The US Departments of Agriculture and Health have released new dietary guidelines for Americans to follow.
In whole, these guidelines can be cumbersome and it is difficult to understand how food contributes to health. But when broken down and compared with local data, it is easy to see how these guidelines can lead to healthier lifestyles and how to achieve them.
Lower salt intake: the new guidelines recommend that you consume less than 2,300 milligrams of salt per day. But how many teaspoons is that? The answer: one half. When eating processed or restaurant foods, it is easy to exceed this daily recommendation in a single sitting. A can of Chef Boyardee Beefaroni contains 730 milligrams of salt in a single serving. Contrary to popular belief, the can contains not one, but two servings. So when you eat a whole can for lunch, you can consume 1460 milligrams of salt— over half the recommended sodium intake— in a single meal. An Arby’s Roast Beef sandwich won’t do much better; each one packs 1440 milligrams of salt— add an order of curly fries and you are at the daily limit already.
But why is there a seemingly strict limit on salt? Too much salt intake directly leads to a condition called “hypertension” or high blood pressure. Between 2005 and 2009, hypertension killed 17 people in Madison County alone. Health departments refer to it as a silent killer, because there are often no warning signs and most people don’t even know they have it.
Lower sugar intake: the new guidelines recommend that no more than 10 percent of daily calories should come from sugar. That is only 12 teaspoons of sugar a day. The average American is consuming 22 teaspoons a day— almost double that amount. The problem again is processed foods, where sugar is ubiquitous.
Let’s go back to the canned Beefaroni. Although this is a savory food on the palette, it contains six grams of sugar in a serving. If you eat a whole can, then you’ll consume 12 grams of sugar. The recommendation comes in teaspoons, not grams: how can a consumer understand sugar intake with different units of measure?
Grams can be converted to teaspoons and vice-versa. A teaspoon is 4.2 grams. 12 teaspoons is 50.4 grams. So eating a can of Beefaroni will get you 23.8 percent of your daily sugar. What about something that does taste sweet? One glazed doughnut will get you 19 grams of sugar— a whopping 38 percent of your daily sugar intake. And a can of Coca Cola will get you 39 grams of sugar.
But why should we regulate our sugar intake? Too much sugar consumption is a leading cause of type II diabetes and heart disease. Heart disease was the leading cause of death in Madison County, killing 322 citizens between 2005 and 2009. Type II diabetes is a life-altering diagnosis. Unmanaged type II diabetes can lead to kidney disease, hypertension, stroke and poor circulation in the extremities that can lead to eventual amputation.
Reconsider protein: while Americans are eating enough protein, changing the source of protein will help meet other guidelines. For example, the new guidelines recommend consuming less saturated fat. Saturated fat comes from animal protein, especially red meat. Your average 10-oz T-bone steak contains 22 grams of saturated fat. The new guidelines, however, recommend only 20 grams or less of saturated fat per day.
Instead of a beefsteak, consider a tuna steak. 10 full ounces of tuna (the same amount of steak we analyzed in the last paragraph) packs 514 calories, compared to the steak’s 804. It has more protein. Tuna packs 82.5 grams compared to the steak’s 70 grams and in saturated fat, the tuna is the clear winner as it contains only 3.3 grams of saturated fat, compared to the steak’s 22 grams.
But why is saturated fat on the chopping block? Consuming saturated fats raises low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol in your blood, and lowers high-density (HDL or “good”) cholesterol levels. This imbalance can lead to heart disease, which is the second leading cause of death in America and the first in Madison County.
To prevent heart disease, the guidelines suggest that we eat less animal protein overall— according to the new system, only 26 ounces of protein a week should come from animal sources. That is only 3.7 ounces a day. But how big is 3.7 oz? A little larger than a pack of playing cards. Even a whole chicken breast is an ounce too much and that represents animal protein intake for a whole day. Most people eat animal protein with every single meal.
Vegetables can pack a serious protein punch, too. Consider 100 gram servings of the following: dried pumpkin seeds pack 33 grams of protein; edamame packs 11 grams of protein; lentils pack 9 grams of protein and sun-dried tomatoes pack 14 grams of protein. Compared to animal protein: two hard-boiled eggs (100 grams) have 12 grams of protein.
Meat substitute products are also gaining a place in the mainstream and may be the only way meat-eating Americans can meet the new guidelines. Beyond Meat is a company that has dedicated itself to recreating meat products from plant protein, where the no-meat product has the same texture and flavor as its animal counterpart. Take, for example, the lightly seasoned chicken strips. This product contains 23.5 grams of protein per 100 grams and 141 calories. It contains no saturated fat, no sugars and only 423 milligrams of sodium (or 18 percent of daily intake).
The problem: these guidelines were written for health professionals, scientists and dietitians. For the average American, no matter how resolute, the length and language of the guidelines are inaccessible. Nutrition labels are not consistent with the guidelines’ measurements, requiring citizens to convert teaspoons to grams to milligrams. How can we even apply these guidelines to our lives?
Let’s break it down. To meet the new guidelines, here are a few simpler steps:
1. Eat meat only once or twice per day. An egg is 1.7 ounces. If you eat one for breakfast, that leaves room for a small serving of ham on a sandwich or a small tuna steak at dinner.
2. Substitute a high-protein vegetable for meat during one or two meals. English peas, lentils and mushrooms are good sources of protein and are very filling. Put english peas and mushrooms in a salad for lunch or have a bowl of spiced lentils.
3. Eat lots of vegetables. These are high in vitamins, minerals and fiber. They lack saturated fats and do not contribute to high cholesterol. These are a great choice for snacking.
4. Have fruits for dessert. Fruits can satisfy your sweet tooth without overloading your sugar intake. Enjoy a pastry or dessert item once a week.
5. Avoid restaurants, canned foods, processed foods, red meats, butter, sodas, added salt and added sugar. Take the skin off your chicken and cut the fat off of meats.
6. Lower sodium intake slowly. Start cooking with less salt, little by little to allow your taste buds to adjust. Switch to unsalted butter if you use the salted variety. Most foods already contain enough sodium without adding salt during or after cooking. Remove your saltshaker from the dining table to avoid temptation.
7. Eat more seafood. Here is a tip that couldn’t be easier in Florida. Seafood has more protein, more nutrients and less saturated fat than traditional animal protein sources. Add tuna to salads, enjoy a salmon steak with dinner or dine on scrumptious cocktail shrimp.
8. Avoid sauces. Salad dressings and barbecue sauces are a huge source for hidden fat, salt and sugar. Avoiding these will put you on track towards a healthier you.
9. Watch serving sizes. In a country where we have super-sized drinks to 64 ounces or more, made burgers taller than tables and always order fries with that, it is important to put food into perspective. Follow recommended serving sizes for grains and proteins. If you’re still hungry for seconds, get more vegetables and skip the meat and carbs.
10. Prepare food at home. If you don’t like cooking every night, prepare lunches ahead of time and learn to love leftovers. On Sunday and Wednesday nights, you can prepare Tupperware lunches of delicious salads and sandwiches, mixed yogurt cups for breakfasts and healthy snacks for life on the go. This will help reduce temptation to visit fast food places.