The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Are Finally Here, Just in Time for the New Year
The 2015 dietary guidelines, released Thursday, are a perfect study of nutrition politics. On the one hand are nutrition advocates, who would like to see a bigger focus on calories; specifics about the health effects of eating junk food, soda, or red meat; and a little less industry pressure. On the other is the food industry, which worries that dietary guidelines spelling out exactly which foods are bad for you and why would cut deeply into profits.
Every five years since 1980, the USDA has released updated guidelines that reflect new knowledge of nutrition and the nation’s dietary health, such as the prevalence of diet-related disease and obesity in recent years. With each new issuance, creeping progress toward nutritionist-approved diets is made while industry groups are kept happy. Making this happen is a delicate balancing act. This year’s advice focuses on eating patterns over specific foods—a ploy that’s actually brilliant when you read between the lines.
The first key recommendation, which reads, “Consume a healthy eating pattern that accounts for all foods and beverages within an appropriate calorie level,” sets a tenor for the majority of the advice in the guidelines. It’s at once both unhelpfully vague for those struggling with the definition of “healthy eating” and spectacularly solid advice. Eating healthy, munching on a variety of foods, and not consuming too much is the goal for citizens and nutritionists alike.
One of the difficulties of past guidelines, as Marion Nestle cataloged in her book Food Politics, is that food industry groups do not like it when the government tells people to eat less meat or cut out soda. This year’s guidelines recommend limiting sugar and sodium to less than 10 percent of overall calories but do not directly tell people to eat less red meat, preferring euphemisms like “saturated fat” or “protein.” Every time the guidelines want people to eat less of something, they stop referring to specific foods and switch to nutrients, such as with the aforementioned saturated fat, as well as sodium or added sugars. Because of this, Nestle has characterized the new guidelines as “a win for the meat, sugary drink, processed, and junk food industries.”
However, this is the first year the dietary guidelines included a recommended calorie value for “added sugars” (to mark the difference between naturally occurring sugars, as found in fruits, and sweetened foods like candy or soda), which is an important change. In the past, the recommendation was simply to “reduce intake” of added sugar. Whether that meant skipping dessert or only eating three-quarters of an entire cake was left to interpretation.
Currently, Americans consume an average of 385 calories from added sugar every day—even for those on a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s 19 percent of daily calories. Limiting added sugars to only 10 percent of total calories, the benchmark set by the World Health Organization, would be a mark of great progress.
But while there may be frustration that the sugar recommendation doesn’t go far enough or that meat got a pass, if you look at the sample menu for the flagship “Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern,” it’s easy to tell what the dietary guidelines actually want people to eat or avoid. The only red meat is the meatballs on top of spaghetti (and couldn’t they be turkey meatballs, anyway?). There is no junk food. And though the long section on added sugars, which “include syrups and other caloric sweeteners,” never once mentions soda by name, the beverages that accompany the healthy pattern are coffee, 1 percent milk, and water.
While someone shopping at a grocery store is unlikely to have the time or inclination to read between the politics of the dietary guidelines, that's not for the average person anyway. (Most of us don’t come close to following them to begin with.) Right in the introduction, the guideline authors write, “The primary audiences are policymakers, as well as nutrition and health professionals, not the general public.” These standards are meant to inform federal nutrition programs such as school lunch or WIC, and they will likely influence decisions made by food companies too.
The main disappointment for critics of the guidelines came long before they were published: Plans to include taking sustainability of a food into account were scrapped in October, despite that the way Americans eat can have huge environmental consequences.
But it’s not all a loss. Americans famously love to focus on bad foods and good foods and by looking at eating patterns rather than individual meals, and the dietary guidelines try to avoid that mentality. As the authors note, “dietary components of an eating pattern can have interactive, synergistic, and potentially cumulative relationships.” In other words, just because someone eats a lot of cheeseburgers does not automatically make her less healthy than a person who does not—as long as that burger lover is also eating the required fruits, vegetables, and other foods.