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New advice from America's top nutritional committee: coffee can be healthy

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  1. The country's top advisory panel on nutrition wants America's national dietary guidelines to add a cap on added sugar intake and saturated fat, note that coffee can be part of a healthy diet — and drop long-standing warnings about cholesterol as a "nutrient of concern."
  2. The recommendations, published Thursday, are the start of a year-long process to update the USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
  3. The federal government still has final say over whether to adopt the recommendations in its final guidelines, which will come out at the end of 2015.

How America's nutrition guidelines could change in 2015

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is a non-governmental panel of experts that, every five years, reviews the latest scientific literature on nutrition and makes recommendations about how Americans should eat. Their final report, which is about 600 pages long, will inform the national food guidelines from the USDA and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

These guidelines matter, the AP reports, since they're used by doctors and nutritionists in patient care, by schools to set kids' lunches, and to guide nutrition information on packaging.

"On average," the committee found, "the U.S. diet is low in vegetables, fruit, and whole grains, and high in sodium, calories, saturated fat, refined grains, and added sugars." Many Americans aren't getting enough essential nutrients, including vitamin D, calcium, potassium, and fiber, and iron.

To address some of these gaps between their perceived ideal and reality, the group makes a number of suggested changes for the forthcoming 2015 guidelines. Here are some highlights:

    • For the first time, they weighed in on coffee intake, suggesting three to five cups a day is not associated with an increased risk of chronic disease. In other words, coffee — in particular, the kind without added fats and sugars — can be part of a healthy diet.
    • Water is the "preferred beverage of choice."
    • They suggested cholesterol be removed from the list of "nutrients of concern" for over-consumption. (In 2010, the guidelines suggested eating less than 300 mg of dietary cholesterol per day, or about one egg's worth.) In other words, in their review of the scientific literature, they found no link between eating high-cholesterol foods and high levels of cholesterol in the blood.
    • The committee suggested no more than 10 percent of one's total daily caloric intake come from added sugars. In the past, there was no specific limit set for the consumption of added sugars. Previous guidelines suggested Americans get no more than five to 15 percent of their total calories from added sugars and saturated fats combined.
    • They recommended that less than 10 percent of total calories come from saturated fat. Overall, they said, people should aim to reduce their consumption of red and processed meat. In chapters on food security, they also noted that eating fewer animal products and more plant-based foods would have a positive impact on the environment.
    • Though the committee said Americans currently eat too much sodium, they softened their stance a little. The 2010 guidelines had recommended a limit of 2,300 mg/sodium per day for general population, and then for special populations, including people at-risk of high-blood pressure, recommended a 1,500 mg daily limit. This committee didn't put as much emphasis on the special populations recommendations, probably because we've seen mounting evidence that further reducing salt intake even in at-risk people doesn't have much of an added benefit for health.
    • The committee suggested low-calorie sweetners should not be promoted as a strategy to lose weight.

    The big take-away

    One of the biggest things many Americans will find surprising is the change in attitude toward cholesterol. While cholesterol has gotten negative attention from the media for decades, the scientific community has more recently found that eating more cholesterol doesn't  necessarily correlate with higher levels in the blood or an increased risk of heart disease.

    But don't get too fussed about the details. After reviewing the evidence, the committee suggested a healthy diet is higher in "fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meats; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains." So: eat more fruits and veg, drink less, watch your processed foods and sugars — that's not exactly radical.

    Also keep in mind: the new document released today is only preliminary guidance. The government still needs to interpret the recommendations for the new, 2015 guidelines. As food commentator Marion Nestle wrote on her blog, "No matter what the Advisory Committee says in its report, it does not write the Dietary Guidelines. The agencies — USDA and HHS — do whatever they choose with the committee’s research report." We'll know how they read this report by the end of the year, when they release their final ruling.

    There's one big problem that all guidelines struggle with

    The guidelines are the country's best attempt at figuring out what types of foods do and don't contribute to overall health. But they're not gospel: nutrition science has lots of holes that make it difficult to know what is actually the best diet for people.

    "The vast majority of data we have on nutrition comes from bad research on diet in the first place," said obesity physician and nutrition expert Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, pointing out that a lot of the research we have on the health impact of nutrition is self-reported or flawed.

    "We're basing our national dietary guidelines on studies using food frequency questionnaires. That's hugely problematic," he said. "It's building advice off of bad data." What's more, these guidelines aren't immune to sway by politics and lobby groups.

    Studies have shown, time and again, that there really is no single "best diet" that works for everyone. You can read a very compelling argument for the Mediterranean diet, and another science-driven polemic that’s diametrically opposed to that, arguing that more saturated fat is the key to health.

    brazil food guideline

    From a presentation from a Brazilian nutrition who helped shape the country's new food guidelines. (Visa Mother Jones)

    Within these contradictory narratives are a few evidence-based nuggets that we can all agree on: that we can stand to eat more vegetables, fruits, and whole food, and less added sugar and processed food. We also know that really restrictive diets aren’t sustainable and more often than not backfire, and that when we eat out, we typically consume about 20 to 40 percent more calories than we’d eat at home. 

    That's why Freedhoff suggested turning to Brazil's food guidelines, which basically advise eating more whole foods and less processed food and sugar, cooking at home, and being skeptical of Big Food marketing. This is common sense advice no one can quibble with. If you follow it, you won't have to worry about your intake of cholesterol, or whatever the food evil du jour may be.

    Check out the Vox Anti-Detox diet and obesity cardstack to learn more.