New Dietary Guidelines Shift Focus, Garner Criticism

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Eating more mindfully, and with less saturated fat is the recommendation for the next five years AFP / Roslan RAHMAN

The USDA has come out with a belated present for everyone: its 2020-2025 dietary guidelines. The USDA, or United States Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services are responsible for issuing food guidelines for all Americans. New guidelines come out every five years. So, what exactly does the USDA think we should be eating?  

Sparknotes 

The guidelines cover many aspects of food and nutrition, but along with the report, the authors produced a helpful little video to break it down. Here are the four main points: 

  1. Follow a healthy dietary pattern at every life stage.
  2. Customize and enjoy nutrient-dense food and beverage choices to reflect personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgetary considerations.
  3. Focus on meeting food group needs with nutrient-dense foods and beverages, and stay within calorie limits.
  4. Limit food and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, and limit alcoholic beverages.

It's the 4th point that is garnering criticism from numerous interested parties: In the summer, the panel advising the USDA said the new guidelines should include reducing even more the number of daily alcoholic drinks but the department did not take its advice. 

Age counts

These guidelines are the first to consider age when suggesting a diet. A huge change here concerns small children and possible allergies. The guidelines recommend introducing things like eggs and peanut-containing foods early, with other foods. This is a change from old wisdom that parents should hold off on introducing peanuts until kids were a little older. FARE (Food Allergy Research and Eduction) put out a statement regarding the new suggestions, “FARE is thrilled to see the inclusion of more comprehensive dietary guidance around the early introduction of egg and peanut for infants and toddlers.” 

Even so, the guidelines do mention that babies with severe eczema or egg allergies -- conditions which increase the risk of a peanut allergy -- should be given peanut-containing foods as early as four months. However, families should consider approaching their doctor for advice as well. These are just guidelines, and although they are designed to try and help everyone, they are not specific to each family. 

A focus on babies 

With the new guidelines addressing infants specifically, there are new guidelines. 

  1. No added sugar 
  2. Breast milk (or iron-fortified formula) for the first six months 
  3. Supplement with vitamin D (not found in breast milk) 

The guidelines specify breastmilk, saying, “Exclusive human milk feeding is one of the best ways to start an infant off on the path of lifelong healthy nutrition.” It does acknowledge that not all babies have access to breastmilk, either because they are adopted or because their mothers do not or cannot produce milk. The guidelines suggest a good, iron-fortified formula or using an accredited breast milk bank. 

The teenage years 

The 2020-2025 guldines highlight the issue of childhood obesity, and the fact that many children get far more sugar, saturated fat, and sodium than they need. The guidelines support physical activity and forming good food habits early in life. This is reflected in the new focus on life stages. 

Should you skip the booze? 

There have been no changes to guidelines around alcohol and sugar. This is despite suggestions from the scientific community, including a panel of experts, to limit them both. Guidelines around salt have also stayed the same. Currently, the suggestion is one drink a day for women and two for men. Back in July, The New York Times reported on what the report's scientific panel was advocating. Then, it was suggesting cutting alcohol consumption  to a single drink a day if not fewer. Experts also wanted the daily consumption of added sugars reduced from 10% to 6%.

As to why the advice has not changed, the guideline writers said there was not enough evidence produced over the past five years to support the panel's more stringent recommendations.  Critics have blamed the USDA for bowing to the food and alcohol lobbies, a charge both the USDA and HHS have denied. 

Even so, the core suggestions, less than 10% of calories from added sugar, and less than 10% of calories from saturated fat, 2,300 mg of sodium a day, and the alcohol guideline, have not changed since 2015

Make every bite count 

The theme for the guidelines is “make every bite count” encouraging people to reach for whole, nourishing foods. Put a bit less broadly, the suggestion is to “Focus on nutrient-dense foods and beverages, limit those higher in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, and stay within calorie limits.” The DGA also suggests an 85:15 split, so 85% of calories coming from whole foods and 15% of calories coming from sugars and saturated fats. For reference, try to keep to these three principles set forth by the guidelines: 

  1. Meet nutritional needs primarily from nutrient-dense foods and beverages.
  2. Choose a variety of options from each food group. 
  3. Pay attention to portion size. 

Will this work? 

Do Americans follow dietary recommendations? In general, less than they should. The majority of Americans are overweight.

There’s something called the Healthy Eating Index, which measures how well Americans are following the food guidelines.  A perfect score is 100; the USDA says the average score for Americans is 59. The USDA said on its website that scores have improved a bit in the past 10 years,  but that people have much room for improvement.” 

Room for improvement 

Despite the controversies around alcohol and added sugars, paying attention to what and how much you eat is likely good advice.  A study published in Obesity found that of over 7,000 people, nearly a third had gained weight during the pandemic. They attributed this to stress and a lack of physical activity.  

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