— American diets need to get a lot less salty, according to the U.S. government.
The Agriculture and Health and Human Services departments issued the latest dietary guidelines Monday, instructing about half the population to reduce daily sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams, or about a half a teaspoon of salt, a day.
Along with pushing for a more plant-based diet loaded with vegetables, fruit and whole grains, the new food rules also advise Americans to reduce the sugar and refined grains in daily diets, including drinking more water instead of sugary drinks.
The guidelines, which are written every five years, reduce the amount of recommended daily salt for those who are 51 and older, African Americans, or those who have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease. For the rest of the population, the new food rules remain basically unchanged from 2005.
The recommendation for how much sodium Americans should consume may seem drastic — the average American consumes about 3,400 mg of sodium a day — but nutrition expert Marion Nestle wishes the government guidelines were more straightforward about pinpointing the food sources of most of the excess calories, sugar, fat and sodium in our diets.
"I would have loved to see them name names and flat out say 'avoid soda, and eat less steak, french fries, pizza, and cookies,' instead of tap dancing around the issue," says Nestle, author of "Food Politics" and Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University.
The guidelines are intended as a roadmap for federal nutrition programs including the National School Lunch Program and are a major influence for how foods are developed and the types of ingredients used, such as more whole grains or fortified foods, and snacks without trans fats or added sugars. For the first time, the government specifically addresses the guidelines to a predominantly unhealthy, overfed, and overweight population — an estimated 68 percent of American adults are currently overweight or obese.
More vegetables, whole grains
Studies have shown excess sodium raises blood pressure and increases hypertension risk, contributing to heart disease, stroke and kidney disease. There’s strong evidence for adults and moderate evidence for children that as sodium intake drops, so does blood pressure. A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating salty foods like french fries can affect arteries in only 30 minutes by making it harder for blood to flow through blood vessels, an effect that can last for up to two hours.
The 2010 guidelines are not a big overhaul from 2005, but the new rules do urge a 20 to 30 percent reduced intake of solid fats and added sugars. Americans currently consume about 35 percent of their total daily calories from solid fats found in desserts such as cakes and cookies, pies, doughnuts and granola bars, regular cheese, sausage, hot dogs, bacon and ribs, pizza and french fries. Added sugars are found in fruit drinks, ice cream, and candy.
The new food rules also encourage Americans to pare down portions in their meals and limit refined grains. They also recommend 150 minutes of physical activity weekly, a level consistent with previous guidelines. For adults, that means 15 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity each week. Children and adolescents age 6 and older should get at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily. Younger kids should play actively several times a day, the government advises.
Although daily recommendations for total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol also haven’t changed, the new recommendations tell Americans to avoid synthetic trans fats. High intakes of these fats often found in margarine, snack foods and prepared desserts raise “bad” LDL cholesterol, lower “good” HDL cholesterol and raise the risk of coronary heart disease.
“Reducing calories from solid fats and added sugars allows people to consume more nutrient-dense foods, such as vegetables, including cooked dry beans and peas, fruits, whole grains, and fat-free and low-fat fluid milk and milk products, without exceeding overall calorie needs,” says Roger A. Clemens, a member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and adjunct professor at the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy. Although not a significant departure from previous guidelines, the new recommendation is for no more than 5 to 15 percent of calories from solid fats and added sugars, an estimated 260 calories a day for every 2,000 calories consumed.
Clemens explains the guidelines are meant to provide flexible guidance instead of a rigid prescription for how to eat. There have been several moves — including the 2010 National Salt Reduction initiative, a New York-led partnership with major food marketers and restaurants such as Kraft, Boar’s Head, Unilever and Subway — to reduce the sodium in processed and restaurant foods.
Experts argue that simply slashing sodium will help us eat more healthfully since many salty foods are also packed with calories, fat and sugar. About 75 percent of the sodium in our diets comes from packaged and restaurant foods, says nutritionist Melinda Johnson, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
In restaurant meals, sodium lurks in fried or baked foods, condiments and salad dressings, for example.
“When you go out to eat, ask for food prepared without salt," she says. "Also look for sodium and other nutrition information online ahead of time before you go to a fast food restaurant.” She also recommends finding out where sodium may hide, for example in unlabeled foods like poultry and meats, and to ask for lower sodium options.
As one example, Lona Sandon, R.D., another spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, suggests lowering sodium by eating quick cooking oats instead of instant oatmeal. She also suggests reading labels, and says many shredded wheat cereals have little or no sodium. Worried about how these will taste? “For flavor and more nutrients, you can dress up cereal up with sliced banana, diced apple pieces, or chopped walnuts,” says Sandon.