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Do Today’s Nutritional Guidelines Help or Hurt Us?

Our daily lives revolve around food. Searching for a nutritious breakfast often becomes a priority before heading off to work, lunch dates are planned weeks in advance, and family dinners provide quality time that for some is irreplaceable. While a lot of our food experience is social, ignoring what we put on our plate can have significant, negative impacts on our health.

In our fast-paced life, it’s all too easy to grab a quick meal at the local fast food joint or opt for prepackaged items that may seem healthy on the surface. These foods don’t allow our bodies to thrive, yet too many of us are consuming them on a regular basis. As of 2015, reports show that nearly 40% of Americans are considered to be obese. On the flip side, individuals who take a keen interest in their health may also face challenges of a different sort when trying to select the foods that are right for them.

We’re regularly given information about nutrition guidelines with certain data ingrained in us since early age. A 2,000-calorie diet is set as a benchmark for almost everyone, and using the food pyramid as a guideline has been a long-standing staple in American culture. Can we actually trust these guidelines? Is there any wiggle room when it comes to nutrition that’s right for your specific needs instead of using a one-size-fits-all program? Let’s dig into this issue and find out what’s healthy and what’s not.


Why Is There A Food Pyramid?

Depending on your age, you may not even remember a time when the food pyramid wasn’t around, as this visual representation of a “healthy” diet has been promoted heavily by the government for decades. The United States Department of Agriculture first placed its focus on healthy eating in the 1980s, as heart disease was becoming more and more common. The answer at the time was to limit one’s fat intake, but offered little else in the way of healthy advice.

Fast forward to 1992—when the original food pyramid was announced to the United States. At the bottom was a heavy dose of carbs and starch, with fruits and vegetables next up. Meat and beans were featured toward the top, alongside dairy products. The very tip of the pyramid contained fats, oils, and sweets. Given that the USDA so strongly marketed this guideline as the key to a healthy diet, food manufacturers began to produce low-fat options that contained a large dose of sugar and carbs. You can think of this food revolution as the first wave in “healthy” junk food.

As Americans began to experience more and more chronic illnesses, it was clear that something wasn’t right with the food pyramid, so in 2010, the USDA revised their recommendations. Instead of a general overview of foods to enjoy and ones to steer clear from, the new model focused on what one’s plate should look like during a typical meal. They partnered with the Department of Health and Human Services, advising to fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables as an easy way to eat a balanced diet. Instead of placing a focus on individual food groups, they attempted to make eating healthy a lot more streamlined.


Trusting Today’s Recommendations

Every five years, the USDA and HHS reviews the current nutrition guidelines and makes changes where they see fit. The shift away from the food pyramid to the plate methodology was certainly well-intentioned, however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn’t see as much of a change as what may have been expected. A study conducted between 1985 and 2010 showed obesity continuing to rise among the states involved with an interesting upswing:

  • In 1990, only 10 states studied measured fewer than 10% of their population as obese
  • By 2000, none of the states had that level of healthy individuals and instead, 23 states ranked between 20% and 24% in obesity prevalence
  • Despite the regular re-evaluation of dietary guidelines, 2010 saw 36 states with a prevalence higher than 25%, with 12 of them measuring greater than a 30% obesity rate

It’s clear that the health of Americans isn’t moving in the right direction, so in 2015, the USDA and HHS conducted another review and issued new dietary guidelines for the 2015-2020 time period. This time, rather than giving visuals that demonstrated how much of each food group to consume, they’ve used more general language when making recommendations. Common suggestions include switching out high-calorie snacks in favor of nutrient-dense items and choosing whole grains instead of refined products.

The government is making strides toward encouraging Americans to be healthier through their diet habits, but one has to question just how effective these guidelines even are? While the continued efforts of five-year reviews take into account a certain element of changing with the times, as a whole, we’re not that much healthier. Consider how these nutrition suggestions may affect you as we explore another questionable guideline—the 2,000 calorie diet.


Who Needs 2,000 Calories?

Take a look at the package of any food item and you’ll see a nutrition label that lists out the various components of what’s inside. Calories, sugar, fat, and more are all laid out neatly, along with a list of ingredients, and toward the bottom, in the fine print, there’s always the same message: “The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.”

This guideline has been around for quite a long time, and unlike the food pyramid or plate visuals, it hasn’t changed to meet our evolving nutritional needs. So why is this number still around and does it actually hold up to today’s health standards? Experts would say likely not, as it was determined in a rather arbitrary manner to begin with.

In 1990, the USDA conducted a survey where Americans reported how many calories they consumed on a daily basis. Results from men ranged between 2,000 and 3,000 per day while women reported a lower amount between 1,600 and 2,200. Instead of diving deeper into the true patterns of American eating habits, these numbers were loosely averaged and the 2,000 calorie recommendation was created.

Today’s Caloric Needs

Everyone has different caloric and nutritional needs. Body types, activity levels, and metabolism rates all play into our specific dietary needs, and assigning a 2,000-calorie per day guideline to everyone simply doesn’t make sense. Those who are attempting to gain or lose weight, or even build muscle, will also have different needs, aside from moderately active people who just want to stay healthy. How exactly can you know what you need, then?

It requires a little bit of math, but using a caloric intake calculator could make a huge difference in your overall health and well-being. Using your weight in kilograms and doing a few multiplications will result in determining your exact needs, while factoring in your level of body fat and how active you are each day. Instead of basing your diet off of an arbitrary number, you can use this customized data to enhance your own personal health goals.


Changing For The Better

One can assume that the USDA is finally realizing that their generalized advice surrounding nutrition either isn’t correct or isn’t being heeded by the general public and which is more prevalent may never be truly known. However, in another effort to make a more substantial impact on America’s health, the government has issued a requirement that all food manufacturers must change their nutrition label use.

Among some of the modifications include listing the caloric intake in a larger font, updating serving sizes, and including added sugar information within the total sugar amounts. Depending on how large the company is, manufacturers have until either 2020 or 2021 to fully comply with these changes. Again the question remains—how accurate are these new recommendations, and will they help Americans eat better?

Ultimately, it’s up to each of us individually to ensure that we’re fueling our bodies with the right foods in the proper quantities each and every day. Having some guidelines as an aid along the way is comforting, particularly for those who are trying to make radical changes to their diets, but everyone should take these nutrition suggestions with a grain of salt.

Whether the data is inaccurate or simply outdated, both the food portion models as well as caloric recommendations may not be a fit for all. Take some time to speak with your physician or a registered dietician to uncover your specific nutritional needs based upon your personal goals, and enjoy the benefits of a healthier life.

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