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New nutrition guidelines: They’re grrrreat!

Phil Lempert likes what he sees in the latest (500+ pages) Recommended Daily Allowances report. Here’s his bite-sized version.

Remember the Food Pyramid we learned about in grade school? Well, it’s still standing.

The same cannot be said, however, for the list of Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs), the amount of various foods and exercise the federal government says will keep us trim and healthy.

Updated every five years, changes in the RDAs have come at a snail’s pace ever since they were introduced more than 30 years ago. But, smarting from attacks that the government was being too conservative in its guidelines, the departments in charge of the ratings have this time made remarkable changes that are in line with programs developed by proponents of a vegetable- and fiber-rich diet.

Without doubt, these recommendations, issued last week, are the most far-reaching ever. Rather than just updating the previous report, the government’s panel of nutrition experts started with a blank page and the latest science. The outcome is a mammoth (500+ pages) tome that offers exhaustive advice for portion control, a re-emphasis of the benefits of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, plus directions for healthful dieting over the long-term.

Also significant is a section on the pros and cons of the most popular and highly promoted diet plans.

Here are the highlights:

Low-carb, high-fat diets are not for the long term, the report asserts. These diets — the Atkins regime is the most famous — are strictly for immediate weight loss and are woefully under evaluated and studied, say the report’s authors. In particular, the dangers of using these diets over the long term is that they have high amounts of saturated fats and cholesterol, low fiber content, and inadequate supplies of fruits, vegetables, and grains.

Exercise is essential for everyone. Previous reports had recommended about half an hour of exercise a day. Now that figure is up to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity for adults, particularly those who are prone to obesity.

The biggie — a fruit and vegetable explosion. Another huge change is the call to increase intake of fruits and vegetables, with a suggestion of nine portions (half a cup for portion) for those eating 2,000 calories a day (the average recommended intake for women aged 19 to 30 and men over 51). Vegetables have the advantage of filling you up while containing little or no fat, and are low enough in calories that having more servings is a viable option for snacking. Fruits are important sources for many nutrients, including Vitamin C, folate and potassium (and some like blueberries are rich in antioxidants). Potassium is critical to help prevent (and to lower) high blood pressure, and the report suggests that we increase potassium to a minimum of 4700 mg a day. Great sources are bananas and orange juice.

Eat at least three servings of whole grains per day. Whole grains can help reduce risk of heart disease and diabetes and even help manage your weight. Unfortunately, according to the report, the average American consumes less than half of the recommendation. Easily obtained sources are oatmeal, popcorn, bulgur, brown rice rather than white, and whole wheat or whole grain bread. When in doubt, remember that brown is best. And it’s really not too difficult to achieve the government’s recommendations: A bowl of oatmeal actually is two servings, so figure a bowl each morning (or afternoon, for a quick pick me up). Add a serving of whole-wheat bread with lunch or dinner — and you’ve accomplished the objective! (One question I am often asked is if instant oatmeal has the same nutritional benefits as old-fashioned oatmeal. The answer is yes! The bottom line is that instant oats are just cut finer to cook faster. Therefore, equivalent servings of instant and old-fashioned oatmeal are nutritionally the same. And read those labels for a pleasant surprise: Many instant oatmeals are fortified with additional nutrients including calcium, iron and folic acid.)

Severely limit salt intake. Recommendations vary between 1,200mg and 2,300mg, depending upon age, overall health, and race. (African-Americans suffer disproportionately from hypertension.) When you consider that an average can of soup has between 560 and 1170 mgs of sodium, this is not easy to do. Nearly 90 percent of all Americans can expect to be diagnosed with hypertension during their lifetime, but scientists say that lowering sodium intake is entirely manageable, and thoroughly beneficial. When in doubt about sodium content, opt for fresh foods over packaged ones.

Phil Lempert’s Bottom Line:
For the first time, in a long time, I can say the folks in Washington, D.C., did a GREAT job in digging through the research and developing these guidelines. Now it’s up to us!

NEXT WEEK: Get exercise while you shop!

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent