary Guideline for Americans has recommended that Americans eat less overall, indicating how serious an issue poor nutrition and over consumption has become in our society.

So now that we have a clear understanding of what we SHOULDN’T feed our kids, what can we give them? Fortunately the new guideline has good advice in that department as well. Here’s a brief wrap-up of their suggestions.

More veggies; more variety. Not only do we need more vegetables in our life, (remember the half the plate rule), we need more types as well. Dark leafy greens like spinach, arugula, romaine lettuce and broccoli tend to have the most nutrients, but red, orange and yellow fruits and vegetables, as well as beans, are also packed with essential vitamins and nutrients. If you think of your plate as a pie chart, the dark green slice should be big, but save space for other colors as well.

Whole grains over refined grains. At least half of all grain consumption should come from whole grains. This means no white bread, no “white wheat” bread and far fewer white bread bagels. Often in the refining process, which is what happens to grain before it becomes the flour used in most white breads, the bran of the grain (the fiber-rich outer layer) is removed to make it easier to turn into mass produced food. In this process a lot of the nutritious elements of the grains are lost. By letting grain keep its natural plant chemicals, they promote better overall health than grains that are stripped and bleached.

Milk does a body good, assuming it’s the right type. Milk is a great source of calcium, which is essential for growing bones. But whole milk and milk products (cheese, yogurt, etc…) can have a lot of saturated fat. When picking milk and dairy products, the guideline says you should stick to fat-free or low-fat options or try products that use soy as a dairy alternative. For parents with very young children it should be noted that cholesterol and fat are thought to be important for brain development, so kids under 2 may benefit from their consumption. Please talk to your child’s pediatrician about what the recommended levels are for your child.

Eat high quality protein. Protein is very important to help young children grow, but excessive amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol found in some animal products can be problematic. Seafood, lean meat, beans, eggs and poultry are recommended, while parents are urged to avoid feeding their children processed meats like ground beef, cold cuts or hot dogs and sausages. When cooking it’s also important to use oils like olive and vegetable oils, which are healthier alternatives to solid cooking fats or butter and margarine spreads, which contain high levels of saturated fat and partially hydrogenated oils which can be very unhealthy.

An improved Dietary Guideline for Americans can’t hurt in the fight against childhood obesity, but eventually the responsibility is in the hands of parents. As adults it’s up to us to prepare healthier food for our children, model healthful eating habits at home and educate children about how and why making better food choices are so important. We still have a long way to go, but additional support from the White House, school systems and Federal government may indicate that the dinner tables are turning, and it’s time for parents to heed their call.