Don’t forget about oral health when reporting on the latest dietary guidelines

Mary Otto

About Mary Otto

Mary Otto, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is AHCJ's topic leader on oral health and the author of "Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America." She can be reached at mary@healthjournalism.org.

Photo: Ana Ulin via Flickr

Photo: Ana Ulin via Flickr

Every five years, the federal government comes out with a new edition of its dietary guidelines. The official nutritional recommendations help shape America’s school lunch menus, influence grocery shopping trends, and of course, generate a flurry of news coverage.

The big question for reporters – and their readers, listeners and viewers is always “what’s new?”

“Go ahead and have those eggs,” Ariana Eunjung Cha told readers of The Washington Post, in the lead of her story. When the eighth edition of the guidelines was announced last month, a key angle for Cha was the fact that an old recommendation to limit cholesterol consumption to 300 mgs per day (the amount contained in about one and a half eggs) had been omitted from the new guidelines. The government’s experts have determined that dietary cholesterol is no longer “a nutrient of concern.”

Maggie Fox, of NBC News, led her piece with a focus on red meat and the criticism from cancer researchers and other experts who said the guidelines did not do enough to warn Americans about the potential dangers of eating too much of it.

“We are pretty disappointed the report doesn’t recommend limiting red and processed meat because of the link to cancer,” Katie McMahon of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network told NBC.

“The guidelines do, in fact, mention this — but don’t blame meat specifically,” noted the reporter.

Allison Aubrey of National Public Radio targeted the new sugar recommendations contained in the guidelines.

“Americans are being told to limit sugar to no more than 10 percent of daily calories,” she noted. Actually following the guidance would mean significant changes in the nation’s eating habits, Aubrey observed. As she reported in 2014, many Americans consume up to 22 teaspoons of sugar a day.

“To meet the new 10 percent target, they’d need to cut their sugar intake by nearly half — to no more than 12 teaspoons a day on a 2,000-calorie daily diet,” Aubrey explained to listeners.

“Over the past five years, a growing body of evidence has linked high levels of sugar consumption to an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, even among Americans who are not overweight or obese,” she observed.

Largely missing from the early reporting on the new guidelines was the oral health angle.

Though caries, the disease that causes tooth decay, did get a mention in the new guidelines, oral health was not a major focus. Experts who helped develop the new guidelines found “moderate evidence that shows a relationship between added sugars and dental caries in children and adults,” a spokeswoman from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said in an email. It was the same level of evidence they found for the relationships between sugar and obesity, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer.

“For the purpose of the dietary guidelines, moderate evidence reflects sufficient evidence to draw conclusions. The level of certainty may be restricted by certain limitations in the evidence, such as the amount of evidence available, inconsistencies in findings, or limitations in methodology or generalizability,” the spokeswoman explained.

It’s not the stuff of snappy headlines. Still, this new edition of the national dietary guidelines is the first to set a quantitative recommended limit on sugar consumption. And leaders at the American Dental Association, in comments submitted during the development phase of the new guidelines, found oral health news to applaud.

“Eating patterns and food choices play an important role in maintaining good oral health. From a dental perspective, a steady diet of sugary food and beverages, including all-natural fruit juices and artificially sweetened sports drinks, can damage teeth. A lack of certain nutrients can also make it difficult for tissues in the mouth to resist infection,” they wrote.

Two papers in the February edition of the Journal of the American Dental Association provide additional insights into sugar consumption and health. So does the research cited by federal and world health officials in support of their decisions to recommend limiting sugar consumption. In this tip sheet you can find out more.

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