WASHINGTON — The federal government Thursday told Americans not to worry so much about cholesterol in their diets, that lots of coffee is fine and that skipping breakfast is no longer considered a health hazard.
The recommendations are part of a new “Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” the influential nutrition advice book that, updated every five years, expresses official thinking about what constitutes a nutritious meal.
Most notable among the changes: The government dropped its warning about avoiding cholesterol in the diet. Instituted in 1977, that caution helped sink egg sales, but scientists now say the warning is unnecessary.
But there were several other notable changes: Salt limits were eased, if only slightly, for many people. Coffee won official approval for the first time. And apparently, skipping breakfast is no longer considered a health hazard. While the old version of Dietary Guidelines informed readers that “not eating breakfast has been associated with excess body weight,” the new version is silent on the topic.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are updated every five years, shape school lunches for millions and serve as the basis of public health campaigns aimed at reducing heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
In short, the new guidelines say:
• Cholesterol: No limit anymore, but don’t have too much.
• Salt: Less than 2,300 milligrams a day for everyone. That’s a teaspoon.
• Coffee: Up to five 8-ounce cups a day.
• Dairy: Stick to low-fat or skim milk.
• Sugar: Keep added sugars to less than 10 percent of daily calories.
• Alcohol: Up to one drink a day for women, two for men.
• Meat: Get a variety of it, but go for lean and watch out for saturated fat.
• Saturated fat: Keep to less than 10 percent of daily calories.
The new guidelines were developed amid unusual scrutiny arising from questions about whether the recommendations have been based on sound science.
These questions led to a congressional hearing and in December, Congress approved a measure that calls for the National Academy of Medicine to review how the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services generate the advice book.
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One of the key criticisms of the government effort is that it has generated advice that later proved unfounded — with the decision to drop the dietary cholesterol warning as a prime example.
But in talking to reporters, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asserted that the government’s advice, while changing with advances in science, has largely remained consistent over the years: consume more fruits, vegetables and whole grains; and consume less saturated fat, sodium and foods with added sugars such as sweets and soft drinks.
“There’s been, obviously, a healthy debate about these guidelines,” Vilsack said. “I think that has been extraordinarily helpful.”
Vilsack is former governor of a state — Iowa — that long had been the top egg-producing state in the nation until last year’s bird flu epidemic caused a drop.
The controversies over the guidelines this year in many ways merely reflect the difficulties of nutrition science.
Long-term experiments on human diets are rarely done, at least in part because it is difficult to control the diets of test subjects. So public health experts are left to rely on lesser forms of evidence.
In assembling the guidelines, the government relies on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a 15-member panel of experts.
In what may be its most controversial move, the new version continues a long-standing warning about foods rich in saturated fats — that is, those fats characteristic of meat and dairy products.
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By doing so, the new guidelines will draw criticism, but any advice on saturated fats likely would have.
On one side, groups such as the American Heart Association largely agree with government warnings about saturated fats. In their view, consuming saturated fats leads to higher levels of “bad” cholesterol in the blood, and that, in turn, raises the risk of heart disease.
Other groups, including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, recommend that the dietary guidelines de-emphasize the potential dangers of saturated fats, suggesting instead that dietary guidelines warn of too many carbohydrates.