Recently, the United States Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services unveiled the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Of course, it’s already 2011 so they’re late in arriving. But seeing as the guidelines are only revised every five years, these are the marching orders we’ll be living with for the next few years.
So, how good are these new guidelines? Will getting on board with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines make Americans any healthier?
Let’s take a closer look at what advice the government has to offer.
More than ever before, the new guidelines are focused on tackling obesity and its associated costs and consequences. So before they even get into the details of what we should and shouldn’t be eating, the guidelines emphasize the need to balance calories in and calories out. For most Americans, that boils down to eating less.
The guidelines also stress the need to move more—to increase physical activity and decrease “screen-time,” or the number of hours we and our kids spend in front of televisions, computers, video games and other electronic devices.
There’s nothing particularly new about the eat less/move more advice. However, it’s notable that this is what the government chose to single out as the #1 take-home message.
The second big theme in the new Guidelines is to shift consumption away from empty calories and towards more nutrient-dense foods. So, for example, the guidelines suggest that fruits and vegetables should fill half your plate at meal times and that people should drink water instead of sweetened beverages.
Good advice, as far as I’m concerned.
Once you get beyond these two over-arching themes, the guidelines begin to focus on specific foods and nutrients that we should either try to eat more or less of. And here’s where things start to get a little more controversial… and political.
In addition to eating more fruits and vegetables, the guidelines advise us to increase our consumption of low-fat and fat-free dairy products, whole grains, fish and seafood. Ironically, for people who want us to eat less, they spend a lot of time telling tell us about what to eat more of!
If you read between the lines, it’s clear that these foods are supposed to be replacing other foods. But they seem more reluctant to single out foods that we should eat less of.
It appears that the government thinks we’d be better off eating less meat, for example. However, as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack acknowledged in his comments at the press conference announcing the new guidelines, part of the USDA’s mission is to support the nation’s agricultural economy and businesses.
So instead of coming right out and advising people to reduce their meat consumption, which obviously wouldn’t play very well with the beef and pork industry, the guidelines get coy. They talk about the need to reduce saturated and solid fats. They mention “choosing a variety of protein foods, including…beans, soy, nuts, and seeds.”
Ultimately, it’s up to us to figure out what that actually means.
The guidelines have always been controversial and this newest round won’t be any less so. Although the agencies emphasize that the guidelines are based on the latest and best scientific evidence, that evidence leaves plenty of room for debate—and so do the guidelines.
There is still a big emphasis on strictly limiting saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, for example, despite a wealth of new evidence suggesting that this has a very limited impact on disease risk.
Although there’s also mention of avoiding artificial trans fats—a recommendation over which there is absolutely no controversy whatsoever—that advice is nowhere near as prominent as the messaging about cholesterol and saturated fat. In my mind, it should have been just the opposite.
Eating more whole-grain products is another key message, while the need to limit the consumption of refined grains is given much less prominence. Again, I would have reversed the emphasis. In my opinion, reducing our intake of refined grains is the primary issue. And although they repeatedly mention the need to reduce the intake of added sugars, the primary source of added sugar in the American diet—soda—is never specifically mentioned in the summary materials. Instead, they talk euphemistically about “sugary drinks” or “beverages”.
Now, of course, the entire 100-page document, which you can access online, includes a lot more detail. But most people will never hear anything beyond the the “Key Recommendations” and “Selected Messages” that were provided to the press.
Although I have a few quibbles with the details—and I think the guidelines would be a lot clearer if they weren’t so politically correct—I think that they got the big message right: Base your diet on nutrient-dense, whole foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and protein-rich foods from either plant or animal sources.
As Secretary Vilsack summed it up at the press conference, “Real food is going to be the best use of your calories.” That’s hardly an earth-shattering revelation, especially for Nutrition Diva readers.
But according to some estimates, fewer than 3% of Americans actually follow the Dietary Guidelines. (Vilsack admitted that he’d never read them before assuming his position as Secretary of Agriculture.)
So, it remains to be seen what impact these guidelines will have. That’s why many people insist that the food industry has to be part of the solution, by changing manufacturing, distribution, and marketing practices in order to promote healthier choices.
About Monica Reinagel, The Nutrition Diva
Monica Reinagel is a board-certified Licensed Nutritionist and a professionally-trained chef. She is the host of the Nutrition Diva podcast which is part of the Quick and Dirty Tips network. She has authored three books on health and nutrition, developed recipes and diet plans for websites and other publications. Monica's professional affiliations include the American Dietetic Association, the International Association of Culinary Professionals and the American Guild of Musical Artists.
Reprinted by arrangement with Quick and Dirty Tips, a division of Macmillan Holdings, LLC.