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Dr. Penny Kris-Etherton Shares Perspective on Dietary Guidelines

By: The HumanN Editorial Team, featuring Dr. Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, RD


Q: What were you most excited to see coming out of the newly released Dietary Guidelines for Americans?

A: I was excited to see that for the first time, the new Guidelines made recommendations by life stage, from birth through older adulthood. As such, the Guidelines acknowledge the unique needs of every life stage. While we have known that nutritional needs are different across the life cycle, having recommendations now for every life stage speaks to the importance of meeting nutrient needs at all ages. This edition of the Dietary Guidelines has made this message very important.

The new Guidelines also stress the importance of being more mindful of what you are eating and focus on nutrient-dense, healthy foods for the majority of your meals and snacks.  Make every bite count is a great message for consumers.


Q: What are some trends you think will come from the Dietary Guidelines?

A: I believe we are going to see the trend toward more plant-based meat products become more popular. And while this can be a positive trend in many ways, it’s also important to recognize not all things labeled “plant-based” are created equal. Some of the plant-based meats are ultra-processed and have a lot of saturated fat, sodium, and additives. Additionally, pairing such plant-based meats with other accompaniments like cola beverages and fried foods – both of which are technically still vegetarian, could be doing your health more harm than good.

If you want to eat a vegetarian, plant-based diet, that’s fine, but be mindful of the foods and their ingredients & nutrient profiles, as many aren’t necessarily healthier than animal-based options. Sometimes, the grilled chicken sandwich is better than the ultra-processed plant-based chicken option that is high in salt and saturated fat.


Q: How would you recommend people approach being more mindful with their choices?

A: When faced with a shelf full of options at the supermarket, some of which present as “healthy”, take a second to read the Nutrition Facts Label and the ingredient label before purchasing an item. What ingredients are listed in the fine print on the ingredient label? It’s essential to pay attention to these details—not just the calories and nutrients on the Nutrition Facts Label.

Is the food high in saturated fat? If you are paying attention to your health, this is especially important.

Is it high in sodium? Sodium is one of the hardest nutrients to control because it “sneaks up” in many pre-packaged foods, some of which you may not realize like bread, cereals, soups, and frozen veggies.

Added sugar is another nutrient of concern. Natural sugar is fine because it’s naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables. But added sugar is something that we should decrease.  We have to pay attention to added sugar in sugar-sweetened beverages, cakes, cookies, pies, sweet dessert, and candy. Added sugar also shows up in coffee beverages, energy drinks, condiments like ketchup, and fruit-flavored yogurts. Yogurt is thought to be healthy food, and has a “halo” around it, but if you’re eating a lot of fruit-flavored yogurts, and it’s not sweetened with a non-nutritive sweetener, you’re probably eating a lot of added sugar.

Q: How do supplements play a role in the new Guidelines?

A: If you review the Dietary Guidelines and search for the word supplement, you’ll see it many times. That’s because dietary supplements may be useful in providing one or more nutrients you aren’t getting in your diet in the foods you are eating.

Many adults in the United States take one or more dietary supplements in a pill or drink form. Popular supplements include nutrients that are under-consumed among older adults, including calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D.

With vitamin D, in particular, it’s hard to reach recommendations through diet alone. Those living in assisted living facilities and nursing homes are frequently home-bound or institution bound. They are not getting out at all, especially amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. It used to be that a family member or friend would visit them, and they would go outside. Thus, many older people are not getting sufficient sunlight, and, hence, vitamin D.

Therefore, consuming foods and beverages fortified with vitamin D is an option. In many cases, taking a vitamin D supplement may be appropriate, especially when sunlight exposure is limited due to climate or sunscreen use.


Q: What do you hope people will take away from new Dietary Guidelines?

A: As with all previous guidelines, I think the recommendations are in line with what the nutrition community has been saying all along. Good nutrition is essential. But this version updates the message to include a life stage focus. At every single life-stage everyone must pay attention to what they are eating because it matters–especially older populations, many of whom are not getting the nutrients they need and recommended physical activity.

Overall, a positive message for everybody is to pay attention to what you eat, no matter your age or lifestyle. Eat more fruits and vegetables and focus on nutrient dense foods.


Link to Dietary Guidelines.

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