The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) has filed its report and as of this writing is awaiting public comment before reporting to the Secretaries of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). OK, I know you are already worried that this is another government intrusion in your personal life. Of course you are correct since the report is full of information about how individuals, schools, governments, and private enterprise could all do a much better job with American diet and exercise. However, the DGAC and I trust all of our readers fully understand that in the final analysis it is the individual (yes, you) who decides what to eat and whether to exercise. So the DGAC does us all a favor by putting in one place a rather long document that gets the science out for us to read about healthy aging as it relates to diet and exercise. I recommend the entire report to all of our readers. They prepare this report every five years.
Public health is a matter of governmental and individual interest since, increasingly, health care is being financed by governments (state and federal) and more importantly a healthy population leads to more happiness and productivity. However, all of us who have lived long enough have not only watched the graying of America (we are living longer), but paradoxically we have also seen the fattening of America with obesity becoming a larger (no pun intended) problem each decade. Poor diet and failing to exercise lead to a number of preventable diseases such as heart, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. These diseases are killers, but can be prevented with better diet and exercise. According to the DGAC report, “about half of all American adults – 117 million individuals have one or more preventable chronic diseases that are related to poor quality dietary patterns and physical inactivity.” This is a problem inconsistent with healthy aging.
The solution, of course, is to eat better and to exercise more. This columnist has written many monthly articles on this very subject, so it is not news to regular readers. However, as simple as this solution is to write or say, it remains very difficult for Americans to do for a great variety of reasons. Nevertheless, we will quote what you already know, but what the DGAC once again reinforces: “The overall body of evidence examined by the 2015 DGAC identifies that a healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-or non-fat diary, seafood, legumes and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red processed meats; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains.” (The bold type appeared in the report for emphasis as it does here.) To make this a little more specific regarding two of the most important targets; sodium intake should be less than 2,300 mg per day and saturated fat should not exceed 10 percent of total calories. You have to read food labels to make sure you are meeting these goals. And with regard to exercise, engage in 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity such as brisk walking, or 1.25 hours a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity like jogging or playing competitive aerobic sports.
Put plainly: the DGAC states that: “U.S. dietary patterns should be rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in low- and non-fat dairy products and alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar sweetened foods and beverages and refined grains.” More vaguely a “population-wide culture of health” needs to replace whatever it is we now have that seems to encourage or reinforce bad diets and sedentary life-styles that lead to a land of obesity and chronic disease. Everyone needs to get involved. It begins with each of us living the culture of health and preaching it to our families and friends. Schools and health providers and insurers need to be fully committed to education and importantly encouraging us to eat properly and exercise at all ages. An example that might be followed is to ban sugar additives to drinks in schools, just as smoking has finally been removed from most public places. This type of new approach may offend those of us who believe in individual choice, but it is clear that choosing to harm oneself by poor diet and lack of exercise is taxing a limited resource healthcare budget. The DGAC calls for bold actions to stem the tide of increasing preventable disease contributed to by our diet and exercise habits. It remains to be seen what can be done: certainly something different from what has been done heretofore must occur if we expect to see improvement.
The Bottom Line
In its report, the DGAC published the figure below. It shows schematically the relationship of various influences and determinants in our culture that lead individuals and groups to diets and physical activity patterns and behaviors that can lead to good or bad health. Interventions can be made in all of the areas depicted and in others not shown. However, with regard to our healthy aging we must observe the proper diet and engage in regular physical activity. This is a decision each of us makes every day.