Well folks, they’re finally official—the 2015 Dietary Guidelines. (They were actually released in 2016, but who’s counting?) The guidelines, revised every five years, form the backbone of American nutrition regulation, affecting everything from the “plate” food guide to nutrition labels to school lunches.
They get some things right—and, thanks to intense lobbying by Big Food, they drop the ball on some issues. What does it mean for your health? Here’s a quick cheat sheet on what the new official dietary guidelines from the USDA and the US Department of Health and Human Services say—and what they should have said…
• Sugar. This is a big change—and a win. For the first time, our national health authorities are urging Americans to limit sugar to no more than 10% of daily calories. Believe it or not, there’s never been a specific limit before, but the evidence for the health dangers of a high-sugar diet was just too overwhelming. In a 2,000-calorie diet, 10% is 200 calories—the equivalent of about 12½ teaspoons of sugar. Yet we average 20 teaspoons a day—and some people take in much more. To start cutting back, see Bottom Line’s You Can Break the Sugar Habit.
• Cholesterol. It’s gone from the guidelines! Based on scientific evidence that’s been mounting for decades, dietary cholesterol (as opposed to blood cholesterol) just isn’t something we need to worry about anymore. (Eggs, anyone?)
• Fat. For the first time, there is no limit on total fat, which is a good thing. However, the advice to limit saturated fat is still in there—even though the evidence that saturated fat leads to heart disease has turned out to be pretty weak. To get the real story, see Bottom Line’s What the Dietary Guidelines Get Wrong About Fat.
• Meat. An original report associated with the new guidelines called for cutting back on red meat, especially processed meat, but the final official guidelines soft pedal it. That’s the work of the meat industry, a very powerful lobbying force. The report does note that teenage boys and men consume too much animal protein (not just red meat but also chicken and other meats) and recommends that they cut back and eat more vegetables. But a strong “eat less meat” message, which the original reported hinted at, never arrived. “I am disappointed that the USDA once again is cutting out recommendations to truly limit red meat intake,” University of North Carolina nutrition professor Barry Popkin, PhD, told National Public Radio. Want to do the right thing for yourself? Start with Bottom Line’s Guide to Eating Less Meat (and Loving It!).
• Seafood. This got specific for the first time—aim for at least eight ounces a week, in part to get its heart-healthy nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids. Not a fish lover? Check out Bottom Line’s The Best Fish for Fish Haters.
• Sustainability. The original report called for including sustainability issues in the guidelines—which would mean eating more plant-based food and less animal-based foods. But the USDA administration nixed that idea, too.
Some things didn’t change. We’re still advised to limit sodium to no more than 2,300 mg a day, rather than the nearly 3,500 that we take in, on average. There’s still an emphasis on dairy, especially low-fat and fat-free dairy, both of which are controversial—the recommendations are to eat three servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy each day.
Of course, it is absolutely no surprise to learn that it’s a good idea to eat lots of vegetables and to choose whole grains over refined ones, as the new guidelines continue to recommend.
In the coming weeks, we’ll get the best expert advice on many of these specific nutritional issues and bring those to you.
In the meantime, here’s our opinion: The 2015 dietary guidelines pay lip service to a “dietary pattern” approach to healthier eating, which emphasizes the whole rather than individual nutrients—a very good thing. But by stepping back from embracing a plant-based diet that is better for our health, and the health of the planet, they fall short.
What’s your opinion?