USDA Guidelines: Underwhelming



Every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) publishes dietary guidelines for Americans. The 2010 dietary guidelines are in and to spare you the trouble of reading the 95-page report, here are the key points: Enjoy your food, but eat less; avoid oversized portions; make half of your plate fruits and vegetables; switch to fat-free or low-fat (one percent) milk; compare sodium in foods like soup, bread and frozen meals and choose the food with lower numbers; drink water instead of sugary drinks.

These are decent and reasonable guidelines for the most part, and in general, the response from experts has been subdued—no one is jumping for joy, but no one is up in arms either. Marion Nestle is excited that the guidelines direct Americans to eat less; Michael Pollan is happy that the guidelines contain some common sense.

Some are critical of where the guidelines fall short. Dr. David Kotz told the Boston Globe that, “Most Americans don’t have the skill-set to build nutritious meals,” and wonders why the guidelines haven’t addressed this underlying problem even as it’s telling Americans to cook at home more often. Still others are critical that while the health of Americans is steadily deteriorating, the cornerstones of the USDA’s guidelines haven’t changed all that much.

I’m a bit underwhelmed myself, but there are several things the USDA should be applauded for. The advice to drink water instead of sugary drinks, cut down on processed foods with high amounts of salt, sugar, and fat, and to eat less. Sound advice, though nothing groundbreaking.

I thought they might take into account some of the latest research on saturated fats, which have increasingly been show to be a critical part of a healthy diet. I was also hoping they would stress the importance of completely eliminating sodas and processed foods more aggressively. Instead, what we’ve gotten is the usual party line on how bad saturated fats are and a somewhat muddled message on processed foods.

One of the biggest flaws in the report is the recommendation to use fat-free or low-fat dairy products. This recommendation comes on the heels of recent research reported in the Los Angeles Times this past December that excess carbohydrates and sugar, not fat, are what’s responsible for America’s obesity and diabetes epidemics. In addition, the USDA needs to take a firmer stance on the elimination of highly processed and refined foods.

Good nutrition includes a balance of good, healthy fat. It does not include a steady stream of highly processed carbohydrates in the form of refined grains and sugars. As I see it, there’s a serious contradiction in the USDA’s recommendations: Telling American’s to limit their intake of refined grains and sugars does not work with also telling them to limit their intake of saturated fats.

Quite often in my practice, I see that people crave poor-quality fatty foods like French fries or chips because they’re deficient in high-quality fats, like omega-3s found in fish, nuts and seeds, or grass-fed meat, eggs, and dairy products. When I recommend they switch to good, clean sources of protein and fat, their unhealthy cravings go away.

There is one important caveat to all of this worth mentioning, which of course is nowhere to be found in the USDA’s guidelines. Buying the cleanest dairy, poultry, eggs, and meat — pasture-based, no hormones, no pesticides, no antibiotics—is important because pesticides, hormones, and other toxins are stored in fat. This means if you’re drinking a glass of full-fat milk or eating a pat of butter from cattle raised on an industrial dairy farm, you’re taking in concentrated amounts of these toxins.

As Mark Bittman points out in his debut opinion column for the New York Times this week, “Food Manifesto for the Future,” concentrated feed lot operations must be a thing of past. He writes, “The concentrated system degrades the environment, directly and indirectly, while torturing animals and producing tainted meat, poultry, eggs, and, more recently, fish.”

Of course, too many people in this country don’t have access to clean food and this is where structural and institutional changes must come in, another aspect of our food system that the USDA’s guidelines don’t delve into enough.

In the meantime, here’s what I wish the USDA guidelines would have said: Eat a primarily plant-based diet that includes plenty of fresh, clean vegetables, beans and legumes; eat fresh fruit in season; eat moderate amounts of pasture-based animal and dairy products in their unadulterated form; eat moderate amounts of whole grains; use fats like butter, olive oil, coconut oil, nuts, and seeds; minimize refined carbohydrates and added, refined sugars; drink plenty of fresh, filtered water; eliminate all sugary beverages.

If the good food movement can gain enough steam over the next five years perhaps this will become a reality.

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  1. SunnyD
    Saturday, February 5th, 2011
    Here is the problem with your position as I see it: You said "too many people in this country don’t have access to clean food" and in general you believe our food is responsible for our health problems. Yet our life expectancy gets longer every year and most illness/diseases are decreasing not increasing. If the American/Western diet is so bad why is it we live about twice as long as people in countries with the primative diets you espouse and have less illness as well.
    Most people who are obese have a genetic predisposition to obesity and as long as they have access to food they will be obese. Short of putting them in a concentration camp they will be obese. Most Americans, and certainly by middle age, are indeed heavier then Americans of 50 or 100 years ago. But this is simply a natural result of easy availability of food and reduced effort to scratch out a living in a modern society.
    In study after study "dieting" does not work. That is the subject may well lose weight over the short run but will generally be unwilling to stay on a diet and regains the weight and sometimes adds weight as the body compensates for the "famine" it experienced.
    Most "experts" who provide dietary guidance have no idea what the appropriate weight is for any particular individual. Obesity is pretty easy to diagnose but is a 5% or 10% excess weight over the arbitrary "ideal" weight harmful? Or more to the point if a mere 5% excess weight over an arbitrary guess of the ideal weight is NOT harmful is dieting to achieve some arbitrary lower weight harmful?? Or to put it another way are you doing more harm then good with your advice?
    One last point: For most people dieting is about aesthetics not about health. We would all like to look as we did when we were 18 and that is the goal. But in fact almost everyone in and past middle age who diets to "thinness" in an attempt to be 18 again looks more like a deflated balloon then they do a teenager. Sadly they are either unaware of this or so convinced by questionable advice that being uber-thin is healthy that they continue to exist on lettuce and water. Dieting is a health risk and does in fact cause illness and early death. Fad diets are especially harmful and should be banned they are so bad. Birth defects are more common with women who are vegetarians or practice other fad diets. A lot of what passes for dietary advice is harmful and irresponsible.
  2. KJ
    Saturday, February 12th, 2011
    @SunnyD - the reason why our life expectancy does get longer every year is because of modern medicine and research, not any miracle of diet. I would argue that we are not experiencing a reduction in illness and disease - everything from diabetes to MRSA to dental caries is increasing exponentially, many of which can be attributed to diet.
  3. SunnyD
    Monday, February 14th, 2011
    Diabetes is genetic, you get it from your parents not from your food. And there is NO increase in diabetes simply an increase in identifying diabetics who are unaware of their illness. If you do not have diabetes eating sugar or whatever won't give it to you.

    MRSA is a serious problem for hospitals and individuals who contract it but it is in no way connected to diet.

    Dental carries! Really! Try brushing. I am 67 have all my teeth and I eat whatever I want and drink soft drinks.

    I 100% agree that our life expectancies are increasing thanks to modern medicine. But the point is if our Western diet were causing harm then it would most certainly show up in our health and life expectancies and it has not.

    There is no harmful food and there is no food or supplement that will "save" you You are either eating a complete adequate diet or you are not. If your diet is adequate then you don't need vitamins, supplements or fad diets like vegetarianism and organic.

    There are people with diseases that require certain diet restrictions and of course those people should follow their doctors advice. But if you do not have an illness that is affected by your diet then you can indeed eat what you want to eat. Everyone should eat a varied diet and not restrict their diet because of fads and superstition.