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.
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.
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.”
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.