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U.S. revises dietary advice on sugar, cholesterol and red meat

January 7, 2016 at 6:35 PM EST
There’s a new set of dietary guidelines from the federal government for the first time in five years, advising against too eating much sugar and red meat, while allowing moderate drinking of alcohol and coffee. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Allison Aubrey of NPR about how the government revised its recommendations.
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GWEN IFILL: But, first, in issuing guidelines for how we should eat for the first time in five years, the federal government revises some of its longstanding advice.

Hari Sreenivasan has that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Despite all the warnings over the years, you may be surprised that, for the first time, the government put a limit on added sugar, saying it should comprise no more than 10 percent of your daily calories.

The guidelines also dropped prior advice about limiting or avoiding cholesterol and eggs. The government warned about eating too much protein or red meat, but stopped short of what some experts wanted. And it said moderate drinking of alcohol or coffee is OK.

To help guide us through some of these guidelines, their impact and the controversy, I’m joined by Allison Aubrey, food and health correspondent for NPR.

So, Allison, let’s start with sugar first.

ALLISON AUBREY, NPR: Sure.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What is the right amount of sugar? And put it in terms I can understand.

ALLISON AUBREY: Sure.

Well, basically, the dietary guidelines are coming out and saying you should get no more than 10 percent of your calories per day from sugar, and that translates to about 10 to 12-teaspoons per day. Now, keep in mind, this adds up really, really quickly. It translates to about maybe 40 grams of sugar. That’s the unit of measurement that people are used to seeing on labels.

So, for instance, this morning, I had a yogurt for breakfast that had about 20 grams of sugar. You had one sort of sugary drink or one muffin, you’re at your daily limit. And basically, right now, Americans are eating about twice as much. We have reported on studies that show that many Americans are eating 22 teaspoons a day.

So if people are going to start following these recommendations, it really means cutting consumption of sugar in half.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, maybe that will help keep my New Year’s resolution going.

So, let’s also talk about the change, it seems, about eggs and cholesterol. Why the change?

ALLISON AUBREY: Well, it’s been sort of evolving nutrition science, I would say.

There used to be a belief that if you were to eat a lot of cholesterol-rich foods, so animal-based foods with cholesterol, think of eggs or shrimp, that that high cholesterol would lead to high LDL cholesterol in your bloodstream.

So there is still clearly a concern about elevated cholesterol in bloodstream. That’s why many, many Americans are on statins. But it’s now recognized that high-cholesterol foods don’t necessarily translate into higher cholesterol in our blood.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So the guidelines didn’t say eat less red meat. It said go ahead and supplement with more seafood and other things. Why?

ALLISON AUBREY: Well, I think what the goal is that one of the committee members told me that Americans don’t want to be told what not to eat, what to avoid. They want to be told what they — how to expand their diet or add more variety.

And so the words of the dietary guidelines and the people supporting communication about the new guidelines, the word they’re using is shift. The idea is to shift away from meat and try alternative sources of protein, so anything from seafood to nuts to beans.

And, implicitly, that might mean eating less red meat, if you’re eating more of these other sources of protein. It’s a little bit controversial. The committee that helped advise the administration on what should be in these guidelines came out last year and said, hey, we think you should tell Americans to eat less red meat. But, in the end, that’s not what’s in their dietary guidelines.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what are nutritionists or experts in this think as well?

ALLISON AUBREY: Well, there is some criticism, I have to say, today.

I have spoken to several top nutrition researchers who say a limit on red meat really should have been put into the guidelines. Otherwise, Americans might just be confused by this message about shifting. And I think the range of opinion goes something like this.

Some people say, well, if you are nudging Americans to eat a little bit less, that’s enough. The other point of view is Americans need to be told like, hey, there is too much red meat in your diet. They need a specific limit, but, again, that’s not there.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The fact that these guidelines come out only once every five years, it almost makes it a political document. It’s a statement by an administration on what they think the government thinks people should or shouldn’t eat, right?

ALLISON AUBREY: Well, I don’t see it so much as a political document, as I see it as kind of a consensus report.

There is a lag factor here. You pointed out in the beginning that just now do we have a recommendation to limit sugar. Your grandmother could have told you that too much sugar is bad for you. And what you have to understand is that the way this process works is that, every five years, the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture assign this expert committee to review all the new evidence.

They pore over all of the nutrition science and they try to come up with a consensus. So, for instance, five years ago, we knew that sugar would rot your teeth, but we didn’t know that 22 teaspoons of sugar a day would lead to an increased risk of heart disease or diabetes.

And so it takes a while for a body of evidence to lead scientists to say, aha, we need a clear recommendation here, so a bit of a lag time.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Allison Aubrey of NPR, thanks so much for joining us.

ALLISON AUBREY: Thanks for having me.



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