Eat less fat! No, eat more fat but only the right kinds! Wait! Eat low glycemic, high fiber, three meals, six meals, no, graze all day long! All this nutrition information is ripe with plenty of good advice but also a lot of contradictions and myths. Sorting it out can be extremely confusing.
To stir up the pot once again, the Department of Health and Human Services and the USDA together last month released their every-five-year revision of the Dietary Guidelines 2015 – 2020. The recommendations are designed to help Americans choose nutritious foods to promote health and prevent chronic disease for current and future generations.

As a Registered Dietitian, I have spent most of my career (and even personal life!) helping folks sort out fact from fiction for food DOs and DON’Ts. And while it’s probably not as complicated as some might make it sound, I remind my clients that “simple” doesn’t mean “easy.” In some ways simple can be more challenging than complicated, as those are some of the behavior changes (like “eat more vegetables”) that can be the most personally demanding. While they may sound simple, it doesn’t make them easy and can require weeks of planning and practice to adopt.

So, what does a healthy eating pattern mean? As the high-fat/low-fat and how-much-sugar-is-healthy wars rage on, one powerful message came out of the newly released Guidelines. It is important to achieve a healthy eating pattern, rather than focusing on “good” or “bad” foods.

There are no miracle foods or demonic foods that are going to prevent or promote disease, especially if they are consumed occasionally. Another way of thinking about this — we don’t have to include or exclude a singular food or even a whole category of foods.

The Guidelines say “consume a healthy eating pattern that accounts for all foods and beverages within an appropriate calorie level.” An eating pattern represents what we regularly eat and drink, and these dietary components act together in relation to our health. Nutrition scientists now believe the combination of foods included in the diet over time plays a more important role in achieving good health and preventing disease than any single food ever will.

Is that good news or bad news for those of us trying to sort through the confusion and make the best choices? I think it is good news but for some of us it’s going to take a little getting used to. Instead of NEVER eating chocolate, or avoiding carbohydrates or fats, following a healthy eating pattern includes choosing:

  • A variety of vegetables—dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy, and others
  • Fruits, especially whole fruits
  • Grains, at least half of which are whole grains (the kind with >3 grams of fiber per serving)
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified soy beverages
  • A variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds, and soy products
  • Healthy fats including avocado, nuts, all natural nut butter, seeds and plant-based oils

Notice this list doesn’t say “NEVER eat this” or “ALWAYS eat that.” If you’re looking for a healthy eating or weight loss program, try to find one that reinforces an eating pattern instead of a diet that tells you exactly what to eat or avoid.

Another plus of striving for an eating pattern rather than a diet? You can individualize it to the way you like to eat, as long as it includes healthy foods. In my experience, clients often fail when they try to stick to a diet that is overly strict or one that focuses on foods they don’t like to eat. One insight that two decades of nutrition counseling has brought me is that with the right direction and a flexible approach we can all find an eating pattern that includes healthy foods we enjoy. That’s a recipe for success!

For more information about the other changes in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines and how the Boston Heart Lifestyle Program fits with the guidelines read this letter from the Boston Heart clinical staff.