- The World Health Organization has released new publications presenting the latest scientific thinking regarding the role of fats and carbohydrates in a healthy diet.
- For adults, the WHO still recommends limiting fat consumption to 30% or less of daily calories.
- For carbs, the new guidelines place emphasis on the source over its quantity.
- The new guidelines also present new information for parents hoping to set their children on a healthy lifelong relationship with eating and nutrition.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has just released updated dietary guidance based on the most recent research and evidence.
The new guidance comes in the form of several documents, including:
- Total fat intake for the prevention of unhealthy weight gain in adults and children: WHO guideline
- Saturated fatty acid and trans-fatty acid intake for adults and children: WHO guideline
- Carbohydrate intake for adults and children: WHO guideline
In general, the WHO is focusing less on fat and carbohydrate quantity than it might have in the past and looking more closely at quality.
Not everything the WHO has to say is new. For example, the organization continues to recommend that adults should limit their consumption of fats to 30% or less of their daily calories.
A person’s energy intake is measured as calories provided by carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and alcohol.
However, worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975, and overweight or obesity affects over 340 million children and adolescents from 5 to 19 — with 39 million children under the age of 5 being overweight or having obesity in 2020. The WHO documents reflect a new emphasis on lifelong healthy nutrition.
The WHO guidelines find, for example, that children under the age of 2 should ingest mostly unsaturated fats. WHO strongly recommends that they should consume no more than 10% of their total calories from saturated fats, with 1% or less being trans-fatty acids.
Which fats are unhealthy?
Nutritionist Michelle Routhenstein, who was not involved in the WHO publications, said, “before, it was just generally ‘limit fat to 30% of energy intake.’’
“And now, we’re really looking at saturated fat being a culprit in cardiovascular disease development because it’s directly correlated with an increase in LDL and an increase in insulin resistance, which are cardiometabolic risk factors,” she said.
The WHO calls out the unhealthiness of saturated fatty acids consumed in dairy foods and fatty meat. Butter, ghee, lard, palm oil, and coconut oil also contain saturated fats.
Trans-fatty acids come primarily from industrially produced sources and animals such as cows, sheep, and goats. Other such ruminant animals include deer, moose, camels, giraffes, and buffalo.
The new publications offer guidance on ways in which people can replace unhealthy saturated fats and trans-fatty acids with polyunsaturated fatty acids and monounsaturated fatty acids from plant sources.
Carbs, fruits, and vegetables
For carbohydrates, a similar shift in perspective is evident in the new WHO guidelines.
“We’re more specific about where are the [nutrients] coming from. We’re more specifically interested in fibers that have more complex carbs. We’re looking at dietary fiber primarily from whole grains and fruits and vegetables, which we know have a protective cardiovascular effect,” said Routhenstein.
The WHO now emphasizes eating foods containing natural fiber such as whole grains, pulses, and vegetables.
New recommendations for children
While the WHO has long recommended that adults eat 400 grams a day of vegetables and fruits, for the first time, the publications add guidelines for children as well.
- Children 2 to 5 years old should eat at least 250 grams of vegetables and fruits daily.
- Children 6 to 9 years old should eat at least 350 grams of vegetables and fruits daily.
- Children 10 or older should eat at least 400 grams of vegetables and fruits daily.
Similarly, the WHO now addresses children’s need for fiber. It has previously advised adults to consume 25 grams daily. Now:
- Children 2 to 5 years old should consume at least 15 grams of fiber daily.
- Children 6 to 9 years old should consume at least 21 grams of fiber daily.
- Children 10 or older should consume at least 25 grams of fiber daily.
Fiber is found in foods ranging from broccoli to bananas and apples to avocados.
Lifelong health begins in childhood
“The obesity epidemic that we’re seeing in kids, that’s what’s driving [the WHO’s new emphasis],” said pediatrician Dr. Daniel Ganjian, who also is not affiliated with the WHO.
Dr. Ganjian also cited “more and more research showing the younger you start with healthy nutrition and healthy eating, the more likely [children] are to be healthier the rest of their lives.”
He referred specifically to avoiding the development of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, even certain types of cancer, as well as diabetes.
As a nutritionist specializing in cardiovascular health, Routhenstein said, “There’s this new focus that we realize to prevent cardiovascular disease, we need to be focusing on the earlier generation because that’s where it starts.”
“We need to be looking from a prevention standpoint versus a treatment standpoint,” said Routhenstein.
Healthy attitudes toward eating
“The parents are the main food makers of the house. So once the parents know and the kid knows, and then [the kid] starts eating it, the body develops a habit, and desires healthier food instead of salty, crunchy foods,” said Dr. Ganjian.
He also emphasized the importance of correctly presenting healthy eating to children, and said calling children “overweight” or “obese,” and telling them to “start watching what you eat,” was not the best approach.
That approach is now understood to produce more anxiety — and eating disorders — than a healthy attitude toward eating in the long run.
“We have to take the discussion away from weight, or body image, and bring it towards healthy eating. You always encourage healthy eating,” said Dr. Ganjian.
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