When You Eat, Focus on Dietary Patterns Rather than "Nutrients"

By Richard Asa @RickAsa
March 02, 2015

A break from the past would make a sensible diet easier to understand and apply.

If you’ve been eating a lot of fruits and vegetables and whole grains, choosing fewer red and processed meats, and reading labels to gauge levels of added sugar in a wide array of prepared foods, you’re essentially following the advice of a government committee urging new U.S. dietary guidelines.

In the past, the guidelines, updated every five years, placed an emphasis on consumption of individual nutrients in a healthful diet, which many nutrition experts said was confusing to the average American.

“If we get the foods right, in sensible combinations, the nutrients sort themselves out. If we just keep fixating on any given nutrient, we just wind up inventing new ways to eat badly,” David Katz, MD, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center told the Huffington Post.

The committee says Americans should be encouraged and guided to consume dietary patterns that are rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in low- and non-fat dairy products and alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meats; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and beverages and refined grains. You can achieve these dietary patterns in many ways, and our diets should be tailored to our individual biological and medical needs as well as socio-cultural preferences, the committee said.

Advice that concentrates on dietary patterns is an important change. The report by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee says the American diet is lacking in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, while being too high in salt and sugar. The committee also tied optimal health to physical activity, saying in essence that while we eat too much junk, we also eat it without working off the nutritionally empty calories that come from eating junk food. The actual Dietary Guidelines for Americans will be released later this year.

Sugar, in fact, has been demonized since an influential study conducted in Sweden found that our collective sweet tooth is killing us by degrees because added sugar increases the risk of heart disease over time.

Bonnie Taub-Dix, author of “Read It Before You Eat It” and a nutrition blogger, doesn’t criticize the report but wants you to be sensible about the information it contains. “People have to be careful about how they interpret (the report),” she says.  

“The information in the report is true; it’s valid. Yes, you can eat eggs, but it doesn’t mean you should be loading up on five-egg omelets every day or changing your breakfast habits so this is all you’re eating.”

“The guidelines don’t say anything about portion sizes. You really need to be sensible about how much you’re eating, not just what you’re eating,” she says. “Moderation – that same, boring word – is critical. Plus balance and variety.”

To Taub-Dix, the most important take-away from the report revolves around advice that leads to rounded, complete meals the entire family eats together.

Michael Pollan, a nutrition activist who has often criticized agri-business and the food industry in general for what and how we eat, famously has said “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

“That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy,” he wrote in an essay for the New York Times.

“A little meat won’t kill you, though it’s better approached as a side dish than as a main,” he continued. “And you’re much better off eating whole fresh foods than processed food products. That’s what I mean by the recommendation to eat ‘food.’ Once, food was all you could eat, but today there are lots of other edible food like substances in the supermarket.”

In many ways, Pollan’s words reflect what the new dietary report advises. The good news is “Big Food” may be losing its charm even before the new guidelines come out.

The committee also took a stab, for the first time, at how diet may affect mental health. The report notes the American Psychiatric Association considers omega-3, naturally found in fish, as a “complimentary therapy” for those with major depression, for example.

With research still limited, the committee declined to make advice for brain health, but Taub-Dix sees the connection as common sense.

“It’s critical,” she says. “I don't know how the two could be separated. Skip a meal or two and see how you feel. See if you can concentrate or focus. To be at optimum performance, you need to eat well. What you eat affects your mood, and your mood affects what you pick to eat.”


February 24, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN