Despite lobbying by the food industry and other political maneuvering, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans do have some good information for helping us make wise food choices.
The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans were finally released Jan. 7, nearly 11 months after the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) issued its recommendations. In the interim was a lot of political lobbying by the food industry, followed by verbal attacks on the scientists who make up the DGAC by politicians with no science background.
Fortunately, politics did not completely trump science. Despite the dumbing down of the DGAC’s excellent recommendations, there is a lot of good to come out of the 2015 guidelines. Here’s my rundown:
• Food, not nutrients. For the first time, the guidelines move away from the reductionist, nutrient-centric view of nutrition. You don’t eat nutrients; you eat foods combined into a series of meals that creates your overall eating pattern.
The guidelines state, “The path to improving health through nutrition is to follow a healthy eating pattern that’s right for you.” Further, “A healthy eating pattern is adaptable to a person’s taste preferences, traditions, culture and budget.” In other words, there is no one eating pattern that’s right for everyone, despite what some “diet gurus” might say.
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• Plant-based eating. Still, there are some common denominators to a healthy eating pattern, and lots of plants is one of them. Plant foods like vegetables, fruit, whole grains and legumes (beans/lentils) are rich in phytonutrients and fiber, which are critical to good health.
The new guidelines support three plant-based eating plans: Healthy U.S.-Style, Healthy Mediterranean-Style and Healthy Vegetarian.
• Small shifts. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is a healthier diet. “Small shifts in food choices — over the course of a week, a day, or even a meal — can make a difference in working toward a healthy eating pattern that works for you.” Absolutely true, if those small shifts are consistent and build upon each other to eventually create bigger, sustainable change.
• Shared responsibility. The food industry touts “individual responsibility and choice” as it pushes highly processed, nutrient-poor foods, but the fact is that the overall food environment influences our food choices. The guidelines state that home, schools, workplaces, communities, and food retail outlets all have a role in supporting healthy choices.
• What not to eat. Despite the new focus on eating patterns, the “what to limit” category still focuses on nutrients — sugar, saturated fat and sodium — without clearly calling out the highly processed foods that tend to be sources of all three.
• Ignoring sustainability. Including sustainability in its recommendations was one of the DGAC’s most courageous moves — in part because it was the most controversial. Not surprisingly, food industry lobbyists nudged politicians to argue that sustainability has nothing to do with nutrition.
This is a shame, because in a country in which 14 percent of households can’t be confident about where their next meal is coming from, the sustainability of our food supply has everything to do with nutrition.
• Capitulating to the meat industry. The DGAC recommend lowering (not eliminating) meat consumption in line with what is supported by a growing body of research, but meat-industry lobbyists persuaded politicians to put meat back on the recommended list alongside seafood, beans and nuts.
Having read both the DGAG report and the Dietary Guidelines, I’m siding with what the DGAC report, which reflects a careful review of the science by nutrition experts. What the Dietary Guidelines reflect is negotiations between the government and corporate lobbyists.