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Government Releases New "Dietary Guidelines for Americans"

Summary: Americans just need to eat less. But hidden beneath the scientific language, the government is actually calling for a food revolution.

This morning, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius held a press conference to release the 2010 "Dietary Guidelines for Americans." The document represents the official federal advice on nutrition—which foods to eat, in what quantity, and which to avoid—and it is updated by law every 5 years. It's a pretty big deal, because its recommendations influence all government food programs, such as school meals, Meals on Wheels, regulatory decisions, and consumer tools, such as the ubiquitous food pyramid.

Overall, the biggest change in the new guidelines is the tone, which has become much more urgent and direct. For example, the 2005 guidelines were content to note that consumers should "follow a diet that does not provide excess calories," while today's version is straightforward about the fact that to be healthy most Americans just need to eat less and move more. The change in focus can even be seen in the "appropriate intake" chapter title: In 2005, the government organized its overall consumption advice under the heading "Adequate Nutrients Within Calorie Needs," while in 2010, the section is titled "Balancing Calories to Manage Weight."

Changes of this sort might seem minor, but in fact making any sort of official recommendation to reduce or avoid a particular food is fraught with political difficulty—as is immediately clear if you look at the language on meat consumption. Hidden within the document are all sorts of statements that recommend replacing animal proteins with more pulses and nuts—to give a handful of examples: "Vegetarians generally have a lower body mass index;" "Shift food intake patterns to a more plant-based diet that emphasizes vegetables, cooked dry beans and peas, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds;" and "Replace protein foods that are higher in solid fats with choices that are lower in solid fats and calories and/or are sources of oils."

However, in the question and answer session following the briefing, officials waffled in response to this question: Why not cut to the chase and simply say "Eat less meat"? The unspoken answer, it is hard not to assume, is that direct federal advice to consume less animal protein would make the livestock industry very unhappy.

In general, New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle makes the interesting point that the guidelines are perfectly straightforward when talking about what foods to increase ("dark-green and red and orange vegetables"), but "they switch to nutrient euphemisms (sodium, solid fats and added sugars) when they mean 'eat less.'"

In that context, given the difficulty of making radical recommendations in a government structure that grants industrial agriculture and food companies such a big seat at the table, the new guidelines are quite impressive. They call for Americans to switch from full-fat to low-fat or fat-free milk and drink water over "sugar-sweetened drinks" (meaning soda). They also make a big deal out of salt consumption, suggesting that anyone 51 or older, all African-Americans, children, and adults with hypertension, diabetes and chronic kidney disease should cut their salt intake to 1,500 milligrams a day (which is roughly equivalent to the sodium content of a single fast-food breakfast sandwich; the average American currently consumes 3,400 milligrams per day).

Even more importantly, in my opinion, they devote a whole chapter of the report to the healthy eating challenges posed by America's obesogenic environment. While nutrition advice naturally puts the emphasis on individual responsibility, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, for the first time, are explicit about the fact that Americans have to make dietary choices "within the context of an environment that promotes over-consumption of calories and discourages physical activity." Their recommendations in this section involve systemic change, which means that they will be the hardest to implement, and also, I would predict, the most effective:

To reverse these trends, a coordinated system-wide approach is needed—an approach that engages all sectors of society, including individuals and families, educators, communities and organizations, health professionals, small and large businesses, and policymakers.


Among the strategies included are retail partnerships to increase food access, new transportation policies to encourage physical activity, and restrictions on food and beverage marketing to children. In the coming months, as the government rolls out a new pyramid and new policies based on the report, I'll be watching for progress on these system-wide changes with particular interest. Meanwhile, you can download the entire report as a PDF—if you do (and I'd recommend it—it has some interesting-looking tables and charts), I'd love to hear what else you find.

All images taken from "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010," USDA and US Department of Health and Human Services.

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