It’s a paradox: most American citizens have no idea that the US administration is revising its dietary guidelines. In fact, they might not even be familiar with the current recommendations – and even if they are, they’d be hard-pressed to change their eating habits due to these publications.
This reality however does not prevent industry organizations and lobbying groups from keeping an eagle eye on the current revision process, and being up in arms about the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee that was recently published.
The 571-page tome‘s major message:
The dietary patterns of the American public are suboptimal and are causally related to poor individual and population health and higher chronic disease rate. Unfortunately, few improvements in consumers’ food choices have occurred in recent decades. On average, the U.S. diet is low in vegetables, fruit, and whole grains and too high in calories, saturated fat, sodium, refined grains, and added sugars.
In this vein, it mirrors almost every nutritionist or public health expert that has recently spoken on the issue. However, it is highly unusual for a government committee to be so explicit and outspoken about the issue. Further on in the executive summary, it uses even stronger wording:
For conclusions with moderate to strong evidence, higher intake of red and processed meats was identified as detrimental compared to low intake. Higher consumption of sugar-sweetened foods and beverages as well as refined grains was identified as detrimental in almost all conclusion statements with moderate to strong evidence. […] Thus, the U.S. population should be encouraged and guided to consume dietary patterns that are rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in low- and non-fat dairy products and alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and beverages and refined grains [emphasis added].
This conclusion as read by industry experts translates to a strong governmental support of some sectors – the produce and fish producers, let’s say – and a distancing from others, such as the meat and sugar industry. And such a stance, in the words of the American Beverage Association’s spokesperson, goes “far beyond [the committee’s] charge and authority,advancing a predetermined agenda rather than one based on the preponderance of scientific evidence“.
Lobbying groups such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Pork Producers’ Council are now asking for an extension of the report’s comment period from 45 to 120 days – ostensibly, in order to fact-check the studies used for the report, but surely also to buy more time to convince lawmakers of alternative wording. Should the report be accepted as it stands by the USDA and the Department for Health and Human Services, it could significantly influence US nutrition policy, including the School Lunch Program worth $16 billion.
Thus, the topic of nutrition guidelines has always been a major economic and political battleground. According to Marion Nestle, food policy scholar and author, “the one thing the Dietary Guidelines have never been allowed to do is say clearly and explicitly to eat less of anything. This committee is not burying anything, or obfuscating. This is a dramatic departure. They’re just telling it like it is.”
Yet, the real battle has only started in the political sphere. The federal government is free to disregard the entire report. And the Republican Chairman of the Senate Agricultural Committee (hailing from Kansas) already announced his stark opposition to the meat recommendations, stating that “it would make a certain segment of agriculture a target. I represent them; I’m their champion.” Industry experts equally argued that the report disregards certain studies and overemphasizes others, questioning the scientific integrity of its authors. It will thus be interesting to see how the guidelines are amended once political and lobbying work has begun.
Taking a look across the US borders and onto another continent, one can see that progressive nutrition guidelines orientated around public health and the prevention of non-communicable diseases are indeed possible. One of the best set of guidelines, according to a recent Vox article, are those of Brazil, which focus on simplifying the message and distilling “golden rules” reminiscent of Michael Pollan’s “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mainly Plants.”:
Always prefer natural or minimally processed foods and freshly made dishes and meals to ultra-processed foods. In other words, opt for water, milk, and fruits instead of soft drinks, dairy drinks, and biscuits, do not replace freshly prepared dishes (broth, soups, salads, sauces, rice and beans, pasta, steamed vegetables, pies) with products that do not require culinary preparation (packaged soups, instant noodles, pre-prepared frozen dishes, sandwiches, cold cuts and sausages, industrialised sauces, ready-mixes for cakes), and stick to homemade desserts, avoiding industrialised ones.
In Costa Rica, in turn, guidelines are pretty explicit as well:
The group of cereals, legumes and starchy vegetables should comprise the greatest proportion of the diet, followed by fruits and vegetables. Products of animal origin should be consumed in smaller quantities and the group of fats and sugars should have the smallest proportion.
This is very reminiscent of the food pyramid we also use in Europe – but what I liked was that the guide next gives locally appropriate examples of what appropriate meals look like. Rice and beans, the national dish, is hailed as a healthy and complete dish with staying power, the guideline gives the perfect ratio – 1 spoon of beans for each 2 spoons of rice -, and consumers are even given advice on how to deal with problems digesting beans. Clear, simple and straightforward without diplomatic finesse – do you think the US can achieve a similar result in their new guidelines?