Dishing on the New 2011 USDA Dietary Guidelines

by Simla on February 27, 2011

The “official” USDA dietary guidelines, released as a joint effort between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) and the Department of Health and Human Services, make a splash every five years when they are updated based on the most recent research. This past month was no exception.

February is also Wise Consumer Health Month, established by the American Institute for Preventive Medicine to teach people how to be more involved with their health care. The new 2011 USDA dietary guidelines offer a great starting point to talk about how you can become wiser with your own food choices and become an advocate for your own health.

Why? Because general guidelines – “official” or not – are not always the best advice for you personally.

The 2011 USDA dietary guidelines recommend Americans consume more healthy foods like vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and to consume less sodium, saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and refined grains. They also place stronger emphasis on reducing calorie consumption and increasing physical activity.

All good and well so far, right?

While I salute the idea of generally eating less and consuming more fresh foods; the health crisis in the U.S. today is about more than calories or physical activity. Our bodies each have a unique set of needs.

Unfortunately, the guidelines continue to lack sound, clear nutrition advice in how to make healthy food choices on a daily basis. This confusion is mostly due to the USDA’s dual mission to both educate Americans about healthy eating habits and to promote the foods produced in our country. Typically the dietary guidelines are filled with mixed messages thanks to corporate food interests and lobbies for dairy, sugar, and junk food.

I think the best example of the confusion is found in the section of the guidelines called, “Selected Messages for Consumers.” The tips focus on three main areas: balancing calories, foods to increase and foods to reduce.

Here is my take on these messages.

Dietary Guidelines say:
Enjoy your food, but eat less.

Simla says:
I’m all for enjoying your food! Enjoy delicious meals that satisfy your body, your appetite, and your soul.

One important note:  be sure not to skew this advice the other way. Don’t eat too little or skip meals. Many people trying to get healthy will actually yo-yo diet from one extreme—eating too little—to the other extreme—eating too much. This up-and-down cycle is very detrimental to the body. Ultimately, extreme dieting will contribute to stressing out your body, further nutrient depletion, possibly insulin resistance, and gaining back any weight you may have lost (and then some). You should aim to feel comfortably full after each meal, and don’t wait more than 3.5 – 4 hours between meals or snacks.

Dietary Guidelines say:
Avoid oversized portions.

Simla says:
Great advice! The U.S. is notorious for big portions. But to help resolve this issue I think more guidance is needed. Eat in relation to your own body type. If you are eating meat, try to have a portion that is the same size and thickness as the palm of your hand. Also, serving sizes usually come in the form of measurements like cups, but for most people it’s hard to understand cup sizes. A better model is to think in terms of a food you already know. So for carbs like rice or sweet potatoes, you can eat about the size of a small apple. With fats, you want to have anywhere from a teaspoon (a drizzle) to 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil or other healthy fats on your whole plate, including the amount of fat you cook with that is present in the serving size you’re eating.

Another note on portions is that when you focus on whole foods with the right balance of plant-based foods, protein, and healthy fats, your body will naturally feel full and your palate will be satiated (see full plate formula below).

Dietary Guidelines say:
Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.

Simla says:
I agree wholeheartedly to eat more vegetables. But fruits and veggies are not interchangeable. Fruits are a natural source of fructose (a sugar) and can cause complications for anyone with blood sugar issues. First you want to be cautious around higher glycemic fruits like bananas and oranges. You should aim to balance consumption of these fruits with a healthy protein/fat combo like nuts or nut butter. Lower glycemic fruit choices like apples, pears and berries are also a smart choice.

Whether you are eating vegetables or fruit, always go for seasonal, organic and local if possible. And for fruits like berries, which have a relatively short season, you can utilize frozen varieties, as they are picked at the height of their season and flash frozen, which helps maintain a high vitamin content.

And rather than saying half your plate should be fruits and veggies, try this formula instead:

Simla’s Full Plate Formula
½ plate crunchy and leafy vegetables
¼ plate protein (plant or animal sources)
¼ plate whole grains or starchy root vegetables

Dietary Guidelines say:
Switch to fat free or low fat (1%) milk.

Simla says:
Milk and dairy products are a big issue. First, not everyone should have milk. No one really needs to have milk, period. Again, the USDA has a bias to promote it, in order to support the dairy industry, but research now shows that over-consumption of milk hinders bone health. We are also the only species on the planet to drink another species’ milk and to continue to drink it into adulthood.

Many people are intolerant of lactose, casein or whey (the two main proteins) found in dairy products. A lot of people think they are lactose (a sugar) intolerant, but they are actually allergic to casein or whey (proteins). Reactions to proteins can show up as allergies or a systemic intolerance with symptoms like digestive issues, diarrhea, upper respiratory infections, or even asthma. Dairy can also contributes to silent inflammation and weight gain.

If you do want to keep dairy in your diet, go for fermented dairy products like yogurt or kefir, which aid in metabolism, gut and immune health, and nutrient absorption. And also stick to full fat, non-homogenized products that aid with digestive and hormone health and keep you fuller for longer.

Dietary Guidelines say:
Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread and frozen meals—and choose the foods with lower numbers.

Simla says:
The problem with this advice is that it implies you should be getting your nutrients from boxed, packaged and fast foods. It assumes all foods come ready to microwave.

Don’t eat those foods! Or at least reduce them as much as you can. Stick to real, whole foods. Make your own soup. You can always make extra and freeze your own meals.

Heat your foods in a pan or in the oven rather than in the microwave. As you cook or prepare non-cook meals more yourself, you won’t need to calculate your sodium intake as much. You can control your intake more readily and it will become second nature to do so, so that you don’t have to feel restricted by and count numbers for the rest of your life. Also, be sure to switch from regular table salt to a high quality sea salt at home, which will give your body a more balanced intake of minerals, not just sodium.

Dietary Guidelines say:
Drink water instead of sugary drinks.

Simla says:
No, really?

Seriously, though, this advice is good news for the estimated 75% of Americans who are chronically dehydrated. Many people are confused about how much water to drink. The advice I give my clients is to drink half of cup of filtered water or a cup of herbal tea for every hour you are awake. And if you are actually feeling dehydrated, one of the best remedies is to sip warm water throughout the day. About 37% of Americans have a thirst mechanism that is so weak that they mistake it for hunger! So drinking more water can go a long way to helping alleviate the munchies and overeating.

And aim to drink clean, filtered water. While our tap water is some of the safest in the world, it’s still polluted heavily with heavy metals, pesticides, pharmaceutical drugs, and more. And it tastes HORRIBLE. You don’t know what you’ve been missing until you have sweet, clean water. Mmm mmm mmm.

So there you have it, folks. I realize that the USDA has to balance simplicity with reaching the masses, and that the best it can do is provide general advice. I do wish that it were less biased, though.

Hopefully these tips will, as I hope all my tips do, give you the edge to take what you hear, what you learn (including from me), and make it your own.


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Simla Somturk Wickless, MBA, CHC, CNE, is a health, nutrition, and lifestyle coach whose mission is to transform Busy Bodies into healthy, Balanced Beings TM. To learn how to easily double your energy, tame your stress, take control of your health, and live an intensely pleasurable life, register for your complimentary monthly eZine at

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