New Diet Proposals: Eat Your Veggies, Have Some Coffee

Image: Vegetable Tagine

Americans need to eat more vegetables, experts say in new dietary guideline recommendations. AP

Americans are killing themselves with very bad food choices, a panel of experts said Thursday.

New dietary guidelines for Americans should aim to get people to eat more vegetables, less fat and salt and to exercise more, the panel says. And they said people shouldn't worry about cholesterol itself, which means an occasional egg should be all right.

The U.S. government issues new dietary guidelines every five years and enlists an independent panel of experts to advise on what they should be. The public gets 45 days to weigh in and then Health and Human Services Department and the U.S. Department of Agriculture use the report as the basis for new guidelines to be issued by the end of the year.

For the most part, the new recommendations "reaffirm" the 2010 guidelines, the committee says in its 570-plus page report. It doesn't paint a pretty picture of the U.S. diet. Some key differences are easing up the restrictions on cholesterol-rich foods and, for the first time, advising children and adolescents to avoid consumption of high-caffeine energy drinks.

The panel also urges the federal government to do more to get Americans to actually follow the recommendations.

"On average, the U.S. diet is low in vegetables, fruit and whole grains and too high in calories, saturated fat, sodium, refined grains and added sugars," the report reads.

Americans eat too little vitamin D, calcium, potassium and fiber and eat way too much fat and salt.

And these bad eating habits are making us sick.

"About half of all Americans—117 million individuals — have one or more preventable chronic diseases that relate to poor dietary patterns and physical inactivity, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and diet-related cancers," the report says.

"More than two-thirds of adults and nearly one-third of children and youth are overweight or obese."

None of this should come as news, but despite sustained and dedicated education campaigns, Americans still eat too much white flour and sugar, drink too many sugary soft drinks and eat too much animal fat.

Advice on avoiding cholesterol could change 2:16

"These devastating health problems have persisted for decades, strained U.S. health care costs, and focused the attention of our health care system on disease treatment rather than prevention. They call for bold action and sound, innovative solutions," the report reads.

The panel doesn't say what those solutions should be. It'll take some research to figure out how to get through to Americans, says Dr. Alice Lichtenstein of Tufts University, one of the panel members. In past years it's clear people misread the messages, she told NBC News.

"We somehow got the word across better about what you should be eating more of instead of what you should be eating less of," Lichtenstein said. So many Americans ate less fat but stoked up on processed carbohydrates instead.

"We need to understand more about why people make food choices so we can move people more towards these guidelines that are evidence based," she said.

The report does suggest cutting back red and processed meat, something welcomed by the American Institute for Cancer Research. "There is convincing evidence that if Americans moderate their intake of red meat, processed meat and added sugar today, it will lead to fewer cancers tomorrow," said AICR's Susan Higginbotham.

The most widely leaked part of the report concerns cholesterol. As a specific nutrient, past guidelines have mistakenly focused too closely on cholesterol, the experts suggest.

"Previously, the dietary guidelines for Americans recommended that cholesterol intake be limited to no more than 300 mg a day," the report says. The new report is dropping that recommendation. "Available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol," it says.

And most Americans eat less than that already, Lichtenstein said.

But this is a tricky issue. Cholesterol itself is not found in very many foods -- mostly egg yolks, liver, and crustaceans such as shrimp and crab.

And it doesn't mean you can eat all the bacon and eggs you want. "No," said Lichtenstein. "Especially not the bacon."

Many foods can and do raise cholesterol and they should be limited. They include saturated fat, including the fat found in meat and dairy products as well as palm oil.

"Partially hydrogenated oils containing trans fat should be avoided," the report says. And people should not replace fats with processed carbs.

Other recommendations:

  • The dangers of mercury and other heavy metals do not outweigh the benefits of eating fish
  • A little alcohol is OK but no one should start drinking alcohol if they don't already
  • Up to 400 mg of caffeine —3 to 5 cups of coffee—are all right. Moderate coffee consumption may offer some protection against type 2 diabetes and Parkinson's, the panel suggests
  • Kids should avoid energy drinks
  • Eat less salt. Americans get an average of 3,478 milligrams a day, far above recommendations
  • "Water is the preferred beverage choice."
  • Kids should exercise an hour a day and adults should exercise at least an hour and a half a week

The panel looked closely at caffeine, particularly with recent concerns about energy drinks and questions about coffee. "There doesn't seem to be anything with coffee that causes concern," Lichtenstein said. "For decades we have been looking for something that is bad about it, but we haven't really found that," she says.

Unlike energy drinks, coffee contains phytochemicals -- natural plant products that have been increasingly shown to benefit health.

The report also talks about sustainable diets that make sure there is plenty of food for everyone now and in the future.

"A diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health-promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet," the report says.