By: Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN
Over the past 100 years, the USDA has provided dietary recommendations to help guide Americans on what to eat and drink to promote health and reduce disease risk. From the 1980s until recently, dietary recommendations focused on limiting single nutrients—fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium—because of their assumed link to increased risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.
As research advances and evolves, nutrition experts gain fresh insights into foods, their nutritional value and how they interact with one another to provide additional health benefits. This new information is shifting how experts talk about food and nutrition, impacting current healthy eating guidelines. As a result, future dietary recommendations are expected to—and should—emphasize overall food quality rather than single nutrients and calories consumed.
A healthy eating pattern places emphasis on consumption of high-quality foods, which are nutrient-dense, wholesome foods that are unprocessed or minimally processed, while reducing refined starches, added sugars, processed meats and other highly processed foods. Examples of high quality foods include fruit, vegetables, milk, cheese, yogurt, beans, nuts, seeds, fish, lean meat, poultry, eggs, healthy fats and oils. The different nutrients within high-quality foods work together to provide even greater health benefits, re-emphasizing the importance of a healthy eating pattern for nutrition as well as health-promoting and protective benefits.
Additionally, foods that fall within the same food group category may not be equal in terms of nutrition or health benefits. Foods such as breads, pastas and baked goods that are rich in refined starches and sugars have been shown to increase the risk of chronic disease and negatively impact health and health outcomes. In comparison, minimally processed whole grains such as oats, whole-grain breads and pastas, quinoa and brown rice positively impact health by providing essential nutrients. Minimally processed grains are associated with reduced risk of chronic diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer.
Processing can modify a food’s nutritional quality, altering the complex structure of nutrients found in a food. The food quality may differ depending on whether a food is raw, cooked, fermented or highly processed. The level of processing impacts taste, texture and appearance, as well as nutrition and health benefits. This concept is known as the food matrix, which is essentially the package of nutrients, microbes and bioactive components that work together in whole foods to enhance health benefits. Additionally, functional foods, which are foods that provide health benefits that go beyond the individual nutrients they contain, are noted for their nutrition and favorable health outcomes when consumed as part of a regular, healthy eating pattern.
Examples of functional foods that deserve special attention are fermented foods like yogurt and kefir, which provide individual nutrients (protein, calcium and potassium) along with naturally occurring components (probiotics) that provide additional gut health and overall health benefits. Whole fruits and vegetables also have functional benefits because they are rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals and contain components (bioactive compounds) that offer additional protection to the body, helping to reduce the risk of chronic disease.
In contrast, dietary recommendations will likely emphasize reducing and/or eliminating consumption of highly processed snack foods, baked goods made of refined starches, and sugary drinks that are a regular part of the American diet due to their lack of essential nutrients and negative health outcomes. These foods are essentially “empty” calories—or high calorie foods with little nutritional benefit—that actually inhibit proper growth and development in children and adolescents.
Overall, as nutrition experts gain new insights and understanding into how foods impact health and health outcomes, the way we teach children and families how to eat healthfully must also change. Currently, nutrition education is not a required part of instruction in public schools, and when taught, it is limited in scope.
As a registered dietitian nutritionist and advocate for nutrition education, I strongly believe that teaching and encouraging Americans, especially children and families, to consume whole, minimally processed foods as part of a healthy eating pattern is critical to achieving optimal health. I believe that health education should include nutrition education, specifically nutrition education that expands beyond teaching students recommended servings of each food group to also address the quality of foods within food groups and how to make healthier food decisions. We know that within each food group, food quality varies widely, which in turn greatly influences how foods affect overall health. By teaching healthy eating habits that include a variety of foods from all food groups with an emphasis on the importance of food quality, we can help empower Americans to make informed—and hopefully better—eating decisions.
As the approach to teaching healthy eating patterns continues to evolve, nutrition education can emphasize food quality by encouraging whole-food choices that are minimally processed in place of refined starches, added sugars, processed meats and other highly processed foods and beverages. Healthy eating patterns that include protective foods such as dairy, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, nuts and plant-based oils provide the foundation for optimal health for children and their families.
Free nutrition resources to help teach healthy eating habits are available. Educators and health professionals interested in teaching nutrition can sign up for free nutrition resources at HealthyEating.org.
Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN
Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN
Kristal is the project manager of nutrition science and a registered dietitian nutritionist.
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