Health, with a Grain of Salt

Explaining the science and debunking the myths of nutrition, metabolism, and health.


The Good, the Bad, and the Meh of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

As you may have heard, the new 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) were released last week. The DGA were first created in 1980 and are updated every 5 years, based on new science. (If you think the Food Pyramid still exists, get with the program and check out MyPlate.)

myplate_yellow_livetype copyThere was potential for some great things in the new DGA. Some of that happened, whereas other facets are overwhelmingly vague and lack clear instruction or guidance for consumers. Here’s my take on the wins and losses regarding what changed (and didn’t).

The Good
Focus on Dietary Patterns, Less on Individual Nutrients –This is seemingly the focus of the whole 2015-2020 DGA, but it has gotten lost in the media coverage and because so much of the report is actually contradictory in nature and focuses on aspects of diet other than patterns (more on that in a minute). The meal patterns they recommend are a healthy American, vegetarian, or Mediterranean diet. All of these patterns have ample evidence to support them and the DGA point out that you don’t have to pick just one. You can switch them up based on what you feel like eating. They characterize a healthy eating pattern by lots of vegetables, whole fruits, grains (mostly whole grains), low-fat or fat-free dairy, a variety of types of protein, and healthy oils. I agree with all these recommendations, and I commend the DGA for emphasizing dietary patterns. However, they left some important things out and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t by accident.

The Bad
Meat – There is brief mention of men and boys reducing their intake of red meat, poultry, and eggs and increasing their intake of other protein sources including beans, nuts, seeds, and seafood. But 1) nobody actually needs meat, though it can be included in moderation. Yes, men and boys eat more meat than women, but based on the advisory committee’s report, just make the recommendation for everyone to eat less meat; and 2) there is no mention of processed meats, which are more of an issue than meat in general.

Portion Sizes – This is one of the biggest issues in the American diet. We like to point the finger at so many facets of our diet, but the truth of the matter is that we simply eat too much. People need to learn what a portion size of a given food looks like. The DGA would be the perfect resource for that, but they don’t go into it (not that I could find, at least).

Wordplay – This is by far the worst part of the DGA, as it always has been. Recommendations are vague and indirect. Though slight and subversive, when you should eat more of something, the rec’s mention “foods.” When you should eat less of something, the report mentions “nutrients” (i.e. salt, saturated fat, sugar; see below: The Meh). While the general focus is on overall patterns, this back and forth between foods and nutrients is confusing for consumers. Should we be following a pattern or do we need to be tracking our nutrient intake? People want to know how to improve their health, so be direct and tell them how: eat fewer processed foods, less meat, fewer sodas/sweetened beverages/sweetened yogurt/cake/cookies…sweet stuff. But why aren’t we told that? Because of politics. You don’t buy nutrients. You buy foods. So telling people to eat less of certain nutrients instead of certain foods is a creative way to appease the food industry. That’s because there are powerful lobbyists for the food industry, namely meat, soda, and processed food companies, who strongly influence what is (read: isn’t) included in the DGA. As per usual, these industries get a win from the DGA report, whereas the consumers, the people who are supposed to benefit from these guidelines, do not.

The Meh
Physical activity – The 2015-2020 DGA now have recommendations on physical activity…a bit suspect since physical activity is not diet. However, I’m not that bent out of shape about this because perhaps having both sets of recommendations in the same place could lead to people actually reading them. But we do already have a document for this exact purpose, and it’s called the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

The Three S’s – The recommendations for salt (2,300 mg/day) and saturated fat (no more than 10% of total calories) remain the same, while a recommendation for added sugar (no more than 10% of total calories) was added.

Since the other two didn’t change, let’s focus on the sugar recommendation. While this does disagree with the whole “focus on patterns” thing because sugar is a nutrient, this recommendation is likely beneficial as we do need to curb our enthusiasm for added sugar in this counntry. I absolutely don’t support eating excess added sugar because it provides no health benefit. However, I’m also slow to vilify individual foods/nutrients, which is what has been happening with sugar. Americans love to let out a warcry against single nutrients that seemingly need to be burned at the stake (we’ve done it with fat, carbs, and now sugar). These efforts to demonize and blame all our health-related woes on a single nutrient have done exactly nothing to improve population health or reduce weight, long term. So my issue is not really with the DGA, but with the media coverage of sugar. It has been branded as poison and its effects on the brain equated with cocaine. Fear mongering never gets us anywhere with nutrition and sugar is no exception. Work on limiting your intake of added sugars, but there’s no need to be scared of it.

Sustainability? – The DGA are supposed to be based on information from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a who’s who of nutrition and public health experts who write up a report with recommendations based on nutrition research. One of their recommendations was to include sustainability goals in the 2015-2020 DGA because, as they argued, what people eat probably shouldn’t desecrate the planet. What that means, in short, is that we should eat less meat. So, unsurprisingly, the meat industry FREAKED OUT and sustainability didn’t make into the 2015-2020 DGA. I would like to see some recommendations on sustainability as it relates to dietary practices so that people start paying more attention to it. However, my friend and colleague Michelle Cardel makes the very good point that nutrition scientists are not trained in sustainable agricultural practices. Perhaps a subsection based on reports from agricultural scientists and experts in sustainability would fill this need.

So, there it is. The good, the bad, and the meh of the 2015-2020 DGA: a document that hasn’t changed much over the past 35 years, but remains lengthy, vague, and full of wordplay that will satisfy industry and likely confuse consumers (that is, those who actually read it).

Image from by Joshua McKenty

dietary guidelines for americansdietary patternsnutrientsnutritionpublic health

caitlindowphd • January 13, 2016

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  1. Dezi Abeyta January 13, 2016 - 1:54 pm Reply

    This was very helpful and I absolutely enjoy the literary voice that is on display while providing all this information, in laments terms.

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