Deciphering nutrition recommendations

One of the unfortunate things about The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 released on Tuesday is that it doesn’t give many concrete examples of its dietary recommendations. This is actually a complaint I have of many nutrition guides. Telling readers to consume fewer than 2,300 mg of sodium a day is pointless if you don’t also explain what 2,300 mg of sodium actually looks like on a plate.

I’ve gone through a handful of items from the section of text that I quoted yesterday on the site, and put into common examples the advice. Feel welcome to look through The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 and add your translations of additional recommendations into the comment section of this post.

  • The guide says to reduce sodium (salt) intake to 2,300 mg a day. This means you need to consume less than 1 teaspoon of salt per day. Not only is this salt you might add to food once it has been served, but also salt used in the cooking process of all of the foods you eat. Baked goods and commercially canned soups and vegetables use very large amounts of salt in their preparations. Chefs in restaurants also add lots of salt to their meals because it reduces bitterness and enhances flavors. Cooking all of your meals at home, using salt-free ingredients, and diligently monitoring how much salt you use is the best way to keep your salt intake to less than 1 teaspoon per day.
  • The alternative 1,500 mg suggestion of sodium (salt) per day for “persons who are 51 and older and those of any age who are African American or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease” is about 1/2 teaspoon of salt per day. Truth be told, this number is extremely difficult to achieve unless you are vigilant at monitoring your intake.
  • Less than 300 mg per day of dietary cholesterol means you should be eating very little fats from animals. Dietary cholesterol is in red meats, lard, milk, cheese, butter, and egg yolks. It’s also present, but in lower amounts, in white meats (like pork loin and poultry). A single egg yolk contains a little more than 200 mg of cholesterol, so if you have two eggs for breakfast you’ve already exceeded the limit — before you’ve had lunch, dinner, or put some milk in your coffee. Since butter, milk, and eggs are prominent in baked goods, a slice of cake can put you over the 300 mg per day recommendation. Abstaining from egg yolks and red meats most every day, consuming only skim milk, and using canola oil instead of butter are good first steps to getting closer to the recommendation. Also, diligently read nutrition information levels to evaluate cholesterol in packaged products.
  • The suggestion to “use oils to replace solid fats” is a more specific suggestion than other ones in the report, but fails to mention that not all oils are created equally. Instead of using lard, butter, margarine, or a vegetable shortening (like Crisco), try to use instead a monounsaturated oil. The two monounsaturated oils easiest to find in your grocery store are canola oil (which doesn’t impart much flavor into your food) and olive oil (which gives your food a hint of nut or olive flavor). Polyunsaturated oils (like corn, sunflower, soy, and safflower oils), are better for you than solid fats, but should be used in moderation. Finally, you should AVOID partially hydrogenated oils, like vegetable oil. The advice should have been “use monounsaturated oils to replace solid fats and partially hydrogenated oils in your diet.”

14 comments posted

  1. Posted by Matt Fetissoff - 02/02/2011

    I’ve seen some good stuff about using flax seed oil, which contains both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. I may make it a part of my cooking if I can get over the high price tag.

  2. Posted by Gena - 02/02/2011

    I’m wondering if you can reduce the amount of salt in canned beans or bottled olives (love those kalamatas!) by giving them a serious fresh water rinse. I’d love to increase my bean-consumption, but also love the convenience of opening a can. Low salt beans aren’t always available. Thoughts?

  3. Posted by Erin Doland - 02/02/2011

    @Gena — I’ve become reliant on frozen vegetables during the winter (many are salt free, and they’re as simple to use as canned). I also like that, unlike most canned vegetables, they’re BPA free. (Although, the levels of BPA in canned vegetables are so low that it’s a pretty irrelevant fact.) Rinsing the vegetables does remove “some” of the salt, but certainly not much.

    As far as black beans or chickpeas or other traditional beans are concerned, I just use fresh. I’ll put them in a bowl to soak before starting work, and then they’re ready to be cooked by dinner time. I also cook them in my rice cooker or crock pot, so I don’t even have to pay attention to them while they cook. I do the same thing with lentils.

    As far as I know, since salt is used in the curing process for olives, you can’t get around the salt in them. But, they’re so yummy, olives every now and again are fine in my opinion. As long as they’re not something you eat more than once or twice a month, I don’t think it matters much.

  4. Posted by Matt Fetissoff - 02/02/2011

    I’m with Erin on this one. With a little planning, dry beans are such a great value both nutritionally and monetarily. The versatility is really through the roof as well, so you gotta love that.

  5. Posted by Stephanie - 02/02/2011

    Actually, pre-soaking beans isn’t really even required, as long as you have a little extra time to cook them. Soaking reduces some of the, uh, aftereffects of beans. :-)

    I think the hardest thing for a busy family to give up is prepackaged foods… it certainly was an adjustment for us. There are so many nutritional pitfalls in them, though. At least if I make something naughty at home, I know what’s in it! :-)

  6. Posted by Josh - 02/02/2011

    Those seem like drastic measures to reduce dietary cholesterol. My impression was that the cholesterol you eat is far less important than the cholesterol your body manufactures from an excess of dietary fat or carbohydrates. I’d just be making sure I had a balanced diet, didn’t eat too much and was physically active.

    Also, crustaceans are very rich in cholesterol so don’t forget to limit those if you’re trying to avoid cholesterol.

  7. Posted by Erin Doland - 02/02/2011

    @Stephanie — I feel the same way about the “sometimes” foods (that is what Cookie Monster calls sweets on Sesame Street now … cracks me up). If I make it at home, I at least know what all of the ingredients are. Plus, I don’t want my son growing up worshiping sweet treats like he might if I don’t ever let him have them.

    @Josh — I can’t imagine actually trying to follow every single rule in these guidelines to the letter of the law. My philosophy is that you try to do your best, but don’t sacrifice enjoying food. Sometimes, you need a piece of cheesecake.

  8. Posted by Gary - 02/03/2011

    These new recommendations are a joke and not based on any real science, but rather old hypotheses that have been thoroughly discredited. For example it’s been known for quite some time that dietary cholesterol has no negative effects, that saturated fats don’t cause heart disease (although excessive polyunsaturates are a different story!), and that sodium isn’t really an issue for most people. The “solid fats” part is the worst – it covers both artificial trans fats and saturated fats, whose effects on the body are pretty much polar opposites!

    Matt: flax seed oil only contains the plant form of omega 3 which is practically useless to the body (the body converts it to the useful form, but at about a 1% efficiency rate). And most people consume far too much omega 6 as it is so it’s hardly something to seek out. If you want useful omega 3 and other healthy fats then go for seafood, red meat, butter… you know, all these “evil” foods that apparently suddenly became unhealthy a few decades ago after not causing any problems for thousands of years.

    I was enjoying the blog up until now, but.. seriously? Somebody running a food blog should really do a bit more research.

  9. Posted by Erin Doland - 02/03/2011

    @Gary — Oh, we’re aware of the claims you’re referring to. We’ve read Nina Planck’s book and so many others like it (which is swell if you have access to a local farm to get your non-homogenized milk every day and freshly butchered chicken … which is not a reality for most Americans). We’re also aware of the scientific research coming out of places like Harvard Medical School and Johns Hopkins University that has found that things like dietary cholesterol does increase LDL cholesterol in the blood of people who struggle with high LDL cholesterol ratios. But, our agreement or disagreement with you isn’t that important. The specific recommendations in these guidelines aren’t what we use to craft any of our recipes or meal plans on the site.

    Our point in mentioning them and deciphering some of the advice is to let our readers know about food policy in the U.S. Most of our readers have no idea what the HHS is saying on these issues, and we think that should change. And, speaking of the HHS, I’ve seen Kathleen eat saturated fats. They don’t see these guidelines as laws, either.

  10. Posted by Candy - 02/03/2011

    Just a note to add to Gary’s comment–lard is predominantly a monosaturated fat which puts it in the same league as olive oil!

  11. Posted by ninakk - 02/06/2011

    @Candy: lard comes from the pig, obviously from it’s fat tissue. I don’t know how this would make it ‘predominantly monosaturated’ (check wikipedia or rather its citations:

    @Gary: I’ve read the contrary in fact; apparently about 90 % of Americans have too high a sodium intake daily. Most likely this number is based on some real research. I do agree with you in that ‘solid fat’ can be anything, both good and bad (trans fats).

  12. Posted by Happy Mum - 02/08/2011

    @Gary — Are you Gary Taubes, science writer and author of “The Diet Delusion”?

  13. Posted by KateR - 02/14/2011

    I’m with Gary. Consuming cholesterol has virtually no effect on blood cholesterol levels. Eating saturated fats can be very beneficial. Sugars and carbohydrates (especially from refined flours) are the likely source of VLDL. A quick look online found this published study:

  14. Posted by KateR - 02/14/2011

    (and that’s only one example. There are many more!)

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