Every five years, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), comprising a dozen or so experts in nutrition, medicine and public health, issues its guidance on healthy eating. Its hefty report examines the nation's eating habits and identifies areas of particular nutritional concern, focusing attention on what it terms "overconsumed" and "underconsumed" nutrients. Its recommendations invite public input (after which some revisions may be made) and the end result will form the basis of a revised MyPlate -- the visual tool that replaced the food pyramid back in 2011 following the 2010 guidelines.
Dietary Guidelines Are Meaningless, Aren't They?
On the face of it, consumers may seem little affected by these five-yearly revisions, and it's true that these guidelines have hardly reshaped our waistlines; but in terms of public policy, the dietary recommendations do serve a purpose: they influence school lunch programs and food assistance programs such as WIC and SNAP.
Moreover, the guidelines shed light on a real problem. We continue to be overfed and under-nourished, and we're getting sicker.
The Misinterpretation of Low Fat
Past guidelines have strongly favored a low-fat dietary approach, with recommended limits on the amount of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Unfortunately, while people seemed to take the low-fat message to heart, aided by profit-hungry food companies only too willing to put out new products, they did so by eating a vast array of processed low-fat or fat-free foods that were chock full of added sugar, salt, fillers, and refined carbs.
Our pancreases have suffered, but at least our arteries are clear, right? Well, we're now told that saturated fat may be far less pernicious than first thought, although there is still sound evidence that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats lowers our risk of heart disease.
(Simply replacing saturated fats with carbs, as we've been doing, does not.)
Additionally, nutrition expert and professor at Penn State University Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D, R.D, rejects the notion that saturated fats are harmless, as she explains in this video for the American Heart Association. Others, like David L. Katz of the Yale Prevention Research Center, take aim at those who say cutting back on saturated fat has made no difference or has sickened us.
He makes the point that we never really cut our total fat and saturated fat intake in the first place; they merely formed a lower proportion of daily calories as we diluted them with a steady supply of junk food.
Still, the new guidelines no longer suggest limiting total fat intake to 35 percent of calories. The limit on saturated fat, however, at no more than 10 percent of daily calories (higher than the American Heart Association's less than 7 percent recommendation), remains in place for now.
No More Sugar-Coating
The most recent guidelines have shifted the emphasis away from total fat and cholesterol, removing those recommended limits and instead singled out added sugars as an area of concern. While previous dietary guidelines have called out added sugars as a problem, the DGAC goes one step further this time around and recommends they form no more than 10 percent of daily calories. This is the same level at which the panel recommends that saturated fat intake should continue to be capped.
Eggs Back on the Menu
You can forgo your egg white omelet and embrace whole eggs once again. The panel suggests removing the longstanding recommendations to reduce dietary cholesterol (currently set at 300mg a day), a nod to research that shows that dietary cholesterol has little or no effect on blood cholesterol. Indeed, some high cholesterol foods are actually low or relatively low in saturated fat, like shrimp, and even the humble egg.
Where's the Beef?
The committee recommends cutting back on red and processed meats, saying that a plant-based diet is "more health-promoting and is associated with less environmental impact" than the present meat-centered diet. Moreover, whatever the arguments for and against saturated fats in the context of the risk of heart disease, there is a link between eating red and processed meats and cancer.
There's much, much more to the dietary guidelines than these. As always, there's a big emphasis on eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, but I wanted to focus on nutrients that affect the diet conscious more specifically, the areas that have sadly become grayer rather than clearer as more research is published.
As much as these guidelines are intended to help consumers, they're also meant to guide the food industry in to putting out healthier products The recommendations likely don't sit well with certain groups, particularly the meat industry.
Some of the recommendations will be refined further before they're finalized and are represented in the new version of MyPlate, due later this year. Whether we actually change our eating habits in light of updated recommendations seems as likely or unlikely as always, but most likely dictated by our pocket books. In ideal world, though, we would heed Michael Pollan's advice: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."