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What Do the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans Say?

 What should you know about the government’s latest guidance on what to eat?

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #125

Which Foods Do They Recommend Eating More Of?

In addition to eating more fruits and vegetables, the Guidelines advise us to increase our consumption of low-fat and fat-free dairy products, whole grains, fish and seafood.  Ironically, for people who want us to eat less, they spend a lot of time telling tell us about what to eat more of!  If you read between the lines, it’s clear that these foods are supposed to be replacing other foods.  But they seem more reluctant to single out foods that we should eat less of. 

It appears that the government thinks we’d be better off eating less meat, for example. However, as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack acknowledged in his comments at the press conference announcing the new Guidelines, part of the USDA’s mission is to support the nation’s agricultural economy and businesses. So instead of coming right out and advising people to reduce their meat consumption, which obviously wouldn’t play very well with the beef and pork industry, the guidelines get coy. They talk about the need to reduce saturated and solid fats. They mention “choosing a variety of protein foods, including…beans, soy, nuts, and seeds.” Ultimately, it’s up to us to figure out what that actually means.

How Solid is the Science Behind the Guidelines?

Fewer than 3% of Americans actually follow the Dietary Guidelines. Ironically, the people who have most to gain from this effort might be paying the least attention.

The guidelines have always been controversial and this newest round won’t be any less so. Although the agencies emphasize that the guidelines are based on the latest and best scientific evidence, that evidence leaves plenty of room for debate—and so do the guidelines.

There is still a big emphasis on strictly limiting saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, for example, despite a wealth of new evidence suggesting that this has a very limited impact on disease risk.  Although there’s also mention of avoiding artificial trans fats—a recommendation over which there is absolutely no controversy whatsoever—that advice is nowhere near as prominent as the messaging about cholesterol and saturated fat. In my mind, it should have been just the opposite.

Eating more whole grain products is another key message, while the need to limit the consumption of refined grains is given much less prominence. Again, I would have reversed the emphasis. In my opinion, reducing our intake of refined grains is the primary issue. And although they repeatedly mention the need to reduce the intake of added sugars, the primary source of added sugar in the American diet—soda—is never specifically mentioned in the summary materials.  Instead, they talk euphemistically about “sugary drinks” or “beverages.”

Now, of course, the entire 100-page document, which you can access online, includes a lot more detail. But most people will never hear anything beyond the the “Key Recommendations” and “Selected Messages” that were provided to the press.

Will the Guidelines Make Americans Healthier?

Although I have a few quibbles with the details—and I think the guidelines would be a lot clearer if they weren’t so politically correct—I think that they got the big message right: Base your diet on nutrient-dense, whole foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and protein-rich foods from either plant or animal sources. As Secretary Vilsack summed it up at the press conference, “Real food is going to be the best use of your calories.”  That’s hardly an earth-shattering revelation, especially for Nutrition Diva readers.

But according to some estimates, fewer than 3% of Americans actually follow the Dietary Guidelines. (Vilsack admitted that he’d never read them before assuming his position as Secretary of Agriculture.)  So, it remains to be seen what impact these Guidelines will have. Ironically, the people who have most to gain from this effort might be paying the least attention.

That’s why many people insist that the food industry has to be part of the solution, by changing manufacturing, distribution, and marketing practices in order to promote healthier choices.  I’m interested to hear your thoughts.  Post them below or on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page.

RESOURCES: 

Dietary Guidelines Website

Dietary Guidelines: Can Science Prevail of Politics?  (Nutrition Diva article)

Dietary Guidelines: The Politics   (Marion Nestle’s Food Politics blog)

Dietary Guidelines: The Process (Today’s Dietitian)

Woman with Groceries image courtesy of Shutterstock

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About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.