The U.S. departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture released updated dietary guidelines on Jan. 7, 2016.
The guidelines are issued every 5 years and offer recommendations on food for people age 2 and older. The guidelines’ main focus is to promote overall health and prevent -- rather than treat -- chronic diseases.
While earlier versions of the guidelines focused on specific foods and nutrients, the 2015-2020 version aims to focus more on overall eating patterns, looking at the combinations of foods and beverages that people eat every day. The most notable difference seems to be that the new guidelines don’t include warnings about cholesterol.
Key recommendations from the guidelines include:
Develop a healthy eating pattern that accounts for all foods and beverages within an appropriate calorie level. A healthy eating pattern includes a variety of nutrient-dense foods across all food groups:
- a variety of vegetables from all of the subgroups: dark green, red and orange, beans and peas, starchy, and others
- fruits, especially whole fruits
- grains, at least half of which are whole grains
- fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified soy beverages
- a variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, nuts, seeds, and soy products
A healthy eating pattern limits:
- trans fats
- saturated fats
- added sugars
Specific recommendations about amounts of specific foods to eat include:
- eat less than 10% of calories per day from added sugars
- eat less than 10% of calories per day from saturated fats
- eat less than 2,300 mg per day of salt
- women should have one or fewer alcoholic drinks per day; men should have two or fewer
- teenage boys and men should reduce the overall amount of protein they eat by consuming less meat, poultry, and eggs
- All people should meet the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
Immediate reaction to the guidelines by doctors and nutrition experts was mixed.
Marion Nestle, Ph.D., professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University who also blogs extensively, applauded the guidelines for saying that the emphasis should be on food patterns and not individual nutrients. But she also pointed out that the guidelines don’t really follow through on the idea.
"These Dietary Guidelines, like all previous versions, recommend foods when they suggest 'eat more.' But they switch to nutrients whenever they suggest 'eat less,'" Dr. Nestle writes on her blog.
"If the Guidelines really focused on dietary patterns, they wouldn’t pussyfoot," she continued. "They would come right out and say:
- 'Eat less meat.' OK, they do, but only under the euphemism of 'protein' and only for males. But what about processed meats? Not a word that I can find.
- Cut down on sugary drinks [OK, it says 'drink water instead of sugary drinks,' but good luck finding that statement without knowing where it is].
- Eat less processed and junk food."
"Any guidance to limit any particular foods is buried deep within passages in the chapter on 'shifts,' and even then, foods to limit are very effectively de-emphasized," said David Katz, M.D., of the Yale Prevention Research Center, in an interview.
"The science on the link between cancer and diet is extensive," said Richard Wender, M.D., chief cancer control officer of the American Cancer Society. "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. For most Americans who do not use tobacco, the most important cancer risk factors that can be changed are body weight, diet, and physical activity."
Experts at the American Institute for Cancer Research also expressed dissatisfaction with the new guidelines. In particular, the organization was concerned that the authors of the guidelines ignored the advice of their own scientific advisers by disregarding evidence on the roles that red and processed meat play in cancer risk. The group did acknowledge that the guidelines' new, stronger language on sugar is a step in the right direction.
"Diets high in sugar encourage overweight and obesity, and research shows that excess body fat is a risk factor for many types of cancer, including breast cancer," the group said in a statement.
So what does all this mean for women who've been diagnosed with breast cancer or women who are trying to keep their risk of breast cancer as low as it can be?
According to statistics from the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), smoking is the biggest risk factor for all types of cancer. The AACR estimates the number of preventable cancers caused by specific risk factors to be:
- smoking: 33%
- obesity: 20%
- lack of exercise: 5%
- diet: 5%
- work exposures: 5%
- alcohol: 3%
- environmental pollutants 2%
Keep in mind that these numbers are for all types of cancer, not just breast cancer. So to keep your risk of cancer as low as it can be, not smoking and staying at a healthy weight seem to be the two smartest things to do.
Most people agree that diet and exercise are intertwined when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight. To get there, it makes sense to:
- eat a diet that’s low in processed foods, sugar, and trans fats
- limit or avoid alcohol
- exercise every day at a moderate or high intensity
To keep your breast cancer risk as low as it can be, you also may want to consider:
- limiting alcohol to three drinks or fewer per week or avoiding it completely
- don’t smoke, or quit if you do
- breastfeeding, if you have the option to do so
To learn more about breast cancer risk and other options to keep your risk as low as it can be, visit the Breastcancer.org Lower Your Risk section.