You heard the news. The long-awaited Dietary Guidelines for Americans were released yesterday. The five-year process, along with the DGA committee itself, has been plagued with controversy — which undoubtedly contributed to the delay. The biggest debate was the interference of Congress who put a stop to the inclusion of environmental sustainability in the report — claiming that it was “out of scope.”
Now some folks are critical that the guidelines didn’t go far enough (such as not making declarative statements to “eat less meat”). While others, primarily Paleo devotees and authors like Nina Teicholz who wrote The Big Fat Surprise, do not support the limit on saturated fat (less than 10% of calories per day). They want us to eat more. And then there are some cynical people who say we should ignore what the government says altogether — that’s why we’re all fat in the first place.
I say ignore that chatter.
Sure, you can find things to criticize. But can’t we look on the positive side? I think it’s important now to embrace the new recommendations and spend our energy on creative ways to translate and activate the guidelines to help improve public health. I firmly believe that when the public sees the experts arguing, they’re even more likely to do nothing — which was the motivation behind the recent Oldways Finding Common Ground Conference. Even though there are some loud complaining voices, the new dietary guidelines represent a consensus on the science. This was a rigorous scientific review process conducted by some of the top nutrition researchers in the country — so I’m on board.
So let’s move on from the debate. In my opinion, there are five great things about the new guidelines:
1. We have a new plan the country can rally around. Maybe now the public can focus on what really counts instead of chasing the next big diet trend. New education efforts are underway, including MyPlate, MyWins that will help people put these guidelines into action.
2. The emphasis is on healthy eating patterns, or eating styles, instead of individual nutrients. It’s been said many times before, we eat food, not nutrients. So I like that the guidelines take a food-based approach. And it’s what you eat over time, the totality of your diet, that really counts — not a specific food or nutrient. Although it’s true, as Marion Nestle says, the guidelines do switch back and forth from eating patterns to nutrients (such as limit saturated fat and added sugars to less than 10% of calories, and consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day), but there are multiple food sources of these nutrients. A blanket statement to eat less of specific foods doesn’t really cut it. There are lots of ways to achieve these targets. Let’s give people a goal and ideas on how to achieve it — leave the options up to the individual.
3. There’s more than one way to eat healthy. I like that three different eating patterns are highlighted in the guidelines, a U.S.-style, Mediterranean and vegetarian. One size doesn’t fit all, and it’s important to consider personal preferences and cultural backgrounds. During a webinar I attended today on the new guidelines, Dr. Karen DeSalvo, the Acting Assistant Secretary for Health in the Department of Health and Human Services, described the eating patterns as an “adaptive framework.” You can fit together a healthy diet in many different ways, similar to a puzzle — which is the artwork on the cover of the report. Oh, I get it now.
4. The focus is on small changes. The guidelines promote the concept of “shifts” or the need to make simple substitutions — that is, choosing nutrient-dense foods and beverages in place of less healthy choices. It’s these little tweaks that can make a big difference. Most Americans need to up their intake of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. So making these shifts at every eating occasion will get people closer to daily recommendations without feeling deprived.
5. Fat and cholesterol are getting figured out. For once, the emphasis is on the type of fat we eat instead of the amount. So that means keeping an eye on saturated fat, but not being as concerned about eating “low fat.” I hope this means people will no longer fear all the wonderful good-fat foods, like nuts, olives and avocado. And maybe the “saturated fat is back” message will die down. It’s not really back. Of course, butter, coconut oil and well-marbled steaks can still be enjoyed. But they’re not “health foods.” The guidelines also dumped the 300 mg/day limit on cholesterol, which means eggs and seafood may be seen in a new light (which is a good thing). However, the guidelines still say that dietary cholesterol should be “as low as possible” in a healthy eating pattern.
Here’s a look at what’s been written about the 2015-2020 DGAs:
|New York TimesWashington Post|