Coming This Spring: New Guidelines for a Better Diet

From the WebMD Archives

March 16, 2000 (Atlanta) -- Once again, the American Heart Association is preparing to tell us we're not eating right. New dietary guidelines will be released later this spring, in tandem with similar advisories from the Department of Agriculture.

While "heart-healthy" will again be the AHA's main message, the changes will reflect recent scientific research on saturated and monounsaturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids, soy -- even eggs, Robert Eckel, chairman of the AHA's nutrition committee, tells WebMD.

"I doubt the changes will be radical ... [but] nutrition is a very controversial topic, so we want to maintain a strong scientific base," says Eckel, who is professor of medicine in the division of endocrinology/metabolism at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver.

Current guidelines suggest that Americans get no more than 30% of their total calories from fat. They call for less than 10% of total calories to come from saturated fat; up to 10% from polyunsaturated fat; and up to 15% from monounsaturated fat.

"If anything, we will recommend a stronger restriction on saturated fat," Eckel says. The nation's obesity crisis -- especially among children -- will also be a theme. "Obesity in children has increased in the last 10 years. Physical activity and nutrition are obviously both involved; we're looking at the nutritional component."

One criticism the AHA has received over the years, Eckel says, is that although people are eating less fat, they're eating more carbohydrates. "So weight is going to be an important part of these revised guidelines ... achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight."

Certain foods and nutrients may be mentioned specifically. "There's increasing evidence that fish consumption may be helpful, and that diets high in monounsaturated fats are associated with better triglycerides and higher HDL 'good' cholesterols," Eckel tells WebMD. "Also, the whole soy issue is maturing. The nutrition field has advanced enough in the last half decade to take into consideration how that may affect dietary guidelines."

More details on omega-6 and omega-3 fats would help the American public, Annemarie Hedberg, DRPH, director of clinical nutrition at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital/Texas Heart Institute, tells WebMD. "People don't understand the difference, and it's a really big problem," she says. "We feel [these fats] affect people's immune systems. "

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She says oils high in omega-6, such as corn, safflower, sunflower, cottonseed, sesame oils tend to suppress the immune system and lower both "good" cholesterol and "bad" cholesterol levels. Omega-3 fats -- the "good" fats -- are found in canola and flaxseed oil as well as in cold-water fish: salmon, tuna, mackerel, trout, sardines. "Any kind of fish is better than meat, but cold-water is best," she says.

The new AHA guidelines may advise individualized diet plans for people with specific conditions, like diabetes. "Lipid abnormalities predispose them to heart disease, so they may need a bit more fat to raise HDL levels," Eckel says. Also, those people with existing heart disease, whose cholesterol levels may not be very well controlled, may need stricter fat restrictions.

Dietary guidelines like those issued by the AHA have had positive effects on Americans' lives, he says. "I think you have to turn back to the 1950s and 1960s, when the relationship between dietary fat and cholesterol and heart disease was pointed out. Heart disease has fallen pretty dramatically since the mid-'50s. It's still the number one killer, but yet we have less heart attacks. People are living longer and not dying early from heart disease. They smoke less, but diets in general are better than they were."

Still, American Dietetics Association spokesperson Kathleen Zelman says, Americans are eating too much fat of all types and too few fruits and vegetables. "You just can't eat processed food anymore," she says. "It's not good for your immune system; your body is not going to be able to fight cancer."

She says the popularity of the Atkins high-protein diet among many Americans is of particular concern to her. "Look at the role modeling they're doing for their children," she says. "That really concerns me in terms of fat and saturated fat. It also overloads kidneys with too much protein to handle. That's certainly not the way we want parents to be role modeling."

Vital Information:

  • The American Heart Association will release new dietary guidelines this spring. At about the same time, the Department of Agriculture will come out with similar advisories.
  • The guidelines will clarify the roles of different types of fat and will also address the importance of maintaining a healthy weight.
  • The AHA will also offer guidelines tailor-made for people with specific conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease.
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