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New Dietary Guidelines Call For Limits On Sugar, Red Meat


It's January, and everybody seems to have advice about what we should eat. The federal government has weighed in with its new dietary guidelines. The guidelines are updated every five years, and they are considered the government's official advice on what Americans should be eating. Here's NPR's Allison Aubrey.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: The advice to cut back on sugar isn't new, but what is is a specific recommendation on just how low you should go. At a time when many Americans are consuming up to 22 teaspoons of sugar a day, mostly in the form of sugary drinks and snacks, that new recommendation is to cut that in half. The guidelines say we should limit added sugars to no more than 10 percent of our daily calories. That's about 10 to 12 teaspoons. Obesity expert David Ludwig of Harvard University, who was not involved in crafting the new guidelines, says if people follow this advice and also limit highly-refined grains, it would be a big step in helping to reduce the risk of type-two diabetes and heart disease.

DAVID LUDWIG: The recommendation to decrease added sugar intake will today have about the biggest impact of any nutritional change imaginable.

AUBREY: Beyond sugar, another issue at play in developing these new guidelines was what to say about red meat and processed meat. A panel of nutrition experts that advised the administration on what to include had said that Americans should be told to eat less red meat not only for health reasons but for the health of the planet. That did not go over so well with the meat industry or with some lawmakers. Tom Brenna of Cornell University was on the advisory panel.

TOM BRENNA: The recommendation that our committee came up with to eat less meat was certainly controversial.

AUBREY: And ultimately did not make it into the guidelines. The new guidelines do not include a specific recommendation to cut consumption of red or processed meats. Instead, the guidelines call for making small shifts to alternative sources of protein including seafood, beans, nuts and seeds. Brenna says he's OK with how the recommendation turned out, even if it's a more indirect way to say that heavy meat eaters should cut back.

BRENNA: The message is, those people who are overeating meat, eat less of it.

AUBREY: And add more variety to your diet. But a number of nutrition researchers are crying foul. Dariush Mozaffarian is a cardiologist by training. He's now the dean of the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition.

DARIUSH MOZAFFARIAN: I think it's absolutely a mistake not to include specific language about limiting red meat and especially processed meat. Processed meat is linked to weight gain, stroke, heart disease and diabetes.

AUBREY: And major health organizations including the World Health Organization point to the cancer risks linked to heavy consumption of meat. But Mozaffarian says the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which plays a significant role in shaping the guidelines, is in a tough position.

MOZAFFARIAN: A challenge here is that the dietary guidelines come from USDA which is inherently conflicted. It wants to improve the health of Americans yet it also wants to promote farming and food industry.

AUBREY: The meat industry has signaled its pleased with the new guidelines. The North American Meat Institute released a statement saying that the recommendations affirm the role that meat plays in a healthy diet, pointing out the meat is a good source of protein and B vitamins. These new guidelines will be in place until 2020, when they're expected to be updated again. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.