The recently released Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has made quite a flurry in the media. Everyone seems to have something to say about the nearly 600 page document.
First, here’s a little history. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans were first created in 1980 and are updated every five years. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) write the guidelines together using the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s (DGAC) recommendations as the basis. The DGAC is comprised of nutrition, public health and medical experts.
The guidelines are written as a public health measure to provide sound advice Americans can use to eat a healthy diet. In addition to offering guidance to individuals, the guidelines are used to create public policy that determines what is served in federally funded feeding programs such as in the military and in schools. It also influences the nutrition education taught to our students.
The recent report begins with a reminder that a healthy diet is particularly relevant today, because over half of American adults have at least one preventable chronic disease while two-thirds of us are overweight or obese. These conditions have a strong relationship with poor diet and lack of physical activity.
While the report offers comprehensive information on numerous diet issues, the overarching theme is that the dietary guidelines should encourage a varied and balanced diet focused on real food. This excerpt summarizes the report well: “… 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.
These dietary patterns can be achieved in many ways and should be tailored to the individual’s biological and medical needs as well as socio-cultural preferences.”
This advice is evidence-based, realistic and flexible. While most of the recommendations are not revolutionary, there are several topics in the report that are new or revised.
1. Sustainability – Hooray! This is the first time that the DGAC has reported on the connection between our diet and the environment. They conclude that a diet higher in plant-based foods (vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds) and lower in both calories and animal products (meat, seafood and dairy) has less environmental impact than the current American diet. This is due to the increased land, water and energy use associated with producing animal-based foods. You can help the environment by making a conscious effort to increase your intake of plant-based meals each week.
2. Dietary Cholesterol – This is one area where the committee reversed its previous advice. The prior recommendation was for individuals to limit dietary cholesterol to 300mg per day (or the equivalent of about one and a half eggs). The new report states that it is no longer a nutrient of concern, because research has shown that there is not a significant relationship between dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol. This means that high cholesterol foods (such as eggs and shellfish) do not necessarily increase your blood cholesterol levels.
However, there are dietary factors that do affect cholesterol. Evidence shows that intake of saturated fat is associated with increased total cholesterol and LDL (“bad cholesterol”). To keep your levels in check, focus on eating plenty of healthy unsaturated fats from foods like nuts, fatty fish and avocado.
3. Coffee – This beloved beverage found its way into this year’s report. The committee points to the research that “moderate” coffee (3-5 cups a day, or about 400mg of caffeine) does not have long-term health risks. Research has also shown that regular coffee consumption is associated with decreased risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
While I certainly celebrated with an extra refill (or two) at my local coffee shop, I believe we need to be cautious here. Caffeine intake can interfere with good quality sleep (which is crucial for overall health) and can also contribute to anxiety in some people. Don’t increase your coffee consumption if it is interfering with your health in these ways. Talk to your doctor if you have personal health concerns about caffeine.
4. Food Environment and Policy – The committee recognizes the impact that food environment has on an individual’s ability to maintain a healthy weight and nutritional status. Their recommendations urge that policies reflect the importance of a healthy food environment and sufficient food access. They identify that neighborhoods, child care facilities, schools and workplaces all contribute to the food environment. Evidence shows that all of four of these components must provide access to healthy food to make the biggest impact. Differences in food environments between communities play an important role in health disparities. This is an important topic and I am excited to see how the Dietary Guidelines will address these issues.
Why the controversy?
As I mentioned earlier, this report serves as a source of recommendations for the USDA and the HHS to write the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans which will be published later this year. In the interim, the media and food industry have wasted no time in expressing their opinions.
While the coffee and egg industries are celebrating, the meat industries are airing their grievances loudly. They have said that the DGAC is overstepping its boundaries by including environmental issues in its report. This is ridiculous, because there are few things that impact the environment more than our diet. Unfortunately, the food industry has substantial influence over policy and legislation in this country. I hope that USDA and HHS will hold the health interests of Americans higher than the dollars of industry when making their final guidelines.
In the media, I’ve seen criticism that the guidelines are too broad. General recommendations are needed to make policy and to inform the public. While the report may not be perfect, it does provide comprehensive, evidenced-based information that is in the best interests of the health of Americans.
There will never be nutrition advice that applies to everyone since nutrition is highly individualized. This points to the personal responsibility of choosing a healthy diet. Consider the Dietary Guidelines a starting point to guide your food choices. Then find nutrition and science sources that you trust and make your own guidelines to fit your personal health needs and values.
Raina Goldstein Bunnag has a bachelor’s degree from Boston University and a master’s degree in nutrition and public health from the University of North Carolina. She is also a registered dietitian. She keeps abreast of the latest health news and will be addressing relevant wellness topics each month. If you have any questions or topics you would like to see covered in the column, please send her an email at [email protected].