Health & Wellness

New dietary guidelines: Does your dinner table make the grade?

Government groups will soon update dietary standards with familiar suggestions — more veggies — and vintage tips: go ahead and eat the occasional egg. But how do those recommendations help you decide what to plate up for your family tonight?

Every five years, the new dietary guidelines for Americans are updated to help us make better food choices. In this year's preliminary report, the advisory panel suggested we cut back on red meat, added sugars and saturated fats — and try to consume a more plant-based diet.

Here's what that means:

RED MEAT

The statement included in the advisory report to Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture says to “eat less red and processed meat." The term “red meat” includes lean and extra-lean cuts and super-fatty and marbled cuts. Fatty cuts do contain saturated fat, which needs to be limited to reduce health risks.

But lean red meat is an excellent concentrated source of iron, vitamin B12, and complete protein — sorely needed by much of the population. And lean red meat is regular part of two diet plans recommended by the committee: DASH and the Mediterranean Diet. Red meat does not need to be part of a healthy diet, but can be with smart choices.

The takeaway: If you choose red meat, monitor portion sizes (4-6 ounces per serving) of lean cuts, including flank steak, and cuts with “loin” and “round” in the name. Alternate red meat with other concentrated proteins, like fish, skinless poultry, and pork tenderloin as well as non-animal proteins like beans and tofu.

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More veggies, like sweet potatoes, are part of the updated guidelines.

SATURATED FAT

While the cholesterol recommendation has been revised — it’s no longer a firm 300 mg per day as a daily limit (about an egg and a half) — it does not apply to saturated fats (higher intake of those fats are still associated with predictable increases in blood cholesterol levels). Saturated fat intake, shown to be associated with increases in cardiovascular risk, comes from animal sources like fatty cuts of all meats, full fat dairy, and plant sources like palm oil.

Cutting back on fatty meats, choosing low or non-fat dairy and skipping palm oil found in many processed foods is an effective way to do this.

The takeaway: Monitor saturated fat intake based on your total daily calories consumed. For a person eating 2,000 calories daily, aim for saturated fat intake from all sources to about 10 percent of your calories, around 200 calories.

Just read the label: if a serving has 10 grams of saturated fat, multiply by nine to get the calories from the serving — 90 calories (about half of your daily intake).

Or, you can use the basic idea of limiting serving size and frequency of fatty meat of all kinds, and full-fat dairy products.

ADDED SUGARS

“Cut back on added sugars” is a recommendation.

But all sugars are not the same and fruit is not part of this recommendation. Added sugars means sugars of all types — honey, molasses, brown sugar, white sugar, agave — added to foods that do not normally contain sugar.

The new recommendations follow earlier advice to cut back added sugars from all sources to about 10 percent of total calories eaten daily, down from earlier recommendations of up to 25 percent of total calories. So, for someone eating 1,500 calories daily, that’s about 150 calories (down from about 350 calories). That’s about the amount of sugar in one 12-ounce can of soda, a bowl of sugary cereal, or a “fun-size” candy bar.

The takeaway: Limit portion size and frequency of consuming sweet processed foods. Read labels to look at the amount of sugar added — a food doesn’t have to taste super-sweet to contain a lot of added sugar. Think of one or two portion-controlled “treat” foods a day for an easy mindset.

PLANT-BASED DIET

The advice to eat “more” fruits and veggies is a confusing message. More than what?

If you're eating fewer than five servings a day, the answer is: More than you are eating now.

Even adding one more fruit or vegetable daily is a benefit. But the important point in the recommendation is daily, not occasional consumption.

The recommendations also suggest we get more protein from plants, rather than animal proteins. While a combination of protein sources is always good, animal proteins are typically nutritionally more concentrated (more protein per ounce) and are complete in amino acid composition. This is not always true of plant proteins.

A plant-based protein diet can be equally healthy. But it may be challenging to meet your complete protein needs daily with a mostly plant-based diet — unless you pay close attention to the plant protein sources and combinations of amino acids.

The takeaway: Try to swap out some animal protein once or twice a week for a vegetable source, like tofu, or a combination of two sources like beans and rice. If you’re new to plant-based protein, try soy products made into more familiar foods, like ground meat, burgers, chicken cutlets, and fish nuggets.

And choose a colorful plate: lots of fruits and vegetables, loaded with vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Remember that healthful eating is all about balance and choice. The more restrictive the eating pattern, the harder it is to maintain daily nutrient requirements. Think about variety when choosing foods, and include a lot of color on your (smaller) plate.

Common sense advice still rules the current recommendations: a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, fiber-rich grains, low- and non-fat dairy are all components of healthful eating and recommended by the advisory panel.

Foods containing caffeine, alcohol, and even added sugars can be part of healthy eating with attention to serving size, and frequency of consumption.

Madelyn Fernstrom is the health and nutrition editor for NBC News and TODAY. Follow her on twitter at @drfernstrom.

This story was originally published on March 7 at 10:16 a.m.

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