Debating Our Diets

As promised, wanted to give you an update on some of the discussions last week from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.  This panel is dg20101is charged with developing the revised guidelines that will be issued next year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).  I appreciated all of the comments from my earlier post, and I understand some of the cynicism.  But I will remain optimistic.  The group has emphasized many times that they’re using an evidence-based system to draft the report, so the strongest science should win out.  Let’s hope.

But I agree with many of you that people are confused.  In fact, that’s being discussed at the meetings.  Patricia Crawford from the University of California, Berkeley, told the committee that the public understands the recommendations for fruits and vegetables, but that’s about it.  She said they can’t translate what they’re supposed to do with the information given.  What’s needed, she said, is a “national set of benchmarks and standards.”

Who knows what will be in the final report, but here are a few highlights from the discussions:

  • Eat whole foods.  Rather than focusing on individual nutrients, the committee talked about the need to emphasize whole foods.  After all, people eat foods, not nutrients.  Research suggests many Americans are confused by the Dietary Guidelines, which they find too complicated and too focused on nutrients, rather than specific foods. 
  • Positive nutrition.  Instead of focusing on what NOT to eat, a more pyramideffective approach may be to advise Americans on what to eat more of — such as fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains.  So it’s about foods to encourage, rather than discourage.
  • Figuring out  fat.  The committee debated the merits of eliminating a limit on total fat and instead focusing on reducing just the unhealthy type — saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol.
  • Cut the salt.  Sodium was heavily discussed and there’s some indication that it may be the next trans fat.  Most Americans have trouble keeping sodium under the current recommended daily limit of 2,300 mg and now there’s talk of potentially lowering it to 1,500 mg per day — or at least the “rationale” for doing so was presented. There was some discussion of the benefits of increasing potassium to offset our high-sodium diets.
  • New view of food groups.  We grew up  with the “Basic Four” and now MyPyramid identifies five food groups.  What’s the best way to categorize foods?  Besides the individual groups, there was a lot of talk about identifying the best or most nutrient-rich choices within each food category.
  • It’s the calories, stupid.  The committee talked about bringing the attention back to calories.  Popular weight loss plans all achieve about the same weight loss results — so it’s about eating less, not following a particular diet.  Cutting calories was the main ingredient for successful weight loss.
  • Economics of eating.  A huge part of the discussion involved eating well on a budget.  Adam Drewnowski suggested that we  look at obesity as an economic issue first — food costs affect diet quality and appear to significantly increase the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.   Andrea Carlson showed how it’s possible for a family of four to meet the Dietary Guidelines for $137 per week by using  USDA’s thrifty food plan.
  • Nutritional gatekeepers.  Brian Wansink encouraged the group to target the nutritional gatekeepers — women who make 72% of the food decisions for their families, whether they eat at home or at a restaurant.

I’ll report back after the 4th committee meeting in the fall.  In the meantime, I welcome your comments.

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