There's never been a time like the present with as much interest in the press about nutrition and approaches to healthy eating and lifestyles.

A lot of reports in the media and in popular books are about carbohydrates -- in the form of grains, such as wheat, and in the form of sugar -- and the potential for harmful health effects. Bombarded by so many reports, consumers are getting confused about the simple truth for building a healthy eating pattern and a sustained healthy lifestyle. In fact, the International Food Information Council (IFIC) reported in its 2012 Food and Health Survey that half its nationwide sampling of Americans believe that it is easier to do their own taxes than to figure out what to eat healthfully.

It doesn’t have to be that difficult. And rather than start with popular books that focus on one food group (e.g., grains), food source (e.g., wheat), one macronutrient (e.g., carbohydrates), or one food component (e.g., sugars), consumers wanting to determine what’s a healthy dietary approach should start with considering a source of evidence-based science for building a total diet.

A total dietary approach considers the role that all food groups, food sources, macro- nutrients (including carbohydrates, protein, and fats), and nutrients play, along with food components, like sugar, in achieving the nutrients needed from foods while staying within calories to maintain a healthy weight.   

A significant body of evidence demonstrates that the total diet recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans will not only help people attain and maintain a healthy weight, but also reduce the risk of chronic illness, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and promote overall health. These recommendations are developed through an exhaustive systematic review and analysis of the best available scientific literature, resulting in guidance based on the preponderance of the evidence.

Moreover, these recommendations accommodate the varied food preferences, cultural traditions, and customs of the many and diverse groups who live in the US.

Research supporting the Dietary Guidelines clearly show that Americans of all ages are consuming too many calories for their daily needs. Further, we aren’t eating reasonable portions, we aren’t consuming enough nutrient-dense foods, and we are too sedentary. It’s not more complicated than that.

Healthy eating patterns don’t have to be sexy; they are a lifestyle and not a fad diet. To be healthier, consumers should choose a variety of nutrient-dense foods from the food groups more often – more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, more reduced and fat-free dairy foods, more seafood, and lean protein – and foods high in calories from added sugars and solid fats, and high in sodium, less often.

It’s not all carbohydrates that are a concern; Americans are consuming far too many calories from refined grains, which typically are associated with added sugars and saturated fats.  

In fact, on a standard 2000 calorie diet, only about 260 calories are budgeted in our day for the indulgent foods with added sugars and solid fats. Unfortunately, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, Americans are, on average, consuming between 600 and 800 calories each day from foods high in added sugars and solid fats of those 2000 calories, such as cake, donuts, and cookies.

Thus, consumers should stay within limits the Guidelines provide for calories from added sugars and solid fats, while shifting to replace refined grains with more whole grains, and solid fats with oils high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. And, reducing intakes of foods that are high in sodium is a necessity.

Carbohydrates in the form of fiber-rich whole grains or even enriched grains with 3 grams or more of dietary fiber are beneficial. Because we are not getting enough calcium, vitamin D, potassium, and dietary fiber, making these shifts will help Americans’ health. The science behind the Dietary Guidelines shows there are varied approaches to healthy eating patterns to help Americans shift their eating behaviors that accomplish these goals.  

The USDA Food Patterns (USDA/HHS, 2010 DGA, p. 79-82) are a science-based approach to change these trends by recommending the amounts of fruits, vegetables, grains (including whole grains), dairy foods, and protein foods (such as lean beef, nuts, seeds, and beans) to fit the calories needs of anyone ages 2 and older. The Patterns even include lacto-ovo vegetarian and vegan adaptations. So, consumers wanting to avoid certain foods can do that while being assured they get all the nutrients they need within the amount of calories that’s right for them.

Focusing on the total diet approach that the Dietary Guidelines provide for the kinds and amounts of foods to consume to be healthy and reduce the risk of chronic illness is simple and direct. Health professionals and educators, and media coverage, are more likely to help consumers change eating patterns and lifestyles by amplifying the Dietary Guidelines recommendations and providing small steps and “how-tos” from the Guidelines that resonate with an individual’s cultural and taste preferences for foods.

robert post* * *

Robert C. Post, Ph.D., MEd., MSc., former associate executive director of USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, is chief science officer at FoodMinds.