On Your Health

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What Do the New Dietary Guidelines Really Mean?

Today we have a post from our guest blogger, Karen Massey, RD, LD, who is a registered dietitian at INTEGRIS, where she has been a community nutrition dietitian for more than 25 years. Karen’s primary role is helping people (employees, outpatients and members of the surrounding community) prevent or delay chronic disease by making healthier food choices.

I am delighted to join Alix Benear, RD, LD, as a guest blogger giving you health tips for starting a healthy new year!

January certainly is a busy month for dietitians. This is especially true this year since the 2015-2020 U.S. Dietary Guidelines were just released earlier this month —the same day we started our INTEGRIS "Changing Your Weighs” classes for 2016.

As you may have noticed, there has been a flurry of opinions and news reports regarding the new dietary guidelines.  I thought I’d share a few pointers for those who are trying to decide what (if anything) they should be doing differently.

The overriding message should sound familiar. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines are updated every five years based on the accepted wisdom of current scientific knowledge. Since about half the nation continues to struggle with diet-related health problems such as cardiovascular disease (including high blood pressure), type 2 diabetes and obesity, it comes as no surprise that the “new” guidelines continue to focus on meeting nutrient needs within an appropriate calorie level. One of the best ways to do this is eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and moderate portions of lean protein, while limiting foods high in saturated fat, salt and added sugar.

Appropriate Calorie Level

In my opinion, it is very difficult to make sense of some of the updated recommendations if you don’t know how many calories you need. The number of calories needed for any individual is based on a number of factors like gender, age, body size and physical activity.

Older, smaller people don’t need as many calories as younger, larger folks. Obviously, physical activity sways calorie needs. If you need help determining how many calories are right for you, go to This website not only helps you determine the number of calories needed, but also describes what a healthy eating pattern would look like at various calorie levels. For example, a person who needs about 2000 calories per day should aim to eat about two and a half cups of vegetables, two cups of fruit, six ounces of grains, three cups of milk and about five and a half ounces of lean proteins such as meat, beans, fish, eggs and poultry.

A slower method of determining if you are eating an appropriate calorie level is to weigh yourself. If your body weight is stable, you are eating an appropriate amount to maintain your current weight. If you’re gaining weight (and you don’t want/need to) you’re eating too many calories.

Getting Specific about Saturated Fat and Sugar

The new recommended dietary goals were changed on several fronts. Specifically, the guidelines advocate limiting saturated fat and added sugars to less than 10 percent of your total calories; hence the reason it’s helpful to know how many calories are “appropriate” for you. For example, 10 percent of 2000 calories = 200, while 10 percent of 1600 calories is 160. In terms of grams: 200 calories equals about 22 grams of saturated fat and 50 grams of added sugar. 160 calories translates to 18 grams of saturated fat and 40 grams of added sugar.

The Devil is in the Details

I suspect one of the reasons that the new guidelines created confusion for news reporters is that it’s rather difficult to distill specific recommendations (like striving to limit saturated fat to 10 percent of total calories) into simple headlines. I worry that some of the popular images shown in the media were misleading, especially if you only glanced at the headlines without paying much attention to the script.

One such headline, reading “Meat and Eggs are Okay,” was accompanied by a picture of platters of T-bone steaks. Although the U.S. Dietary Guidelines did indeed “lift” old restrictions in total fat and cholesterol, and they also removed wording specific to limiting consumption of red meat, this doesn't mean you can eat meat and eggs in unlimited portions. I’m very concerned that the images depicted don’t convey the actual message very accurately.

Alas, as always, I return to my usual, overriding message, where I advise Americans to choose a variety of foods from all the food groups, within an appropriate calorie level. A healthy eating pattern for 2000 calories, for example, only advocates about five and a half ounces per day of protein. This means ALL your protein for the day -- seafood, meat, poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds and soy -- are counted together to get your five and a half servings of protein. I want to make sure that everyone understands  that the “lifted restriction” does not mean you can now east piles of bacon and eggs. Ditto olive oil, wine and coffee.

I keep saying it, but I want to be clear: a healthy eating pattern is still confined within an “appropriate” calorie level. Even if the grams of total fat are not limited, the total calories are, So, stir-frying four cups of broccoli, bell peppers and onion (about 100 calories worth) in four tablespoons of olive oil still adds 400 calories to your once 100 calorie pan! We haven’t even “counted” the T-bone and that glass of wine (read on) ...

Alcohol Guidelines

Contrary to how journalists are reporting the story, the “new” guidelines do NOT suggest that everyone needs to drink alcohol if they aren't already doing so. For those who do drink, the new guidelines advise people regarding amounts. For women, the maximum number of drinks per day is one. For men, it’s two.

A “drink” is defined as 14 grams of alcohol, which translates to five ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or one and a half ounces of distilled spirit at 80-proof. Heavy drinking is defined as eight drinks in one week for women or fifteen drinks in one week for men.

Binge drinking is defined as drinking more than four drinks in two hours for women, or more than five drinks in two hours for men. Both heavy drinking and binge drinking are associated with INCREASED risk. I share this because I’m concerned that the “promo” images (those short takes intended to prompt you to “stay tuned”) at the end of the news segment were often presented with some sort of jovial statement and a picture of wine flowing freely. But to put this in real-life perspective, try measuring five ounces of wine the next time you pop a cork. You'll see it's not a full glass! has a video showing how to judge the correct amount of wine in your pour.

To sum it up: portion control is still important, counting calories still matters, watch out for sugar (women should consume no more than 24 grams a day, while men should consume no more than 36 grams per day -- but a single can of coke has almost 40!), it's best to get your recommended daily allowance of calories from a variety of foods from ALL the food groups, and know your portion sizes when pouring yourself a drink.

Karen Massey INTEGRIS dietitian

Karen Massey, RD, LD, provides education for a number of INTEGRIS resources including Senior Health Services, PACER Fitness Services and Health Essentials programs, plus an array of community programs and organizations that serve populations who may be at risk for developing chronic disease. Karen has been involved in community nutrition since 1983, when she completed her dietetic internship at Oklahoma State University. Karen is a member of the American Dietetics Association, The Oklahoma Dietetics Association, and is a member of the Sports and Cardiovascular Nutrition practice group. Karen can be reached at

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