Maddie worked as a travel guide in Argentina and a teacher at several educational nonprofits in San Francisco before joining Mother Jones. She’s also written for Outside, the Bay Citizen, and the Rumpus. She manages Mother Jones' Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program.
Earlier this week, I wrote about some of the nutrition controversies surrounding the release of new United States Dietary Guidelines in 2015. The Guidelines, which inform public health initiatives, food labels, and what health-conscious parents decide to make for dinner, are revised every five years, with help from a scientific committee.
Today, that committee released its initial scientific report, an extensive 572-page tome on all the current thinking about healthy diets.
So what are we eating—and what should we be eating—in 2015?
Perhaps the biggest change this year could breathe some life into your breakfast habits: The cholesterol in egg yolks is no longer as much of a health concern. The US Dietary Guidelines used to recommend that you eat no more than 300 milligrams of dietary cholesterol a day, or under two large eggs. But this year, the committee has scrapped that advice as new research suggests that the cholesterol you consume in our diets has little to do with your blood cholesterol. Saturated fats and trans fats, on the other hand, could boost your blood cholesterol levels, as could unlucky genes.
The committee found that Americans lack vitamin D, calcium, potassium, and fiber in their diets. We also eat too few whole grains. On the other hand, we eat far too much sodium and saturated fat. Two-thirds of people over age 50, those most at risk for cardiovascular disease, still eat more than the upper limit, or 10 percent of their daily calories from saturated fat.
Gardeners, rejoice: The committee applauds vegetables in its latest report, describing them as "excellent sources of many shortfall nutrients and nutrients of public health concern." Unfortunately, our veggie intake has declined in recent years, especially for kids. Only 10 percent of toddlers eats the recommended 1 cup of vegetables a day.
Added sugars, which make up 13.4 percent of our calorie intake every day, contribute to obesity, cavities, high blood pressure, and potentially cardiovascular disease. If you are in tip top shape, the committee suggests keeping your added sugar consumption under 10 percent of your daily energy intake, or roughly 12 teaspoons (including fruit juice concentrates and syrups). But for most people, the report adds, the ideal amount of added sugars is between 4.5 to 9.4 teaspoons a day, depending on your BMI.
Most adults are fine to keep drinking alcohol in moderation—one cup a day for women, and up to two for men. "However," writes the the committee, "it is not recommended that anyone begin drinking or drink more frequently on the basis of potential health benefits."
Be it máte, espresso, or chai, your caffeine habit is fine in moderation, up to 400 mg a day (3-5 cups of coffee). But before you start handing out the Rockstars: The committee found evidence that high levels of caffeine, such as those found in energy drinks, are harmful to kids and pregnant women. (Plus: See above for the danger of the added sugars found in many of these energy drinks).
Seafood is a pretty healthy thing to eat from a dietary standpoint, and concerns about mercury don't outweigh the health benefits of eating fish, according to the committee. And yet, the collapse of fisheries due to overfishing "has raised concern about the ability to produce a safe and affordable supply." The report suggests that both farm-raised and wild caught seafood will be needed to feed us in the future.
The committee found that a diet "higher in plant-based foods...and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current US diet." A group of 49 environmental and animal-welfare groups sent a letter to the US Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services to urge them to embrace this sustainability-oriented message in their Dietary Guidelines, which are set to be released later in 2015.
Every five years, the United States Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) get together to revise their recommendations about what Americans should eat. These guidelines influence doctors' health advice, food labels, the ever evolving food pyramid-turned-plate, and what goes into school lunches. For instance, in 2010, a time when more than half of adults were overweight or obese, the agencies recommended things like drinking water instead of sugary beverages, filling half your plate with fruits and veggies, cutting sodium, and just eating less in general.
It's 2015, so time for some new advice. The guidelines draw on input from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Committee (DGAC), which will publish a report sometime this winter. So what are the hottest items under debate this year? Here's a run-down of what to look for in the upcoming Dietary Guidelines for Americans report:
The meat vs. plants showdown: It probably comes as no surprise that Americans eat a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables and full of too many solid fats. In fact, vegetable consumption was on the decline between 2001 and 2010 even as each of us now eat 202.3 pounds of meat a year; a bit less red meat than a few years ago but more poultry than ever before. In the past, the government has warned against overdoing it with red meat and urged people to chow down on lean meats like chicken and fish instead. But this year, for the first time, the committee might caution against overconsumption of all kinds of meat—and not just for health reasons, but also because of meat's environmental footprint. Livestock operations now produce 15 percent of the world's carbon emissions. Eating fewer animal-based foods "is more health promoting and is associated with a lesser environmental impact," the committee suggested in its draft report.
Raising livestock now comprises 15 percent of the world's carbon emissions.
Which of course has ruffled the meat industry. Removing lean meat from healthy diet recommendations is "stunning," read a recent statement by the North American Meat Institute. "The committee's focus on sustainability is questionable because it is not within the committee's expertise."
Cholesterol is back: Your body makes its own cholesterol but you also get some when you eat animal fats, including eggs. Previous guidelines warned that too much of the waxy substance in the blood leads to higher risk of heart disease, and recommended that adults consume no more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol a day. But this year's guidelines might downplay dietary cholesterol's risk, marking the comeback of the daily omelet. The DGAC's December meeting notes stated that "cholesterol is not considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption."
"We now know that cholesterol in the diet makes very little difference in terms of bad cholesterol in the blood," University of Pennsylvania's molecular biologist Dan Rader told Forbes. People get high cholesterol in the blood because of their genes or because the body's mechanisms for cleaning out blood cholesterol aren't working properly, he explains.
"Cholesterol is not considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption."
We've been cautioned against cholesterol in our diets for the last fifty years, ever since the American Heart Association warned about it in 1961, reports the Washington Post. But in late 2013, a task force including the AHA found "insufficient evidence" in studies it reviewed to warn most people against eating foods high in the substance, such as eggs, shellfish, and red meat.
Put down the soda: I repeat: Put down the soda. Americans consume way too much added sugar, 22 to 30 teaspoons a day by some estimates, or nearly four times the healthy limits proposed by the AHA. And sugar-sweetened drinks account for nearly half of these added sugars. As Mother Joneshas reported over the years, these jolts of added sugar have been linked with obesity, diabetes, metabolic disease, and a whole host of other ailments.
The World Health Organization turned heads last year when it reduced its recommendation about healthy added sugar intake from roughly 12 teaspoons to around 6 teaspoons a day (aka less than one can of Coke). The Dietary Guidelines might not go that far, but this year the committee will likely propose limits on added sugar for the first time: No more than 10 percent of your daily energy should come from added sugar, the committee suggests, which comes out to about 12 teaspoons a day for an adult with an average BMI.
Not sure how we feel about salt: "Sodium is ubiquitous in the food supply," noted the Committee in its December meeting notes. The 2010 Guidelines recommended that adults consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, a far cry from the 3,400 mg we inhale on average. The Guidelines also suggested that certain at-risk groups like people over age 51 and diabetics should eat less than 1,500 mg a day.
But while a 2013 report by the Institute of Medicine stated that reducing sodium intake is important for heart health, it also pointed to recent research suggesting that "sodium intakes that are low may increase health risks—particularly in certain groups"—like people with diabetes or kidney disease. The report asserted that there's no evidence of benefits in reducing sodium intake to 1,500 mg for these subgroups or for the general population. While the Committee seems to want to warn people off sodium-laden diets for the 2015 guidelines, given these mixed findings about levels it seems unlikely that it will set a new defined limit.
In 2011, Jan-Erik Paino, a former construction worker and grape-picker, launched a new craft beer company in Sacramento inspired by Captain Frank Ruhstaller, a Swiss immigrant who owned several of the city's hundreds of breweries in the late 1800's. Paino wanted to make a beer to carry on Ruhstaller's legacy.
Ruhstaller's JE Paino Maddie Oatman
Paino's first recipe, a malty red ale called "1881," sold pretty well right away, especially to one local grocer, Darrell Corti, who ordered 10 cases, and then soon after, 12 more. When Paino paid a visit to Corti at his store in East Sacramento, "I was expecting a pat on the back," says Paino. Instead, Corti "gave me a stern look. He said, 'You don't deserve the words Ruhstaller and Sacramento together if you aren't using hops grown in Sacramento.'"
Hops are the fluffy green buds whose oils give beer its bright and bitter flavor. They grow on vines, and always clockwise. Up until World War II, Sacramento was a hop-growing empire. Corti grew up in California's capital, and remembers the days when miles and miles of these cone-shaped flowers still lined the riverbanks. "Corti had this intensity I couldn't ignore," says Paino. To truly make beer in the spirit of Ruhstaller, he realized, he would need to become a hop farmer.
THE NOVELIST DANIEL HANDLER is bobbing ahead of me in the cold bay water at San Francisco's Aquatic Park. His head, swathed in a red cap, resembles a maraschino cherry, and I struggle to keep up as the current presses me back toward land. "They told me to wear a swim cap so I wouldn't be mistaken for a seal," he explains. "So I was always wearing it, but then I wondered, 'What happens if I get mistaken for a seal? What then?'"
The "Balclutha" docked in Aquatic Park Maddie Oatman
Handler, 44, is best known for his Lemony Snicket kids' books, but his latest novel, the gruesome and delightful We Are Pirates, isn't so child-friendly. We'd arranged to meet here at the Dolphin Club, where he swims three or four mornings a week in the presence of historic tall ships such as the mighty Balclutha. Swimming makes him feel free, he says. It lets him shake off his celebrity and escape urban life for a bit.
Gwen, Handler's 14-year-old protagonist, also yearns to slip away. She's an awkward kid from SF's hypersafe Embarcadero neighborhood, grounded for pilfering makeup and a porn mag from the drugstore. Aided by her friends and a demented old man spewing pirate lore, she steals a boat and sets out for high adventure on the bay. As the dazzle of piracy darkens, Gwen's father, a dweebish radio producer, tries to bring her back to safety. Without skimping on talking parrots, Handler's novel touches on the nature of modern surveillance and the forces that compel us to reckless acts.
Not so fast. It turns out New Year's Day is the deadliest day to hoof it home, according to a 2005 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that looked at every pedestrian death from traffic collisions between 1986 and 2002. Nearly half of the fatal accidents that occurred on a January 1 took place between midnight and 6 a.m. And on an even more sobering note, 58 percent of pedestrians who died that day were legally drunk, according to their blood alcohol levels at time of death.
But maybe people have gotten way better at ambulating under the influence since 2002? I asked the IIHS to crunch the most recent data available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Turns out, not much has changed. Between 2008 and 2012, more pedestrians died in traffic crashes on New Year's Day (and Halloween) than on other days of the year. IIHS also found that 59 percent of pedestrians killed on New Year's Day were drunk, compared to 34 percent of pedestrians in fatal crashes every other day of the year.
There's no mystery here: Drunk walkers are much more likely to engage in risky behavior like crossing against a sign, jaywalking, or lying down in the roadway, says Dan Gelinne, a researcher at University of North Carolina's Highway Safety Research Center. "Intoxicated pedestrians frequently cannot fulfill the perceptual, cognitive, and physical skills required to cross safely in the complex traffic patterns seen in most urban cities," wrote New York University School of Medicine researchers in a 2012 review paper in the journal Trauma.
Of course, NYE teetotalers still have drunk drivers to contend with. In nearly half of the traffic crashes that killed pedestrians in 2012, the driver or the walker (or both) had consumed alcohol, according to the NHTSA. But get this: Pedestrians in these crashes were more than twice as likely as drivers to have had a blood alcohol level greater or equal to 0.08 grams/deciliter, or above the legal driving limit—34 percent of walkers versus 14 percent of the drivers.
"Watching a sporting event on TV, you're bound to see at least one ad reminding people not to drive after drinking," says Gelinne. "The risks associated with drinking and walking aren't as clear to the average person." Freakonomics author Steven Levitt compared the risks of drunk driving versus drunk walking in his 2011 book SuperFreakonomics. "You find that on a per-mile basis," he writes, "a drunk walker is eight times more likely to get killed than a drunk driver."
If you're lucky enough to survive the impact, healing from wounds becomes trickier when you have booze in your system. "Alcohol impairs the ability to fight infections, repair wounds, and recover from injuries," says Elizabeth Kovacs, the Director of the Alcohol Research Program at Loyola University's Stritch School of Medicine. Alcohol impairs the white blood cells responsible for clearing out debris and "eating garbage" on skin wounds, she says.
"Alcohol impairs the ability to fight infections, repair wounds, and recover from injuries."
If you do miss the last train home and walking becomes unavoidable, try to remember these tips from a trauma surgeon: Don't wear dark colors, stay out of the road as much as possible, and walk in a group (ideally with some sober folks sprinkled in).
Better street lighting and lower speed limits near popular hangouts would help too, says Gelinne, along with campaigns encouraging bartenders to cut the taps when solo customers start getting sloppy. In San Francisco, the Vision Zero campaign aims to eliminate all traffic deaths by 2024 by restructuring high-risk roadways and lowering speed limits. Los Angeles and New York have taken similar measures, thanks in part to $1.6 million in grants to promote pedestrian safety from the US Department of Transportation. IIHS's Russ Rader points to new car technology like Subaru's EyeSight camera system, which automatically hits the brakes if it thinks there's a pedestrian in your path, as a good step forward, though a tiny fraction of cars are currently equipped with these features.
Bottom line: As you ring in 2015, if you can't call a cab or squeeze onto the subway, your best option is to grab a pillow and stay put. Or reconsider your choice of merriment-enhancement for the night. As it happens, the safest day of the year to walk down the street is 4/20. Make of this what you will.