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What new federal dietary guidelines mean for you

Last Updated Jan 7, 2016 4:04 PM EST

After months of debate and political pressure, the federal government is out with an updated set of dietary guidelines to try to help Americans eat healthier. The new guidelines emphasize the need to limit added sugars, especially the sugary drinks that experts blame for contributing to America's obesity epidemic.

The Obama administration's new dietary guidelines, released Thursday, also back off the strictest sodium rules included in the previous version, while still asserting that Americans consume too much salt. And the guidelines reverse previous advice on the dangers of dietary cholesterol.

After a backlash from the meat industry and Congress, the administration ignored several suggestions from a February report by an advisory committee of doctors and nutrition experts. That panel suggested calling for an environmentally friendly diet lower in red and processed meats and de-emphasized lean meats in its list of proteins that are part of a healthy diet.

But, as in the previous years, the government still says lean meats are part of a healthy eating pattern.

Released every five years, the guidelines are intended to help Americans prevent disease and obesity. They inform everything from food package labels to subsidized school lunches to your doctor's advice. And the main message hasn't changed much over the years: Eat your fruits and vegetables. Whole grains and seafood, too. And keep sugar, fats and salt in moderation.

This year, one message the government wants to send is that people should figure out what type of healthy eating style works for them, while still hewing to the main recommendations. The Agriculture Department, which released the guidelines along with the Department of Health and Human Services, is also releasing a tweaked version of its healthy "My Plate" icon to include a new slogan: "My Wins."

"Small changes can add up to big differences," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Sugar warning

One of the most significant new recommendations puts a strict limit on added sugar.

"I think the most radical changes this year really had to do with sugar intake," CBS News medical contributor Dr. Holly Phillips told "CBS This Morning."

"Now excess sugars have always been discouraged but this year the guidelines took it a step further and they actually put an upper limit on how much excess sugar we should have, which is less than 10 percent of our daily calories."

That amounts to about 200 calories a day, or about the amount in one 16-ounce sugary drink. The recommendation is part of a larger push to help consumers isolate added sugars from naturally occurring ones like those in fruit and milk. Added sugars generally add empty calories to the diet.

Dr. Robert Silverman, a certified clinical nutritionist, praised the new focus on cutting sugar. "Sugar is a toxin. It's a great move," he told CBS News.

Silverman cited statistics showing just how much sugar consumption has grown over the years. "The average American consumes 152 pounds of sugar per year," or about 22 teaspoons a day, he said. "When you go back 100 years, it was four pounds."

Sugar-sweetened beverages make up a large portion of those empty calories. According to the guidelines, sugary drinks comprise 47 percent of the added sugars that Americans eat every day.

Reducing sugar intake by about half would be "a great start to getting America healthy again," Silverman said.

Eat less salt

Americans also need to lower salt intake, the government says. New figures from the Centers for Disease for Disease Control and Prevention show that around 90 percent of people eat too much. The average person eats 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day, and the guidelines say everyone should lower that amount to 2,300, or about a teaspoon.

Lowering sodium intake was the major push of the 2010 guidelines, and that document recommended that those most at risk of heart disease, or about half the population, lower their intake to 1,500. The new guidelines drop that lower amount as part of the top recommendations. Still, advice buried deeper in the guidelines says that those with high blood pressure and prehypertension could benefit from a steeper reduction.

Eggs, fats and cholesterol

After years of doctors saying that Americans shouldn't eat too many eggs, recommendations for cholesterol have also shifted. The 2010 guidelines made a key recommendation that Americans consume less than 300 mg a day of dietary cholesterol, or about two eggs. That recommendation is gone, following increasing medical research showing the amount of cholesterol in your bloodstream is more complicated than once thought. Some more recent studies have shown little relationship between heart disease and how much dietary cholesterol one eats.

Still, egg lovers aren't completely off the hook. Discussion of cholesterol deeper into the document says "individuals should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible while consuming a healthy eating pattern."

As in previous years, the report advises limiting saturated fats to 10 percent of total calories. And while lean meats are promoted, the government does suggest certain populations, such as teen boys and adult men, should reduce their meat intake and eat more vegetables. Data included in the report shows that males ages 14 to 70 consume more than recommended amounts of meat, eggs and poultry, while women are more in line with advised amounts.

Coffee and health

And there's good news for java drinkers.

"They offered very strong evidence that moderate coffee consumption -- three to five small cups a day -- they saw no link with chronic disease and actually cited some evidence that coffee consumption could decrease the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease," Phillips said.

Of course, she emphasized that these are three to five small cups, without added flavorings and toppings. "We're not talking about the large mocha," she said.

While the guidelines always have been subject to intense lobbying by food industries, this year's version set off unprecedented political debate, fueled by Republicans' claims the Obama administration has gone too far in telling people what to eat.

Congress got involved, encouraging the administration to drop the recommendations based on environmental impact and at one point proposing to set new standards for the science the guidelines can use. That language did not become law, however. A year-end spending bill simply said the guidelines must be "based on significant scientific agreement" and "limited in scope to nutritional and dietary information."