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Update stresses variety

food_ja_17feb_1dietALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The hotly anticipated update to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released last month, generated a lot of noise in the nutrition community.

The government issues a new set of nutrition recommendations every five years based on latest scientific evidence. The guidelines shape national programs and policy, including school meals and food support programs.

They also intend to shape your food choices.

Should you be choosing different foods and beverages based on these updates?

It’s safe to say some nutrition advice won’t every change – eat a variety of foods, especially more fruits and vegetables. The guidelines can serve as a roadmap for improving food choices and promoting health – one shopping trip at a time.

The 2015-2020 edition of the guidelines are divided into five general categories with several key recommendations that narrow in on specific foods and nutrients to eat more or limit.

The latest version supports small shifts to a healthier eating pattern – the combination of foods and beverages you regularly consume. According to the guidelines, a healthy eating pattern includes a variety of nutrient-rich foods from each food group and limits the “3 S’s”: sodium, added sugars and saturated and trans fats. Here are highlights and suggestions for filling your shopping cart with foods in line with the guidelines.


The recommendation to limit sodium to 2,300 mg, about 1 teaspoon, per day remains the same. A further reduction to 1,500 mg per day applies to the 70 million Americans with hypertension and adults with prehypertension. Read and compare food labels to learn how much you’re eating.

Cooking more at home has the biggest impact, as processed foods and restaurant meals contribute the most sodium to the diet.

Gain kitchen confidence by choosing three meals to master and expand from there. A well-stocked kitchen makes cooking easier. That happens at the store.

Fill your cart with foods from the DASH diet,, an eating pattern that parallels the guidelines and is shown to lower blood pressure: fruits and vegetables, lowfat dairy, whole grains, legumes, lean protein, nuts and seeds.

Added sugars

We’ve been warned that we’re overdoing it on the sweet stuff. There’s strong evidence that our current level of intake increases risk of cardiovascular disease.

This is the first time the guidelines includes a limit on added sugars, recommending no more than 10 percent of total calories.

If you need 1,800 calories a day, that’s 180 calories, which equals 45 grams or 11 teaspoons of sugar. Drink a 12-ounce can of soda and you’ve reached your max.

This new limit applies to added sugars, not natural sources found in fruit, vegetables and some dairy. From dressings and sauces to breads and energy bars, added sugars are easy to come by and often hard to find. Read ingredient lists to find hidden sources of added sugars, including syrup, fruit juice concentrate, nectar, and any word ending in “-ose.”

Expect the food label to eventually catch up to the new guidelines. In the meantime, realize that the grams of sugar listed on a food label include both naturally occurring and added sugars.

Don’t freak that your plain yogurt has 15 grams of sugar per serving. That’s naturally occurring lactose. However, if your favorite carton of fruit yogurt has 37 grams of sugar, safely assume you’re consuming 20 grams, or 5 teaspoons, of added sugar. Every 4 grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon.

Slash added sugars by cutting back on the obvious first – sweet drinks and treats. Fill your cart with sparkling water, unsweetened tea and milk.

Tame your sweet tooth by eating seasonal or frozen fruit and using blended dates in desserts. Replace half the sugar with applesauce in baked goods and boost flavor with cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom.


While the public debate on dietary fat continues, the guidelines maintain a limit on saturated fat to no more than 10 percent of total calories. Using 1,800 calories as an example, that’s 180 calories or less than 20 grams of saturated fat a day. A slice of pepperoni pizza provides 7 grams and a hamburger can top 15 grams.

Trans fat intake should be as low as possible so scan ingredient lists for “hydrogenated fats,” mainly found in processed foods, including some desserts, microwave popcorn, creamers and frozen dishes.

Signifying the lesser role dietary cholesterol plays in heart health, the long-standing limit of 300 mg per day is lifted. The new recommendation is keep cholesterol intake low. Since animal foods that contain saturated fat also contain cholesterol, reducing saturated fat intake concurrently lowers dietary cholesterol intake.

The important take away here is the type of fats we eat matters more than total fat.

Replace sources of saturated fat with poly- and monounsaturated fats to help lower blood cholesterol and reduce heart attack risk. Fill your shopping cart with plant-based fats, including olive and canola oil, nuts and seeds, avocados and olives. Pick up fresh, frozen or canned seafood. When you buy lean meats, poultry and dairy, choose quality over quantity and pare back portions to save money.

Grip your mug tightly, the new guidelines also mention coffee and caffeine. Luckily, you don’t have to give up your venti latte just yet. The recommendation states three to five 8-ounce cups or up to 400 mg of caffeine per day can fit into a healthy eating pattern. But just like alcohol, if you don’t currently drink it, you’re advised not to begin.

Sure the guidelines sets limits on certain nutrients, but eating well is about your overall eating style. Since we should cover half our plate with vegetables and fruit, fill half your grocery cart with colorful produce, especially dark green, red and orange hues. Make a small shift with one food swap each week. For example, spaghetti squash instead of noodles, plain yogurt and berries instead of fruit-flavored and beans in place of some meat.

Jennie McCary is an Albuquerque-based dietitian nutritionist. She practices in corporate wellness and consults in family nutrition, personal meal planning and cooking. She is a member of the NM Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and can be reached at