National Consumers League

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, taken with a grain of salt

ali.jpgEarlier this week, as I rode the metro to work, I overheard a woman describe to her friends the new “clean eating” challenge she was trying. I expect she is one of thousands across the country excitedly exchanging New Year diet strategies with other inspired colleagues and friends. In the U.S., we are bombarded with weight loss advice, especially during the holidays. Often, one diet plan contradicts the next, leaving consumers to choose one randomly and then lose momentum quickly afterwards. The Eighth Edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans was released in the first week of January, just in time to bring some clarity to our diet woes! Unfortunately, the 2015-2020 nutrition guidelines are not exactly straightforward.

Every five years the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) revise dietary guidelines intended to inform federal, state, and local food policy. A committee of nutrition experts and researchers advise federal agencies on the latest nutrition science and information. Historically, the Guidelines have affected American eating habits, how advertisers promote products, and the way public health professionals respond to health problems.

The first edition of the Guidelines, released in 1980, recommended that Americans greatly reduce their consumption of fat. This became one of the most controversial recommendations in the history of the Guidelines. Nutrition scientists weren’t wrong; certain fats, consumed in large amounts, will cause negative health effects. However, the recommendations were released during the tipping point of the national obesity problem, making it seem that inaccurate recommendations were to blame for the surging epidemic. Linking the obesity problem to one tangible document takes responsibility away from the consumer and industry interventions.

Michael Jacobson, President of the Center for Food Science in the Public Interest, explains, “The nutrition scientists who do the long, hard slog of working out details of official dietary advice might only dream of the life-altering powers now being attributed to them. The public has never eaten the diet they recommend, and still does not today.” But consumers are not totally at fault. Many companies replaced fat with sugar and rebranded their products to proudly announce “fat free.” Over-consumption of refined grains and added sugar ensued. Nonetheless, overall consumption of fat didn’t actually decrease. Instead consumers were eating too much fat, sugar, and carbs, calumniating in a major epidemic. Whether the 1980 Guidelines exacerbated the obesity problem or not, they did stimulate discussion over the accuracy and effectiveness of nutritional recommendations.

Critics of the 2015-2020 Guidelines consistently point to its vague recommendations. Still, the Guidelines do offer some concrete advice:

  1. No more than 10 percent of daily calories should come from added sugar
  2. Eating eggs is acceptable again, as limits on cholesterol have been dropped
  3. No more than 10 percent of daily intake should come from saturated fats
  4. Moderate coffee consumption (3-5  8-oz cups/day or up to 400 mg/day of caffeine) can be incorporated into a healthy diet

While these recommendations seem straightforward, nutrition experts are still concerned about the Guidelines’ inconsistencies. Experts recommended that Americans consume less red meat because it has been linked to clogging arteries and heart disease. However, the final version of the Guidelines replaced an explicit warning on red meat with this generalized suggestion: “Some individuals, especially teen boys and adult men, also need to reduce overall intake of protein foods by decreasing intakes of meats, poultry, and eggs.” This recommendation is far too broad and contradicts other statements promoting low fat proteins like eggs. Nutrition researchers are also disappointed that the Guidelines only include a limit on added sugar and do not single out soda and sweetened beverages, which are responsible for the most concentrated amounts of added sugar in the American diet. 

The USDA and HHS’s avoidance of specific language may stem from a fear of aggravating an existing public health problem (like what happened in the “low fat” era). Another theory, promoted by many nutrition experts, is that pressure from the industry ultimately overrode scientific evidence. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard's School of Public Health, speculates in a recent Los Angeles Times article, "there was a lot of pushback or interference by the food industry, Congress and special interest groups …That has certainly influenced the translation of the scientific evidence into the policy document."

Now that the Guidelines have been published, nutrition and food policy experts are providing the pushback. The Physicians Committee of Responsible Medicine has filed a lawsuit against the USDA and HHS arguing that pressure from the egg industry led to weakened cholesterol recommendations. Esteemed cardiologist Steven E. Nissen, MD and food policy expert and professor of nutrition and food studies Marion Nestle Ph.D, M.P.H (among many others) have both blamed industry influence for deceptive and confusing language. 

On the bright side, the Dietary Guidelines do provide plenty of useful information for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Still, consumers should refer to the Guidelines with a critical lens. The major contention of experts is that recommendations do not go far enough. This puts responsibility back in the hands of the consumer.

Here are some tips to go one step ahead just reading the Dietary Guidelines:

  1. Make sure to read labels and menus ahead of time
  2. Rethink products with too much added sugar, saturated fat, or sodium
  3. Diversify your meals by eating lean proteins and colorful produce
  4. Stay informed and follow nutrition advice that is supported by science, not politics