North Americans are killing themselves by eating too much of the wrong foods. Half of all U.S. adults suffer from chronic diseases caused by unhealthful diets and two-thirds are markedly overweight. To help correct this, the Dietary Guidelines issued recently by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services recommend:
- restricting sugar, salt, saturated fat, and trans fats
- eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, and low-fat foods
The recommendation to eat lean meat has caused the most criticism by scientists.
Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health says, “Clearly these Guidelines bear the hoof prints of the Cattleman’s Association and the sticky fingerprints of Big Soda. They fail to represent the best available scientific evidence and are a disservice to the American public (The Nutrition Source, published online Jan 7, 2016). Unfortunately, Congress censored the scientific Advisory Committee’s conclusion that red meat consumption should be reduced for reasons of planetary health; this was within the scope of the committee because it is not possible to have food security if our food supply is not sustainable. However, the USDA went further and also censored the scientific Advisory Committee’s conclusion that consumption of red and processed meat should be reduced for health reasons. Further, the clear scientific conclusion that sugar-sweetened beverages should be reduced were also censored in the final recommendations.”
The basic nutrition advice remains the same as it has been for the last 35 years. The food industry is a major problem because it continues to tempt us to eat fried foods, burgers, pizzas, crackers, cookies, doughnuts, sodas, shakes, and other foods full of white flour, red meat, processed meat, salt, saturated fat, and added sugars.
The Lean Meat Recommendation
Last March, more than 70 organizations, including the North American Meat Institute, signed up to speak at the hearing on the guidelines. Everything in the final report is based on solid scientific evidence except the recommendation to eat more lean meat. I think the members of the committee knew better, but the pressure from special interest groups must have been so great that they recommended limiting red meat and eggs only for men and teenage boys, instead of for everyone.
The committee stated that teen-age boys and men should reduce their intake of protein foods, such as meat, poultry and eggs and add more vegetables to their diets. I think this recommendation should apply to everyone who wants to live longer and free from disease. Last year, the preliminary report by the same committee stated that a healthy eating pattern included a “lower consumption of red and processed meat.”
The American Cancer Society has already responded to the new recommendations, stating “By omitting specific diet recommendations, such as eating less red and processed meat, these guidelines miss a critical and significant opportunity to reduce suffering and death from cancer.” The American Cancer Society advises eating at least two-and-a-half cups of fruits and vegetables a day, having whole grains instead of refined grains, limiting consumption of alcohol, and limiting processed and red meats.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reported in November 2015 that consumption of processed meat causes cancer in humans.
I suspect that members of the Dietary Guidelines committee were pressured to tell you to eat lean meats because they still recommended that you obtain less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fats, which are found in high quantities in meat, butter and whole milk. See my report on The Saturated Fat Debate. The scientific literature contains many articles showing that red and processed meats are associated with increased risk for heart attacks and cancers.
Restrict Saturated Fats, Sugar and Salt
The committee recommends that you obtain:
- Less than 10 percent of calories per day from sugars added to foods or beverages when they are processed or prepared. They do not recommend that you restrict fruits and vegetables with naturally-occurring sugars
- Less than 10 percent of calories per day from saturated fats. Foods that are high in saturated fat include butter, whole milk, meats that are not labeled as lean, and tropical oils such as from coconuts, palms, and palm kernels. However, they have almost no evidence that saturated fats from plants are harmful.
- Under 2,300 mg per day of sodium for people over the age of 14 years, and less than that for children under 14.
This summer, the Food and Drug Administration proposed that prepared foods and beverages have labels listing the amount of added sugar. The Sugar Association opposes the labeling change. The World Health Organization reported that reducing sugar intake also could reduce risk for obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers. Ten percent of daily calories from sugar is about 12 teaspoons of sugar, and a single can of Coke contains 10 teaspoons. Almost 50 percent of added sugars in North American diets comes from sugared beverages.
The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the Institute of Medicine and the American Heart Association recommend eating fewer than 2,300 mg of sodium (salt) daily for those over 14 and even less for those younger than 14. Eighty-nine percent of adult North Americans and more than 90 percent of children eat more than the recommended 2300 mg of sodium per day (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Jan 6, 2016;64:1393-1397). The average sodium intake among North Americans over age one is 3440 mg per day. In some people, taking in too much salt can raise blood pressure. Scientists have not yet proven that excess salt causes heart attacks.
What Does This Mean for You?
Most scientists agree with the report’s recommendations that you restrict sugar added to foods and drinks, excess salt and alcohol, and that you should eat lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and other seeds. Like Dr. Willett, I am disturbed that the committee did not come out directly and recommend that you restrict red meat and processed meats.
Gabe Mirkin, M.D., is a sports medicine doctor and fitness guru. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin has run more than 40 marathons and is now a serious tandem bike rider with his wife, Diana. His website is http://drmirkin.com/. Click to read Gabe’s full bio.