The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published in final form today, are less likely to be remembered for what they say than for what they don’t say.
As we’ve reported, bitter battles have been fought over whether the guidelines should specifically recommend less red meat (there’s a general nod toward less meat) or acknowledge the impact of food production on the environment, which was stripped out of earlier drafts.
But what the guidelines do say—eat more vegetables, eat a variety of nutrient-dense foods, and limit sugar and salt for a healthier life—should not be swept aside in the uproar over what got left out.
“By focusing on small shifts in what we eat and drink, eating healthy becomes more manageable,” says U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, who released the guidelines today, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Indeed, agrees Julie Miller Jones, a nutrition professor in the Department of Family, Consumer and Nutritional Sciences at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Miller Jones, who is also a spokeswoman for the Grain Foods Foundation, says, as a population, we tend to “whipsaw” between dietary fads. “First fat is bad, then it’s carbs, now it’s sugar … The vilification of a particular nutrient— that’s silly. If I only ate carrots, that would be a bad diet.”
“What’s good is the dietary mixture,” Miller Jones tells The Plate. The guidelines, which come out only every five years, have increasingly moved toward encouraging healthy eating patterns rather than prescribing a certain amount of nutrients, she says, which is something people can understand.
“For many people, the minute you talk about something with a chemical name, even potassium, their eyes glaze over,” she says. “If you say, ‘Eat more leafy greens,’ they get it.”
There are other benefits to following the guidelines, as U.S. schools and institutions are required to do.
“The Dietary Guidelines provide science-based recommendations on food and nutrition so people can make decisions that may help keep their weight under control and prevent chronic conditions, like Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease,” Burwell said in a statement.
Reigning in chronic conditions associated with carrying around excess weight is a major goal for the many countries that struggle with paying for health care. Americans lose a billion dollars a day in health and productivity costs related to heart disease, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Foundation, and more than a third of Americans are obese, while nearly two-thirds are overweight.
But these challenges aren’t limited to America. Nearly 40 percent of adults worldwide are overweight, and 13 percent are obese, says the World Health Organization.
And at the same time, while many of us are eating more calories than we need, there are still major problems of malnutrition. (See Why Micronutrients are a Macro Problem.)
So what else do these guidelines say?
They call on us to eat more fish, avocado, and nuts, which contain “healthy” fats. This may help the Kind bar company in its quest to get the Food and Drug Administration to update its rules on food labels. (See So What Do “Natural” and “Healthy” Really Mean on a Food Label?)
And as emerging dietary science has shown that eggs are not as bad as we thought, the dangers of dietary cholesterol are not as prominently discussed as they were in previous guidelines. Still, specific language suggests adult and teen males “reduce overall intake of protein foods by decreasing intakes of meats, poultry, and eggs and increasing amounts of vegetables or other underconsumed food groups.”
Sugar and saturated fat are still singled out for reduced consumption—less than 10 percent of daily calories—a move praised by the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Michael Jacobson. For most Americans, that means cutting half of our intake of sugary treats and drinks.
Obviously, these problems are not limited to the U.S. population. In fact, while the U.S. may have been among the first to issue dietary guidelines back in the 1970s, many other countries and global entities have copied it in recent decades.
The advice they offer is surprisingly similar and has remained fairly consistent over the years, Miller Jones notes. But the big challenge remains—how to get people to follow it.
“If Americans ate according to that advice, it would be a huge win for the public’s health,” says CSPI’s Jacobsen. “The problem is that the food industry has continued to pressure and tempt us to eat a diet of burgers, pizzas, burritos, cookies, doughnuts, sodas, shakes, and other foods loaded with white flour, red and processed meat, salt, saturated fat, and added sugars, and not enough vegetables, fruit, and whole grains.”
He urges policymakers to, among other things, limit sodium levels in packaged foods, stop junk-food marketing to children, and provide people on food assistance with discounts for buying fresh produce.