Sugary drinks, lean meat, and the politicization of dietary guidelines

New dietary guidelines released by the Obama administration Thursday say Americans can keep eating eggs, lean meat and small amounts of salt, reversing earlier efforts. But they've become part of a political minefield, as critics say the government is telling people what to eat.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Steaks and other beef products are displayed for sale at a grocery store in McLean, Va., Jan. 18, 2010.

To eat healthy, Americans can still consume eggs, lean meat and a moderate amount of salt, in addition to the fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and seafood often recommended as part of a balanced diet.

Those are the latest recommendations of the the federal government's dietary guidelines released Thursday by the Obama administration, which also urges Americans to watch the amount of added sugar they consume, especially in drinks.

The guidelines have unexpectedly become a political minefield in addition to sparking a lobbying battle in the food industry, which successfully prevailed on the administration to abandon recommendations from a panel of doctors and nutrition experts to have Americans embrace a diet lower in red and processed meats and to consider environmental impacts of the foods they consume.

Those recommendations, released in February, also de-emphasized lean meats in its list of proteins in the American diet.

Congress also got involved in the effort, with some Republicans charging the guidelines marked an attempt by the Obama administration to tell Americans what to eat.

Doctors and nutritionists pushed back against that claim. “One role of successful governments is to provide a safe, adequate and healthy food supply for the population, and to advise the public about food choices that best promote health,” Marion Nestle, author of "Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition, and Health" and a professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University told USA Today.

Professor Nestle, who has been a vocal critic of the influence of the food industry in shaping what Americans eat, said the government already has an impact on many Americans’ diets through school lunches and subsidies provided to farmers.

She says the dietary guidelines, released every five years by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, can serve as an independent voice in helping Americans making eating choices.

The new guidelines reverse some of the strictest recommendations on sodium found in the last version, while still saying Americans consume too much salt.

New figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Protection reveal that around 90 percent of people eat too much salt.

The average person eats 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day, according to the guidelines. Instead, Americans should decrease that amount to 2,300, which is about a teaspoon a day, according to the new guidelines. That’s a change from the 2010 recommendations, which urged many Americans to lower their intake to much further, to 1,500 milligrams.

Recommendations on cholesterol have also shifted. The 2010 guidelines said that Americans should limit their dietary cholesterol to 300 mg a day, or about two eggs, but that key recommendation is now absent. It’s been replaced with a more general statement buried further in the guidelines that “individuals should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible while consuming a healthy eating pattern."

However, saturated fats should still be limited to 10 percent of a person’s total calories, the guidelines recommend. The guidelines are also stricter for particular populations.

While lean meats are still a suggested source of protein, teen boys and adult men should reduce their meat intake and eat more vegetables. Males age 14 to 70 tend to consume more than the recommended amount of meat, eggs, and poultry, while women tend to hew more closely to the recommended amounts, data included in the government’s guidelines found.

This year, the Agriculture Department also revamped its messages to emphasize that Americans should be able to choose a eating style that works for them, while still following the main recommendations. Its “My Plate” icon has now been tweaked to include the slogan “My Wins.”

“Small changes can add up to big differences,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the Associated Press.

This report contains material from The Associated Press.

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