New Dietary Guidelines focus on longevity of healthy eating habits

This year, Valentine’s Day may end up being a little less sweet, at least for those following the new 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This most recent report on the current status of nutritional health in the U.S. suggests reduction in sugar intake as one major priority for improving the diet of the American public. While not a particularly unexpected suggestion, sugar overconsumption was emphasized more than in past reports, which primarily focused on decreasing total calorie consumption as well as sodium and saturated fat intake. While the report also dictated that these latter two troublesome nutrient groups also be consumed less, it was sweet versus savory that emerged as the one of the more challenging adversaries to healthy diet that needs to be faced in coming years.

This eighth edition of the guidelines was released at the start of the new year by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Updated every five years since its introduction in 1980, this report not only outlines the current state of nutritional health in the U.S. but also provides standards for improvement over the next five-year period. Each report encourages changes in Americans’ diet to improve overall health and prevent disease by suggesting key recommendations for beneficial food and beverage consumption as well as methods that organizations can use to enforce their implementation.

To make these recommendations, a Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee consisting of leading nutrition scientists and medicals experts reviews available nutritional data in the form of existing literature reviews, committee-generate literature reviews, national data from federal agencies, and food pattern modeling analyses. From there, they summarize the scientific evidence and the corresponding proposals for dietary changes to pass off to a combined HHS and USDA policy contingent that assembles the final report. Professionals from federal and private organizations can then use this report to direct and shift public perception and practices regarding nutrition. The ultimate goal is to have these changes then improve public health in relation to diet and overall well-being.

Currently, about 60% of the U.S. population over two years of age exhibits a healthy eating index, while only around 20% meet physical activity guidelines. However, this is contrasted by the fact that over half the population of American adults has one or more diet-related chronic diseases. Thus, this year’s report framed its key recommendations in the context of being necessary to reduce chronic disease; specifically, they highlighted how a healthy diet can reduce the risk or progression of obesity, type-2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. It argues that encouraging disease prevention through healthy diet would not only improve quality of life, it would also reduce national medical expenses by a significant amount. Chronic disease focus was an expansion of previous years’ disease prevention aims, which centered on weight and obesity alone.

“This edition of the Dietary Guidelines focuses on shifts to emphasize the need to make substitutions—that is, choosing nutrient-dense foods and beverages in place of less healthy choices—rather than increasing intake overall.”2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

As such, the key recommendations in previous reports emphasized calorie intake in addition to calorie balance (intake versus expenditure of calories) as crucial to maintaining health-beneficial weight. In contrast, this year’s report instead put the term eating patterns in the spotlight, with emphasis on variety within food groups and nutrient density, as part of their five key recommendations (see Box 1). While earlier editions of the guidelines also encouraged these three principles, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines push them front and center as a way to encourage the American public to make more long-term, and thus hopefully longer lasting, changes to their diets.


Box 1: Terms to Know

Eating pattern: The combination of foods and beverages that constitute an individual’s complete dietary intake over time.

Nutrient dense: A characteristic of foods and beverages that provide vitamins, minerals, and other substances that contribute to adequate nutrient intakes or may have positive healthy effects, with little or no solid fats and added sugars, refined starches, and sodium.

Variety: A diverse assortment of foods and beverages across and within all food groups and subgroups selected to fulfill the recommended amounts without exceeding the limits for calories and other dietary components.

The revised Dietary Guidelines themselves are not particularly different than past years and are what you would expect. Lots of veggies and fruit, some dairy, protein and grains, with limited amounts (<10% of overall calorie intake) of salt, fat, oil, and sugar is the recommended pattern of eating for the U.S.-style diet plan. Two alternatives were also described, where the Mediterranean-style plan contains more fruit and seafood and less diary while the Vegetarian plan obviously eliminates meat, poultry, and seafood while emphasizing legume, soy product, and whole grains intake.

In addition to listing daily intake amounts and limits for the food groups, each plan also frames these recommendations in the context of weekly amounts and limits. The unique aim of this dual description is to encourage more flexibility in adhering to the guidelines. It will hopefully allow Americans to recognize even if they cannot consistently meet daily quotas of appropriate nutrient and food group intake, they still can adhere to a healthy eating plan on a broader time scale.

The report also placed heavy emphasis on considering the nutrient density of consumed food. For example, a glass of juice serves as a fruit serving, but eating ‘whole fruit’ such as an apple or orange is better, as is eating whole grain bread over other types. The lack of variety in food groups—especially vegetables and protein—consumed by Americans was also a concern. Specifically, more range in veggie types (dark green, red and orange, legumes, and starchy) as well as a shift away from meat and poultry towards seafood was encouraged. Again, these are suggestions that have been made previously by the USDA and HHS, but combined with the flexibility from the newly emphasized weekly guidelines and eating patterns as a whole, the hope is to increase specifically the ease of following these nutritional recommendations.

The report also warns to keep an eye out for hidden sources of nutrient groups that should be ingested in limited amounts and have been linked by moderate to strong evidence to chronic disease (such as sugar, saturated or trans fats, sodium, and oil). For example, many types of meat are a source of high saturated fat, and yogurt can often contain high amounts of sugar, with processed foods and mixed dishes (such as burger or pasta plates) at restaurants typically containing significant amounts of salt. Given that the average American consumes almost twice the recommended levels of both sugar and salt in their diet, shifting eating patterns to lessen intake of these disease-linked food groups would be one significant way of improving general health.

To shift American diet towards a healthier nutritional composition, the guidelines helpfully provide a wide variety of suggestions in how to make this change. To incorporate more fruits and vegetables, they suggested skewing the balance of mixed meals towards these groups. For example, making an omelet for breakfast or a stir-fry for dinner that is composed of more vegetables than meat or poultry. They also give specific examples of how to make healthier exchanges in other food choices: celery and humus instead of chips and salsa, baked chicken over fried, an apple or unsalted nuts instead of commercially made granola bars, and oil instead of butter or shortening for cooking. It emphasizes that small modifications, when combined with one another, can compound into large changes to diet that, if maintained, can lead to beneficial improvements in health.

One outstanding gender-specific suggestion included reduced meat consumption by teen and adult males, who tend to over-consume that food subgroup. Additionally, adolescents and young adults as a whole typically demonstrate the worst adherence to past guidelines. This report’s heavy focus on how to shift eating patterns towards more nutrient-dense options hopefully will encourage adoption of healthy nutrition at a young age that will then be preserved into adolescence and adulthood.

Improving access to healthy food both outside and inside American homes was a major hurdle that the Dietary Guidelines identified in implementing these shifts in eating patterns. Grocery store development and access to other sources of food such as farmers markets, shelters, food banks, and community gardens or cooperatives were specific examples provided for how government and private sector professionals can make that challenge smaller. Household food insecurity—defined as the lack of consistent maintenance of healthy food choices within a home—was also a major concern, especially for families or individuals who struggle financially. Educational and nutrition assistance programs would need expansion and increased penetrance into communities to combat this issue in a more effective manner, especially given this report’s focus on healthy diet patterns that have longevity.

More than anything else, the Dietary Guidelines, 2015-2020 heavily emphasizes cementing long-term healthy eating habits by encouraging variety and flexibility in food choices over counting total calories or quantifying diet by calories alone. Directing changes to national nutrition in this way will hopefully begin to address the significant need for large changes in American diet required to reduce chronic disease in our population.


Insight Essay Contest WINNER – Developing Resilience

Author: Matthew Kelley, 3rd year, Neuroscience, Moss Lab
Matthew Kelley, 3rd year Neuro, Moss Lab

The pillars supporting a good scientist remain unbroken. They have changed little since Galileo dropped spheres in Pisa and Pasteur confirmed germs cause disease. It is the understanding and mastery of these core principles that should be the dominant focus of graduate training. The journey of a scientist is one of vistas and ditches. For the PhD student, so quickly can things shift from shining moments of discovery to the fierce harshness of figuratively banging their head against a lab bench after another failed experiment. Unless the student enters this land prepared, they will collapse in the first journey over the top. Discoveries require failures. Without resilience to failure, decisions are tainted by fear of failure. The process of gaining a PhD is overflowing with decisions of consequence including selection of advisors, scientific projects, and career paths. Resilience, the capability to adapt to diverse stressors, is critical to making these decisions with a clear and strong mind. Outlined here are four ways resilience can be improved during PhD training.

  1. Understand mental well-being.

We choose to go the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”

In 1962, in the sun drenched football stadium at Rice University, President Kennedy declared why the American people must pursue this great achievement. But the path to the Apollo 11 landing on the moon was far from smooth. A raging fire consumed all three astronauts of the first mission, Apollo 1. There were many reasons to scrap the program. Yet America pressed on to reach the lunar surface due to the ultimate resilience of an entire team following Kennedy’s call. We do things because they are hard.

In order to achieve such resilience in science, the PhD student must understand their own resilience. Are problems avoided because of failure’s sting? Do roadblocks bring the desire to avoid difficulties all together? It is critical to understand how stress affects personal decision making. A healthy mind underlies balanced processing of information. The student must be guided to recognize when their thinking is warped by stress, resulting in a lost desire to pursue difficult problems. The watchful gaze of the student’s committee is critical, but can be supplemented with mental health counseling focused on developing introspective thought. When such self-awareness is gained, resilience becomes a tangible trait to personally and actively increase. Hard problems are no longer fearsome, but glorious challenges.

  1. Place failures in proper perspective

Great people fail, but understand the meaning of failure. Failure isn’t a worthless enterprise, a waste of time and resources. Far from it. Failure is the journey.

In order to develop resilience as a PhD student, it is important to understand what failure is. When an experiment fails, it is not a fatal loss. Negative data retains value. And failed experiments can be further optimized to better answer the chosen question. In the process of PhD training, negative results or outcomes must not be hidden away, but acknowledged by student, advisor, and committee as a critical part of scientific training. Once failures are defined as constructive parts of training, resilience to their sting becomes much easier to develop.

  1. Build skills to create positive experiences

Some of the most resilient people on TV appear on Junior MasterChef, a culinary competition of children under the judgment of Chef Gordon Ramsay. He presents ingredients and a goal, and four-foot tall competitors bring him their completed dishes, some terminating in crying defeat under his carefully worded criticism. However the winners don’t break. They remain resilient to the criticism and create beautiful dishes that ultimately wow both Ramsay and audience. What sets these children apart? It’s both resilience to criticism and a mastery of cooking technique. These kid chefs are so skilled in their cooking finesse, that when a challenge comes this confidence sets them up for success.

In the same way, the PhD student can be set up for scientific success by becoming a master in their chosen area of technique. If skills are mediocre, failures are sure to increase, to the point where the student gives up and quits. Resilience is hard to build when one is set up for failure. It is an important role of the student’s advisor and committee to critique student technique, because in its improvement lies the path to increased positive student experience. And mastery of technique brings certain confidence, because though an experiment may answer or negate a hypothesis, a clean result remains a beautiful thing.

  1. Create supportive relationships

Neil Armstrong stepping onto the lunar service was a culmination of years of rigorous work. Thousands contributed so one man could take one small step. Science is a team sport. Without a supportive network of mentors and peers, problems become harder and resilience difficult to sustain.

It is easy as a PhD student to become intellectually isolated in pursuit of a project. This can and should be avoided. In order to gain resilience and pursue the hardest of problems, guidance is needed from those that have been there before. Opportunities to present work provide an outlet for constructive criticism and guidance. The selection and pairing of mentors outside the student-advisor relationship serves as a platform for dealing with failure. Support networks can be facilitated, but ultimately are an active process on the part of the student. Such relationships should be encouraged during graduate training to build the resilience to the failures and press to the successes.


Resilience is a trait able to be learned and developed by anyone. When scientific resilience is gained, hard problems can be pursued resulting in a fulfilling PhD training experience. A fulfilling scientific life requires resilience to separate one from the psychological weight of failure. And resilience not only gives the ability to think clear and true in science, but throughout the hard and difficult decisions that are guaranteed to appear during the human life. Developing resilience in science should be a major focus of graduate training.

Biotech Startup Mixer, presented by GSC Career Paths

Shortly after returning from the holidays, the Career Paths Committee of the Sackler Graduate Council coordinated a biotech/startup mixer on January 6th, 2016 at the Field in Central Square. Representatives from bosWell, Neumitra, Genometry, Thrive Bioscience, as well as the COO of Editas Medicine donated their time to chat about their careers.  The event was remarkably well attended by PhD students, as well as a handful of post-docs and MD/PhD students.  Whether it was the draw of learning more about alternative career paths, or the casual venue, the event was an excellent success.

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