The New Guidelines
New Dietary Guidelines (DGs) were published in January to cover the five year span through 2020 based on a report from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) made public last year. The DGAC comprised of a diverse group of scientists who sifted through and analyzed current nutrition research before they produced a list of facts for the federal agency to use as a foundation. They were not expected to recommend any one diet over another, but instead, just compile relevant data. Though not perfect, the report did highlight some important aspects including focusing on whole foods rather than individual nutrients or processed foods, sustainability by relying more on plants for food and less on meat and an emphasis on family and the culture of eating home cooked foods together when possible. The DGs, on the other hand, seem to be a mixed bag with some new recommendations based on current eating habits and some information presented in vague terms.
A major part retained from the DGAC report embraces healthy eating patterns defined with a list of whole foods to focus on rather than individual nutrients. This is a huge welcome step because it allows people to understand the basics of nutrition and apply those patterns within their own lifestyles without stressing over the minute details. The importance of variety in food sources is also emphasized since a diet rich in different colored whole foods including vegetables, fruits, legumes, beans, nuts, seeds and grains has been proven to be our best source of multi vitamins. These are both good moves in making nutrition more user-friendly and simpler for everyone.
However, when it comes to foods to avoid, the focus is shifted back onto individual nutrients instead of whole food examples. Intake of added sugars, saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol is restricted, and rightly so. However, warnings for specific food such as sodas (added sugars and sweeteners), packaged foods (added sugars, sodium), red meat (saturated fat and cholesterol) and processed meats (sodium, added sugars, recently listed as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization), etc. are not provided. Instead vague terminology such as “nutrient dense foods”, which can mean whole or fortified processed foods depending on your interpretation, and percentages of calories are employed to define these parameters. More often than not, visual aids, rather than complicated math, can help people comprehend guidelines, especially limitations. A demonstration that one can of soda would bring us close to the recommended amount of added sugar for the day is easier for the public to grasp than trying to calculate the calories involved, especially when our nutrition labels currently do not provide any details about added sugars.
As the DGAC also pointed out in their report, in addition to the effects of food on health it is also vital to look at the sustainability of our collective diets. Given the land, water and air pollution caused by meat and dairy industries, we know that this is not an environmentally justifiable move for the predicted population growth of the future. Subtle hints in the DGs to reduce meat and dairy consumption through restrictions on saturated fat and suggestions to include other protein sources such as legumes and nuts is not the same as calling out the industry for their effects on global ecology as well as our health. Relying more, if not completely, on plant based whole foods will allow us to manage our resources for a longer period of time with a bonus of better health and this is an essential fact that we need to recognize.
Globally, though the recommendations are more in tune with scientific research than ever before, the DGs do fall short on some chief aspects of overall human and environmental health. To make nutrition simpler, it is best instead to focus on eating Real Whole foods, mostly plant based, cooked in a Simple manner.