New Dietary Guidelines for Americans goes off the rails

Edited to add: Photos of school lunches from around the world

The USDA is preparing to release a new version of its “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” this year. The last set of guidelines is the “2010″ edition (released in Jan. 2011). A preliminary “advisory report” has already been published, in order to solicit public comments.

I’m all for healthy eating. And there is nothing wrong with the government issuing “guidelines” as one of many sources of information on which dietary choices are healthy. But I have serious concerns with the new guidelines, as they now stand.

1. The guidelines are not based solely on which eating choices are healthiest. For the first time, these guidelines include concern for the environment: release of greenhouse gases (GHG), use of fossil fuels, deforestation, biodiversity, environmental impact, transportation and energy costs, economics, and sustainability are all factors discussed at length in the report. One goal is “to reduce GHG emissions through diet change.” [p. 376]. You should change your eating habits because climate change.

2. “Guidelines” is something of a misnomer. This type of government recommendation can have a strong effect on the foods available in schools, hospitals, federal food and nutrition assistance programs (SNAP, WIC, and the National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs), and any government funded programs. States may adopt the same or similar guidelines, further extending the influence (or control) that these guidelines have on our lives.

3. The report suggest taxing “sugar-sweetened beverages, snack foods and desserts high in calories, added sugars, or sodium, and other less healthy foods” [p. 46]. The money would then be used for nutrition education initiatives and obesity prevention programs. Should the government pressure its citizens to follow guidelines on healthy eating by taxation? This approach goes well beyond a set of recommendations from experts. The report favors “the use of economic and taxing policies to encourage the production and
310 consumption of healthy foods and to reduce unhealthy foods.” [p. 46].

4. Three dietary patterns are recommended in the report: Healthy U.S.-style Pattern, the Healthy Mediterranean-style Pattern, and the Healthy Vegetarian Pattern. Please pick one. Yikes! The first two “patterns” include 12.5 oz of red meat per week, which is less than 1.8 oz/day. So, every three days, you can have just over 5 ounces of red meat. But don’t despair, you can also have 10.5 oz/week of poultry. That’s 4.5 ounces every three days. What about seafood? It’s 8 oz/week for the U.S. diet and 15 oz/wk for the Mediterranean diet. The vegetarians get none of those foods, of course, so they are assigned extra protein foods: soy, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Well, that’s nice for them. How much vegetable oil and other added fats (butter, etc.) can you have per day? 27 grams, which is 2 tablespoons. No fried foods for you; it’s too much oil per day.

5. Recommended total daily calories is 2000/day. What is the actual average calories consumed by Americans? It’s about 2500 kcal/day. So please cut your calories by 25%. Which brings me to my next point. These dietary guidelines are great for someone who is on a strict weight-loss program. Cut way back on calories, added fats; eat more fruits, vegetables, legumes, etc. The problem is that these are nation-wide guidelines for persons of all ages and conditions.

6. You probably recall the recent controversy over federal guidelines for school lunch programs. The total calories in each lunch was fine for a sedentary adult woman on a diet, but far too little for growing children, high school athletes, and anyone not on a diet. And despite strong objections from many quarters, these guidelines were imposed on children. Well, the 2015 guidelines are not limited to schools. They could affect a large portion of the population, not merely as recommendations, but as imposed limits.

7. The American Heart Association, the CDC, and the 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines all recommend <300 mg/day of dietary cholesterol. The 2015 proposed guidelines abandon this recommendation; they claim that cholesterol intake is essentially irrelevant to health. But this flies in the face of many years of medical research.

How can this happen? Well, when a government panel is convened to decide things, they make decisions in a bubble. Whatever seems best to them becomes the recommendation. They can ignore the majority view among physicians and researchers. And this particular panel has few physicians; it’s mostly dieticians and researchers. How many heart specialists or primary care physicians agree that dietary cholesterol does not matter? The panel doesn’t care. They are the deciders.

I’m all for healthy eating. But I have no confidence in these new proposed guidelines. How about you?

– Thoreau

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