Ten percent of calories from sugar. Ten percent from saturated fat. Less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day.
If it sounds like a lot of work to you, you are not alone. Even some of the country’s leading nutritionists say it’s a struggle to figure out how to follow the latest dietary guidelines released by the federal government Thursday.
“It’s really hard to translate all these many pages into something practical,” says Sara Baer-Sinnot, president of Oldways, a group that advocates a Mediterranean-style diet and simpler ways of eating.
In fact, most people won’t even be able to get 20 percent of calories from sugar and saturated fat and still fit in all the fruits, vegetables and whole grains they’re supposed to, the guidelines say.
One of the first stumbling blocks is even knowing how many calories you should eat. Food labels are based on a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet, but that’s only an average. The American Cancer Society has an online calculator here.
One easy fix – swap in water for sodas or sweet tea. A 12-ounce can of fizzy soft drink has about 140-150 calories. A cup of chocolate ice cream has 134 sugar calories, not to mention fat. That’s going to use up most of anyone’s 10 percent daily sugar allowance.
So where else is sugar hiding? Of course it’s in cookies and other sweets, but it’s also in bread, soup, even salad dressing.
Sugar is included on the nutrition label, but not as a percentage of calories. The Food and Drug Administration is working to change that, but in the meantime, figuring it out will be hard.
“When you say the word percentage to most folks, their eyes glaze over. Who wants to do a math problem to decide what to eat?” asked Gary Foster, chief scientific officer for Weight Watchers International, Inc.
“You almost need a PhD in calculus,” Foster added. “It gets frankly, exhausting and distracting.”
Weight Watchers says it does the math for people – that’s the basis of its points system — but is there a way to keep on the healthy side of things without joining a plan?
The answer may not be a popular one. It’s the convenience foods that are packing in the sugar, fat and salt, not to mention the calories. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that 43 percent of sodium eaten by children comes from the foods they eat most often: pizza, bread and rolls, cold cuts, chips, cheese, pasta dishes and chicken nuggets.
So pass on the processed stuff, Baer-Sinnot advises. “One of the things you need to do is cook,” she said.
“It’s a lot easier than people think that it is. A healthy pasta meal couldn’t be simpler. It’s boiling water and putting pasta in, then cutting up some vegetables from the produce aisle or opening a can of tomatoes.”
Salads are an obvious place to get the extra fruits and vegetables that people are told to eat, but while prepackaged salad kits may look like an easy way to get there, the dressings and crunchy toppings might have a lot of hidden sugar, salt and fat. Better to make your own dressing, Baer-Sinnot said.
“Just squeezing some lemons and a little bit of olive oil works,” she said. “It’s cheaper and it’s much healthier.”
The big changes should come in shopping, Baer-Sinnot said.
“We believe that if you are buying lots more plant foods, the nutrients are going to take care of themselves,” she said.
“Buy more foods that are direct from nature. Use meat as a garnish rather than an entrée.”
Oldways offers a sample “shopping cart” on its website.
The American Heart Association provides tips, recipes and videos.
“Stock your pantry or cabinets with ‘dinner builder’ items like low-salt canned beans, tuna, salmon, tomatoes and marinara sauce,” it advises. “Old-fashioned rolled oats are great for a quick oatmeal breakfast. Choose breads and cereals that list whole grains as the first item in the ingredient list.”
And the American Cancer Society also has a shopping list. “Let vegetables, beans, pasta, and rice be the stars of your main dishes – use meats as the side dish,” it advises.
Americans used to convenience foods may head for the frozen vegetable aisle, but anything made with a sauce is likely loaded with fat and salt to help keep the product tasty.
However, plain frozen or plain canned vegetables can be good choices, Baer-Sinnot said. Just look at the labels to make sure there isn’t too much hidden salt, fat and sugar.
Does that mean no more Nutella or a prohibition on pizza?
“It doesn’t make good behavioral sense to say always eat this food, never that food,” Foster said. It’s one reason the guidelines refer repeatedly to “patterns” of eating.
Eat the occasional treat, but make note of it and offset it later, Foster advised. “Make sure you savor it, enjoy it, eat it slowly,” he said.
And snacking may be your friend, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said. “We all need that snack, we all need something to keep us going in the afternoon,” she said. Make that snack a piece of fruit, she said.