New Dietary Guidelines: The Good, the Bad, and the Downright Confusing

Today, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee released its report on what Americans should eat. When finalized, the Guidelines will be the basis for all federal programs, including school lunches. And the report is a huge step forward in several ways:

  1. The report singled out vegetarian diets as one of three healthful diet patterns. The other two healthy patterns were the Mediterranean diet and the “Healthy U.S.-style Pattern.” Vegetarian diets reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes, and other health problems and have gained greater prominence in each new edition of the Guidelines.
  2. The report was a rebuke for those who have suggested that saturated (“bad”) fat, common in meat and dairy products, is somehow not a danger. The report emphasized saturated fat’s risks and maintained the previous limit that no more than 10% of calories should come from saturated fat.
  3. The report deleted “lean meat” from its list of favored foods. Its authors were convinced by evidence showing that increased consumption of “lean meat” confers no health benefits.
  4. The report breaks new ground in reporting on food’s relationship to environmental health, which in turn affects human health.

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But for all its good points, the new report has trouble spots:

  1. The report suggested that cholesterol in foods is not a major danger, contrasting with the Institute of Medicine, which found that cholesterol in foods does indeed raise blood cholesterol levels, especially in people whose diets are modest in cholesterol to start with. On this topic, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee did no original research and instead deferred to a 2014 report by the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology. However, the American Heart Association receives substantial cash payments for certifying food products, including cholesterol-containing food products as “heart healthy,” creating a financial incentive for discounting the relationship between dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol.

    The Physicians Committee is concerned that exonerating dietary cholesterol will only confuse an already bewildered public. Most people do not differentiate fat from cholesterol, or dietary cholesterol from blood cholesterol. To suggest that cholesterol in foods is not a problem will lead many to imagine that fatty foods or an elevated blood cholesterol level carry no risk—two potentially disastrous notions.

    Accordingly, the Physicians Committee has petitioned the USDA and DHHS to disregard the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s findings on dietary cholesterol. The reliance on the American Heart Association document does not comply with the spirit of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which sets standards for bias among federal advisory committees.

  1. The Committee report recommends fish, despite frequent contamination with mercury and PCBs, and despite evidence that vegetarians who avoid fish and shellfish are slimmer and have less risk of diabetes, compared with people who eat fish.
  2. The report continued to recommend dairy products, despite recent evidence that they do not “build strong bones” or protect against fractures.

Even with its flaws, the new Dietary Guidelines report is a major advance.

The Physician Committee’s own recommendations, represented graphically in The Power Plate (www.ThePowerPlate.org), focus on whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes as dietary staples. The Power Plate rests on hundreds of scientific studies showing that plant-based eating habits are associated with lower obesity rates and a reduced risk of heart disease, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes.

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Fiber is the Key to Good Health

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Fiber plays a key role for digestion, weight loss, and cancer prevention, and can even increase lifespan! But don’t be fooled—many packaged food companies are trying to boost sales by adding extra fiber to their gummy candy or yogurt, but the best source of fiber is plants themselves! Yes, natural fiber is found only in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. So make sure you’re filling your plate with whole, plant-based foods.

What is fiber?

There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber is found in oats, beans and other legumes, and some fruits and vegetables. Soluble fiber lowers cholesterol levels. Insoluble fiber—found in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, kidney beans, and bran—acts like a broom, cleaning your digestive tract.

Both types of fiber are only found in plant foods—meat and dairy products contain no natural fiber. Don’t be fooled by yogurts that prominently advertise their fiber content! That fiber was added during processing. Since dairy products are high in saturated fat and cholesterol, skip the yogurt and head to the produce aisle. Just one cup of raspberries has 8 grams of fiber! One cup of red lentils has 16 grams of fiber—and 18 grams of protein.

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Weight Loss

If you’re looking to lose weight, filling up on fiber-rich foods is your best bet. My colleagues and I recently published a study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics showing that simply switching to a plant-based diet leads to significant weight loss, without any calorie counting or exercise.

Cancer Prevention

Not only can fiber help you shed pounds or relieve your digestive woes, it can decrease cancer risk. By improving the intestinal transit of food and waste, fiber helps your body eliminate carcinogens. The U.S. Polyp Prevention Trial also found that a high-fiber diet reduced the occurrence of colon polyps. A meta-analysis published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute examined 13 studies and found that the risk of colorectal cancer decreased as fiber intake increased.

How Can I Get Enough Fiber Each Day?

I recommend a dietary intake of 40 grams of fiber per day—while most Americans are only getting 10-15 grams. But there’s no need to count. It’s easy to boost your fiber content with a few easy swaps. Trade white bread for whole grains. Ditch sugary cereals for heart-healthy oatmeal. Add some fruit to your breakfast or grab an apple or banana when you’re in a hurry. Make sure that everything on your plate has at least a little bit of fiber. Most importantly, skip the animal products. When your menu is plant-strong, you’ll be getting the fiber you need.

Want to see how your fiber intake measures up? Fill out our Fiber Checklist!

Cholesterol Confusion: Let’s Make Sense of It

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Dietary confusion just reached a whole new level. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has just announced it is backing off suggesting that traces of cholesterol in foods pose a health risk. The idea is that its effect on blood cholesterol is less dramatic, compared with saturated fat—so maybe an egg here or there is no worse than an occasional drag on a cigarette. Coupled with recent reports questioning how bad “bad fats” really are, many people are unsure what to believe.

Let’s clear up the confusion. Here are the facts, starting with cholesterol:

Cholesterol is not the same as fat. Fat is the white streak in a steak and the grease that dribbles out of a drumstick. But cholesterol is invisible. Cholesterol particles are found in the membranes that surround the cells that make up an animal’s body. Cholesterol is in all animal products and is especially abundant in the lean portions of meats. There are also loads of cholesterol in eggs, cheese, and shellfish, such as shrimp and lobster.

Cholesterol in these foods causes your blood cholesterol level to inch upward.1 The cholesterol-raising effect is not as strong as that of bacon grease and other saturated-fat-laden products, but it is still there. Especially for people whose diets are modest in cholesterol to start with, adding an egg or two a day can cause a noticeable worsening on a cholesterol test.

Some people make a point of saying that cholesterol in foods is not as bad as saturated fat in foods. Maybe, but the issue is academic, because the two travel together. Fat and cholesterol are the Bonnie and Clyde of the culinary world. An egg, for example, has a whopping 200 milligrams of cholesterol and gets nearly 20 percent of its calories from saturated fat. They conspire together to raise your cholesterol level. But most foods from plants—vegetables, fruits, beans, and grains—have virtually none of either one.

Okay, so what about fat? Is it really a health problem or not?

The short answer is yes, it’s a problem. “Bad” fat—that is, saturated fat—raises your blood cholesterol level and increases your risk of health problems, including heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Saturated fat is found in meats, dairy products, eggs, and coconut and palm oils. Trans fats—the partially hydrogenated oils used in some snack foods—are bad, too, and people who avoid these products do themselves a favor.

Some news reports have mistakenly suggested that saturated fat isn’t really so bad after all. The confusion came from statistics:

Studies that compare people who indulge in “bad” fats with those who generally avoid them clearly show fat’s tendency to boost heart risks. But studies where fat intake does not vary much from person to person do not show much effect. For example, a Finnish study in which most all the participants followed high-fat diets was unable to detect any benefit of avoiding “bad” fats—largely because there was no group in the study that actually avoided them.

A 2014 meta-analysis combined all the studies—the good ones and the not-so-good ones—and concluded that, if you jumble the data together, the dangers of “bad” fat are no longer clear.2 The study was widely quoted by food writers who saw it as an excuse to try to rehabilitate pork chops’ reputation.

The meta-analysis had another problem. It used adjusted statistics that downplayed the dangers of saturated fat. One of the studies it used was Harvard’s Nurses’ Health Study.3 In the original study, a high saturated fat intake boosted heart disease risk by 52%. But the numbers were then adjusted for protein intake, cholesterol intake, and other factors, and these adjustments made the dangers of “bad” fat hard to see. It’s a bit like studying whether alcohol causes car accidents. If you alter the statistics to compensate for whether people weave as they drive or have blurry vision, the relationship between alcohol and accidents can be made to disappear.

So the answer is not to tuck into a hunk of bacon. The answer is to look at good studies, and they clearly show the risks of fatty, meaty diets.

And what’s that about Alzheimer’s disease? In a 2003 study, the Chicago Health and Aging Project reported that people eating the most saturated fat had a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, compared with people who avoided “bad” fat.4

So the bottom line is that “bad” fat and cholesterol are as bad for you as ever. The products that harbor them—meat, dairy products, and eggs—are best left off your plate. People following plant-based diets have healthier body weight, better cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and much less risk of diabetes.5-7

So jump in. At the Physicians Committee, the 21-Day Vegan Kickstart Program starts fresh every single month, providing menus, recipes, and cooking videos free of charge. It is available in English, Spanish, and Mandarin, with a special program for people from the Indian subcontinent—plus our new Japanese program. As the confusion clears up, so will many health concerns.

1. Hopkins PN. Effects of dietary cholesterol on serum cholesterol: a meta-analysis and review. Am J Clin Nutr. 1992;55:1060-70.
2. Chowdhury R, Warnakula S, Kunutsor S, et al. Association of Dietary, Circulating, and Supplement Fatty Acids With Coronary Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Ann Intern Med. 2014;160:398-406.
3. Chiuve SE, Rimm EB, Sandhu RK, et al. Dietary fat quality and risk of sudden cardiac death in women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012; 96:498-507.
4. Morris MC, Evans EA, Bienias JL, et al. Dietary fats and the risk of incident Alzheimer’s disease. Arch Neurol. 2003;60:194-200.
5. Tonstad S, Butler T, Yan R, Fraser GE. Type of vegetarian diet, body weight and prevalence of type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care 2009;32:791-6.
6. Berkow S, Barnard ND. Vegetarian diets and weight status. Nutr Rev 2006;64:175-188. 7. Yokoyama Y, Nishimura K, Barnard ND, Takegami M, Watanabe M, Sekikawa A, Okamura T, Miyamoto Y. Vegetarian diets and blood pressure: a meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine 2014;174(4):577-87.