It’s time again for new official dietary guidelines, which are updated every five years by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services. The preliminary version was recently released.
The top-line takeaway from the advisory panel’s suggestions was for Americans to generally aim for a more plant-based diet with less red meat and added sugars. This year, the recommendations were based in part on environmental considerations; eating seafood whose stocks aren’t threatened was another suggestion. With global production of food responsible for 80 percent of deforestation and 70 percent of fresh water use, according to the report, a focus on sustainable diets is necessary if there’s to be enough food for future generations.
The beef industry has reacted strongly, resulting in some headlines like “Less meat, more veggies: big food is freaking out about the ‘nonsensical’ new dietary guidelines,” that appeared in the online magazine Salon. Some insiders, such as Washington State adjunct professor of animal science Jude Capper, are suggesting the industry should take care not to be too defensive in its response. In a blog entry asking “Is It Time We Stopped Shouting About The Dietary Guidelines?” she wonders whether consumers will be left with the impression that the industry is most worried about its own bottom line.
Capper writes, “The media sub-text is that big bad food producers...are appalled by the release of this governmental bad science that’s keeping them from their quest to keep you unhealthily addicted to triple cheeseburgers washed down with a 500-calorie soda, and will do anything to suppress it.”
She continues, “Rather than posting on Facebook or Twitter that the report is nonsense because the committee of nutritionists ventured into the bottomless pit that is sustainability, why don’t we instead extol the virtues of producing high-quality, nutritious, safe and affordable lean meat, and aim to reach the people who haven’t seen the hyperbolic headlines or read the guidelines simply because they’ve seen a lot of talk about them on Twitter?”
The guidelines do drive purchasing decisions for federal food programs, such as those in schools and the military, but if history — and research — are any guide, consumers will pay little attention to them. A few years ago, an NDP Group study showed that less than 2 percent of Americans consistently follow the USDA guidelines.
That could be in part because the actual recommendations are hard for most people to apply to their actual food. Take, for example, the recommendation to “replace protein foods that are higher in solid fats with choices that are lower in solid fats and calories and/or are sources of oil” or to “consume less than 300 mg of dietary cholesterol per day.”
Many people in food policy circles compare our opaque guidelines unfavorably to Brazil’s recently released guidelines, consisting of simple-to-follow suggestions that focus on overall health and enjoyment of food (rather than limiting individual nutrients), such as: Prepare meals from staple and fresh foods; eat regular meals and pay attention to what you’re eating; plan ahead to give meal prep and eating their proper time and space; be critical of the commercial advertisement of food products.
Back here in the United States, following a public comment period, the final guidelines will be released later this year.