A new report by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), which convenes every five years and advises the federal government on the official dietary guidelines, calls for some changes to the American diet.
The purpose of the Advisory Report is to inform the government on the scientific evidence related to diet and nutrition. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) jointly write the Dietary Guidelines, which are due out later this year.
According to the DGAC:
... about half of all American adults -- 117 million individuals -- have one or more preventable, chronic diseases, and about two-thirds of U.S. adults -- nearly 155 million individuals -- are overweight or obese ... Poor dietary patterns, over consumption of calories, and physical inactivity directly contribute to these disorders.
Americans eat too much sugar, saturated fat, and salt. We don't eat enough fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and fish.
The report further states that:
... individual nutrition and physical activity behaviors and other health-related lifestyle behaviors are strongly influenced by personal, social, organizational, and environmental contexts and systems. Positive changes in individual diet and physical activity behaviors, and in the environmental contexts and systems that affect them, could substantially improve health outcomes.
The report by the committee eased certain restrictions (those for cholesterol, total fat, and coffee) and stressed limits for other restrictions (such as those for added sugar and saturated fat).
Rather than obsess over individual nutrients, the committee urges Americans to strive for a healthy dietary pattern: a diet with more fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, seafood, and low- or non-fat dairy, and less red and processed meat, sugar-sweetened foods and drinks, and refined grains.
According to Dr. Marion Nestle, my NYU colleague, author, and nutrition policy expert: "The DGAC has produced an honest, straightforward, courageous report thoroughly based on research and at long last without mincing words."
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C., also supports the report and issued the following statement:
The report of the DGAC is mostly unchanged from the reports of 2010 and years past, and in the ways it differs, the changes are mostly for the better. Contrary to some media accounts, the pendulum is not swinging wildly back and forth on most of these scientific questions; the basic advice to eat less saturated fat, sugar, and salt, and to eat more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, is largely the same.
Here are some of the committee's key recommendations.
The committee, for the first time, urges American's to eat green.
The report recommends that the government consider the environment -- along with their heart, of course -- when advising Americans about what they should eat.
The panel wrote "The major findings regarding sustainable diets were that a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet."
This move could have a significant impact on how much meat people eat. Not surprisingly, the meat industry called the report "flawed" and "nonsensical."
The committee stressed that Americans consume too much added sugar and recommended a daily intake of 10 percent of calories, which amounts to around 12 teaspoons for a 2,000-calorie diet. To put this in perspective, "12 teaspoons of sugar" is just a tad more than a can of soda. Americans currently consume 22 to 30 teaspoons of added sugar daily, half of which come from soda, juices and other sugary drinks. This is why the report recommends that Americans drink water instead of sugary beverages such as soda.
Previous dietary guidelines have included warnings about eating too much added sugar, but this is the first time the committee made a specific recommendation for limiting sugar. Indeed, too much sugar is linked to obesity and chronic disease.
The CSPI welcomed the DGAC suggestions to consume less sugar along with the report's blunt advice to drink fewer sugary drinks. They said, "The strong recommendations on added sugars are important and have far-reaching policy implications."
I also applaud the recommendation for limiting added sugar along with environmental and policy changes like those suggested by the committee. As I told Food Navigator, "The DGAC report supports the possibility of soda taxes as an incentive to promote purchasing healthier beverages, policy changes for SNAP...and limiting food marketing to kids, all steps in the right direction to promote a healthier food environment."
The American Beverage Association (ABA), however, issued a different sentiment on restricting sugar and sugary drinks. According to Food Navigator, the ABA said: "Numerous studies have shown that restricting one food or food group is not the best approach for achieving calorie balance and maintain a healthy weight."
Indeed, drinking less soda would be bad for their business.
The Committee is recommending that we limit saturated fat to no more than 10 percent of total calories. Saturated fat may promote heart disease by elevating blood cholesterol levels. Americans are urged to eat unsaturated fat -- found in nuts, fatty fish, olive and vegetable oil -- instead of saturated fat, found in red meat, cheese, butter, coconut, and palm kernel oil. While many celebrities and Atkins devotee's heavily promote both coconut and red meat, the committee report advocates the contrary.
The DGAC, however, dropped a suggestion from previous guidelines to restrict total fat intake to no more than 35 percent of daily total calories. While previous editions of the Dietary Guidelines have advised Americans to eat a low-fat diet, the committee suggests that reducing total fat intake does not appear to decrease our risk for heart disease. Rather, replacing saturated fat with refined carbohydrates -- including low-fat cookies and cakes -- increases our disease risk.
The committee dropped its long recommendation that Americans limit their intake of dietary cholesterol from foods such as eggs and shellfish to no more than 300 mg per day. (One egg contains nearly 200 mg cholesterol.) The committee cites research showing that cholesterol from the diet has little or no effect on blood cholesterol levels for most people.
Dr. Nestle, however, wrote a thought-provoking blog post raising several important points on the research. She states, "I'm wondering if research sponsored by the egg industry could have anything to do with this." Furthermore, she writes, "if the Advisory Committee is dropping the cholesterol recommendation, could it be because so many people are taking statins that dietary cholesterol doesn't appear to matter so much anymore?" These are certainly points to consider.
If you enjoy several cups of coffee, you are in luck. The committee advised that drinking 3-5 cups of coffee per day (or up to 400 mg of caffeine) is okay. However, I suggest you watch the size of your mug to partake healthfully in those "five cups of coffee." As I told Food Navigator, "3-5 cups translates into 2-3 Starbucks-sized cups ... I worry that the public may think they can drink more coffee than the guidelines really suggest. Education on serving size is necessary here..."
Finally, will the feds accept these recommendations, and how will we implement them?
The DGAC report states:
It will take concerted, bold actions on the part of individuals, families, communities, industry, and government to achieve and maintain the healthy diet patterns and the levels of physical activity needed to promote the health of the U.S. population. These actions will require a paradigm shift to an environment in which population health is a national priority and where individuals and organizations, private business, and communities work together to achieve a population-wide "culture of health" in which healthy lifestyle choices are easy, accessible, affordable, and normative -- both at home and away from home.
According to Dr. Nestle, a former member of the DGAC:
Whether the agencies -- USDA and HHS -- will accept its recommendations remains to be seen. Congress has already weighed in and said that the Dietary Guidelines cannot consider sustainability in making dietary advice. Much will depend on the response to the call for public comments.
We would love to hear our thoughts on the DGAC report. And you can tell the gov't what you think by weighing in here.