Did you know that a single document guides every federal nutrition program and policy created? This document, called the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, outlines recommendations that (ideally) help prevent disease and promote health in Americans age 2+.1
Sounds good, right?
Not so fast. Whether you agree with them or not, these guidelines underpin what you’re told to eat, what your kids eat in school, and what kinds of foods your tax dollars will support. They also inform what dietitians-in-training (such as yours truly) are taught.1 Needless to say, these guidelines are really important, and you may not like what they have to say.
How are the Guidelines created?
The existing Guidelines are updated every 5 years based on a review of evidence by a small group of experts, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. This committee compiles its findings in the Dietary Guidelines Scientific Report and submits the report to the USDA and FDA. These departments then develop and publish the official guidelines using the report as well as public and government feedback.1 (Side note: One of my former professors from UNC, Anna Maria Siega-Riz, is an advisory committee member. Cool, no?)
What’s in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Committee Scientific Report
The committee’s 2015 scientific report was just released2, and I’m happy to say that many of the committee’s conclusions do indeed appear to be health promoting. (Confession: The full report is 571 pages long, and since I have something of a life, I haven’t read the whole thing! But I’ve got a good idea of what’s there.) While I’m delighted with parts of the report, though, other parts that rankle me. Here are the highs and lows:
- Highlights the health benefits of a vegetarian eating style!
- Focuses on vegetables and fruits as especially health-promoting
- Finds that red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened foods/drinks, and refined grains are harmful. (I hope this means fewer people will feed their children hot dogs and hamburgers and sodas. A girl can dream!)
- States that diets rich in plant foods and low in calories and animal foods are not only healthy, but they’re better for the planet
- Promotes seafood, despite the mercury, PCBs, dioxins, and saturated fat that often accompany it.3 I understand that fish may be a “better” choice, but that doesn’t make it a health food. In fact, fish is so contaminated with mercury that by the federal government’s own admission, certain fish are completely off limits for pregnant women and young children, and “low-mercury” seafood like tuna and shrimp should be limited to 2 meals per week in these groups.4
- Basically says eating cholesterol is A-OK. This flies in the face of the committee’s own analysis, which states that diets lower in cholesterol are linked to better cardiovascular health and healthy body weight (see part D, ch. 2, p. 43). According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, green-lighting cholesterol was based on just two documents: a single meta-analysis of egg studies, and a 2013 joint report by the American Association of Cardiology and American Heart Association. (The latter, incidentally, makes money whenever it certifies a food as “heart healthy”).5 Of course, it’s hard to recommend seafood while restricting dietary cholesterol, since many fish and shellfish are loaded with it.
- Effectively avoids the question of whether lean meats are healthy or not, citing methodological differences among studies.
- Encourages low-fat and fat-free dairy. While I know that data on dairy are mixed, for instance regarding certain cancers, I think that’s exactly why it makes sense to put off making a recommendation.6-8
Well, there’s my take. Now I want to hear from you. Are you happy with what’s in the committee’s report? What would you change?
(Note: If you want to participate in public comment on the report to the federal government, you can do it here.)References
2. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Scientific report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Available at http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015-scientific-report/. Accessed February 20, 2015.
3. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Fish: A report by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Available at http://www.pcrm.org/health/reports/fish. Accessed February 21, 2015.
4. United States Environmental Protection Agency. What you need to know about mercury in fish and shellfish. 2004. Available at http://water.epa.gov/scitech/swguidance/fishshellfish/outreach/advice_index.cfm. Accessed February 20, 2015.
5. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Petition for executive action regarding dietary guidelines. February 19, 2015. Available at http://www.pcrm.org/pdfs/health/Petition-to-USDA-HHS.pdf. Accessed February 20, 2015.
6. Michaëlsson K, Wolk A, Langenskiöld S, Basu S, Warensjö Lemming E, Melhus H,
Byberg L. Milk intake and risk of mortality and fractures in women and men:
cohort studies. BMJ. 2014 Oct 28;349:g6015. doi: 10.1136/bmj.g6015.
7. Ahn J, Albanes D, Peters U, Schatzkin A, Lim U, Freedman M, Chatterjee N,
Andriole GL, Leitzmann MF, Hayes RB; Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian
Trial Project Team. Dairy products, calcium intake, and risk of prostate cancer
in the prostate, lung, colorectal, and ovarian cancer screening trial. Cancer
Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2007 Dec;16(12):2623-30.
8. Ganmaa D, Sato A. The possible role of female sex hormones in milk from
pregnant cows in the development of breast, ovarian and corpus uteri cancers. Med
Hypotheses. 2005;65(6):1028-37. Epub 2005 Aug 24.