NUTRITION
November 7, 2016

Let's Focus on Food, Not “Nutrients”

Rather than telling people to eat less fat, new guidelines suggest foods to eat.

Nutrition recommendations and guidelines are based on science, but delivering the message to the masses is more of an art.

It’s one thing for experts to put their heads together, analyze scientific data and develop dietary guidelines, but it’s something else entirely to translate the guidelines into behaviors that fit with people's daily lives — their lifestyles, taste preferences and the cultural values that guide those lives.

People want to know what to eat without having to listen to confusing and unfamiliar jargon.

That's why nutrition advice givers need to use language that speaks to the public, rather than asking the public to understand them, according to a new statement by the American Heart Association (AHA). Healthcare providers need to talk to patients about eating specific foods, not specific vitamins and nutrients, taking personal, cultural and ethnic preferences into consideration.

“To consumers, it’s an apple, an orange, a pizza. It’s not saturated fat, refined carbohydrates and potassium. That’s nutrition jargon familiar among professionals; but not normal conversation for the average American,” the chair of the AHA group that wrote the piece, Linda V. Van Horn, said in a statement.

The good news is that today dietary recommendations are based more on eating certain types of foods, rather than nutrients, than they were a few years ago. These food-based guidelines are much easier for people to understand, remember and apply to their lives. You're more likely to help someone cut back on saturated fat when you can point to where the saturated fat is in their diet and offer less fatty foods that fit within their culture, lifestyle and taste preferences as an alternative.

The same goes for shopping. People want to know what to buy in the grocery store, but also how they can change the way they cook the foods they love, so they can continue to enjoy them. They also need a quick and easy way of seeing the correct portions — such as a piece of meat the size of your palm; a fist-sized portion of vegetables.

This is the important change the guidelines offer: healthcare providers should avoid talking about percentages, grams and milligrams; they should avoid using terms like saturated fat, refined carbohydrates or potassium. People want to know what to eat without having to listen to confusing and unfamiliar jargon.

There's another beneficial kind of translation too. Some of the groups in the culturally diverse population in the U.S. have a very high risk of heart disease and stroke, and their dietary patterns are different from the typical U.S. diet. To effectively educate people from other cultures, healthcare providers need to know more about the dishes, herbs and spices common to the cuisines of other countries so they can help patients discover healthy ways of eating that fit into their cultural and personal preferences.

The AHA statement provides a toolkit of food-based suggestions that help people make practical, healthier choices. The paper offers ideas for specific servings of food per food group for various calorie levels, appropriate portion sizes and ways to change eating habits that have been proven by research, as well as methods for tracking food intake and physical activity. The statement is published in Circulation.
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