Guidelines are Guidelines; Nutrition is Personal

The government’s dietary guidelines are making their quinquennial buzz in the food industry. Within the first 48 hours of the release of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines more than one million articles were published. As usual, reviews were mixed. Some supported the inclusion of a limit on added sugar, some criticized the continued limit on saturated fat. Many posts have ignored the seemingly obvious warning: the Guidelines are population recommendations and are not tailored to each person specifically.

The Dietary Guidelines’ main impact will be reflected in federal, state, and local food program policies.  Additionally, the food industry will use the government’s recommendations to demonstrate how their products fit into a healthy diet. For consumers, dietary guidelines should be considered in combination with an individual’s health history, current eating patterns, and health goals. Population guidelines cannot—and should not—replace face time with qualified nutrition professionals.

The Dietary Guidelines are relative to each person’s eating patterns. For instance, the new guidelines recommend limiting added sugar intake to 10% of total daily calories; and a plethora of examples of what that looks like are floating around the blogosphere. Most use a model based on an adult who eats 2,000 calories per day. Broken down, that equates to less than 50g of sugar per day. For reference, a 16-ounce regular soda contains 65g of sugar.

Many people don’t know how many calories should be consumed in a day. A tall, bulky 20-year-old male, working a physically active job for 8 hours per day may need 3,500–5,000 calories daily. That means he can consume 88–100g of added sugar according to the government’s suggestion. Granted, most health professionals wouldn’t suggest consuming 100g added sugar daily, regardless of calorie-burning potential.

Similarly, the recommendation to eat “more” fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is relative to how much an individual is eating now. If a person is in “calorie balance,” meaning he or she is eating the same amount of calories that are burned in a day, adding fruits, vegetables and whole grains may lead to weight gain. Instead, people should trade foods they overeat for more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Few experts will argue with the guidelines’ limits on added sugars, saturated fats, sodium, and alcohol. Additionally, health professionals will agree that clients should eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Historical data shows us that without proper personal advice, consumers will be confused and may ignore these guidelines. The bottom line is, Americans need a personal nutrition plan in order to follow any guidelines. A health professional is the best person to evaluate current eating habits and make recommendations that meet personal health goals.

Bonnie Johnson, MS, RDN is a food-loving Registered Dietitian with a background in the food industry and R&D. She translates and delivers credible, science-based information to business partners, health care professionals and consumers. She is currently Nutrition Director for The a2 Milk Company, and a client of Pulse Health & Wellness.