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editorial

Federal diet committee aims at the right target: sugar

It might finally be time to make breakfast sunny-side up. After decades of government warnings that too much cholesterol is bad for cardiovascular health, the federal Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has now determined that the once frowned-on substance “is not a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.” It’s also bottoms up for adult coffee drinkers: The committee said three to five drinks a day should be fine because there is evidence that caffeine helps stave off heart disease, Type-2 diabetes, and other chronic diseases.

The new recommendations take into account recent scientific studies that provide new insights into what constitutes a healthy diet. The Department of Health and Human Services and the US Department of Agriculture should move quickly to approve the committee’s recommendations.

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Decades ago it seemed plausible to limit eating foods high in cholesterol, after research such as the Framingham Heart Study found that high blood cholesterol levels were associated with heart disease. Today, scientists have a more nuanced view that incorporates evidence that high cholesterol is tied to heredity or consumption of foods loaded with saturated fats.

The committee also recommends that Americans eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains — a common-sense ruling. But before declaring open season at the supermarket, perhaps the most important news was in the guidelines that remain. What the committee may have given back to Americans in omelets and dark roast, it continues to take away in added-sugar intake, particularly in sweetened beverages. The committee found such a strong connection between added sugar and obesity, Type-2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease that its recommendations went far beyond personal intake to policy prescriptions.

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The committee recommended the exploration of beverage taxes, reducing the marketing of sugary drinks to children and the availability of added sugars in school and youth settings. It advocated a concerted campaign to convince young adults to cut sugar consumption. Former Governor Patrick tried and failed for years to remove the state food sales-tax exemption for candy and soda. The committee findings are reason enough for the Legislature to reconsider ending this sales tax exemption.

While exonerating caffeine for adults, the report warned that the relatively new phenomenon of high-caffeine beverages — many of them also loaded with sugar — should be limited for children and adolescents because the limited data available suggests an association with caffeine toxicity and cardiovascular problems. Along with other continuing evidence that Americans consume too much sodium and saturated fats and too few vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, there is plenty to continue to pay attention to. As the committee put it: “The dietary patterns of the American public are suboptimal.” These guidelines provide a sensible foundation for building an optimum diet for better health.

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