Nine Fruits and Vegetables a Day? I Thought it Was Five!

Although they were released over a year and a half ago, in January, 2011, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are still creating controversy among health care professionals and nutritionists and ordinary people who care about their health.

Some criticize the Guidelines, issued by the US Department of Agriculture, for being too stringent and restrictive. Others criticize them for being too general, and failing to identify specific foods that are unhealthy for us, a stance they see as pandering to the American food industry. Almost everyone agrees that the guidelines are often unrealistic and unworkable, proposing “standards” that are almost impossible for modern Americans to achieve, both in terms of recommended diet, and recommended amounts of exercise.

What changed in the latest Guidelines?

On the one hand, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans have become more specific, finally making a distinction between trans fats and healthier vegetable-based fats, and between whole grains and processed grains. They also upped the recommended daily goal for eating vegetables and fruits from the decades old “five servings a day” to the new recommendation of “nine servings a day.” They also said that Americans who are concerned about “maintaining their weight” should exercise 60 to 90 minutes per day.

On the other hand, the first recommendation is too general, and places all of the responsibility for determining what is a “healthy fat” and an “unhealthy fat” on the consumer. The Department of Agriculture didn’t actually name any brand name products that are either better, or worse, and they didn’t specify what the minimum amount of trans fats consumed daily should be. Similarly, they did not provide any guidelines that help you to determine whether the processed foods you buy contain whole grains or processed grains.

The “fruits and vegetables” recommendation is even more unworkable. “Nine servings a day” is a way of restating the actual recommendation, which is that Americans should eat about four and a half cups of them per day. The actual statistics on consumption of fruits and vegetables are that the average American eats at most three servings of them a day, or about a third of the recommended amount.

How much should you exercise?

The guidelines for recommended amounts of daily exercise are pretty astounding. The Department of Agriculture says in the 2010 Guidelines that to avoid gaining weight you should exercise 60 minutes a day, and if you’re trying to lose weight you should exercise 90 minutes a day. Who has the time to do that? These recommendations seem based on statistics gleaned from the National Weight Control Registry, which found that those who lost at least 30 pounds and kept the weight off for a year averaged an hour or more of exercise per day. The basic recommendation for most people remains what it was in the previous edition of the Guidelines, 30 minutes per day, but even this ignores more recent research that indicates that shorter periods of exercise (for example, three sessions of 10 minutes each per day) might be more effective than one session of 30 minutes per day.

Guidelines are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules

What a number of experts have said in defense of the Guidelines is that we should remember that that’s what they are – guidelines. They’re not a bible or fixed set of rules, merely goals that we should try to achieve.

Progress towards improving our health can be made even if we don’t meet the recommended goals. It’s not “all or nothing.” For example, studies have indicated that the most significant benefits from fruits and vegetables occur in those who raise their consumption of them from one to two servings a day.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans should be viewed as suggestions to point us in the direction of making more intelligent choices with regard to the foods we eat and the amount of exercise we get. The overall message conveyed by the Guidelines is clear – lower the amount of calories you eat, try to eat healthier foods, and get more exercise. Other, more specific recommendations in the report tell us that we should avoid oversized portions, try to make sure that half of our plate at each meal is filled with fruits and vegetables, and drink more water, and less sugary drinks. It’s hard to argue with that.

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