Every five years the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) holds a series of public meetings to incorporate feedback from stakeholders on the next version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are released the following year. The next Dietary Guidelines are slated to be released in 2015, so these meetings have recently been underway.
Conflict of Interest within USDA
The USDA takes the lead in creating the guidelines, but questions have arisen about conflicts of interest within the USDA. After all, they are responsible for promoting American agricultural products at the same as making dietary recommendations. That becomes difficult when many agricultural products—sugar, grains, meat, and dairy to name the most prominent—are not all aligned with a healthy diet. To get around this paradox, the Dietary Guidelines have become increasingly more vague over the years.
The USDA has made one clear recommendation—eat more fruits and vegetables. From there, recommendations become clouded. This was not always the case, however. Michael Gregor, MD, a founding member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine and internationally recognized speaker on nutrition, food safety, and public health issues, was recently interviewed on the topic in the Integrative Medicine Clinician’s Journal. He discusses the degradation of the Guidelines’ recommendations over time.
Original recommendations for sugar began with “Avoid too much sugar” and soon changed to “Use sugar, but only in moderation,” then “Choose a diet moderate in sugar,” to “Choose beverages and foods to moderate your intake of sugars” (what does that even mean?), and finally, a recommendation on sugar was completely removed from the Guidelines in 2005. Similarly, the original recommendation for grains began as “Choose whole grains” and eventually eroded to “Choose carbohydrates wisely for good health.” Can you find the recommendation in that recommendation? I can’t.
“It’s like saying, ‘Eat healthy.’ The whole point of guidelines is to explain what that means,” stated Gregor.
With past Dietary Guidelines committees made up of the likes of McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Duncan Hines advisory council members, the conflicts of interest have run deep. This year there are fewer conflicts of interest, states Gregor, so the next Dietary Guidelines may improve. Certainly the last version, which introduced My Plate, is an improvement over the traditional, grain-heavy food pyramid. But more could be done to clarify recommendations.
Guidelines Gone Wrong
In the meantime, I’d like to run through the current Dietary Guideline recommendations and give you my opinion. The current MyPlate recommendations break down the food groups according to how much of each should be represented on a food plate. This is actually a big improvement over the food pyramid.
Make half your plate fruits and vegetables. I absolutely agree. Half of your food intake should be fruit and vegetables. Not all fruits and vegetables are equal, however. I recommend non-starchy vegetables and low-sugar fruits. Non-starchy vegetables include anything other than potatoes, corn (corn is actually a grain), yucca, parsnip, plantain, and even green peas and sweet potato (although the last two can sometimes be eaten in moderation). Low-sugar fruits include berries and Granny Smith apples. Fill your plate with plenty of non-starchy vegetables and low-sugar fruits and your health will begin to improve.
Make at least half of your grains whole grains. I have to differ with this recommendation in a few ways. First, I suggest eliminating grains from your diet—whole grains or not. MyPlate guidelines want you to fill one-quarter of your plate with grains. I say forget that advice. Grains are high in starch, which breaks down into sugar in your digestive tract and has a number of metabolic ramifications, including increased inflammation, raised blood sugar and insulin resistance, and increased fat storage. In people who are the absolute picture of health—not a symptom, abnormality, or sign of poor health to be found—whole grains in small amounts can be eaten (avoid wheat and gluten). But for the most part, ditch the grains. And definitely ditch any refined or processed grains.
Select a variety of protein foods. MyPlate recommends a variety of lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds, soy products, and seafood to fill another quarter of your plate. I think this recommendation is sound. They also recommend checking the sodium content of processed meats such as ham, sausage, hot dogs, or deli meats. My recommendation for processed meats is that they do not contain artificial nitrates, which have been linked to colon cancer. Natural versions of these meats are now widely available. As for reducing salt intake, that recommendation is coming under question. It may not be as important as we thought.
Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk. MyPlate recommends a serving of fat-free or low-fat dairy with each meal. We see the perpetuation of the low-fat diet myth in this recommendation. I, too, once bought into it. But recent studies are disproving this inaccuracy, revealing that fat is not the villain it has been made out to be. Even saturated fat may not be so bad, as some studies have found. Gary Taubes has done some remarkable work on this subject. You won’t need to compromise on taste by choosing fat-free or low-fat dairy products, but you don’t want to go overboard either—eat dairy in moderation because the fats you really want to focus on increasing are the healthy fats (more on that next). For some people, dairy will need to be avoided due to a food sensitivity, intolerance, or allergy.
Cut back on foods containing saturated and trans fat. The Dietary Guidelines focus on two different kinds of fat—solid fats and oils. Solid fats are those that are, for the most part, solid at room temperature. They include butter, milk fat, beef fat, chicken fat, cream, lard, margarine, shortening, hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, coconut oil, and palm and palm kernel oil. These fats tend to be high in saturated or trans fats. I do agree that trans fats should be completely avoided—fortunately they are being eliminated from most foods. I am not as strict about the saturated fats, as I have already mentioned. I want to discuss one particular source of saturated fat—coconut oil. I am a huge fan of coconut oil, which contains medium chain triglycerides, a form of saturated fat that is more readily burned as energy rather than stored like most saturated fats. I recommend coconut oil as one of your go-to cooking oils.
As for oils, I have a strong opinion. Oils are usually either monounsaturated fat (like olive oil) or polyunsaturated fat (most other vegetable oils). Of the polyunsaturated fats, there are two types: omega-6 and omega-3. The majority of oils used in foods and cooking are omega-6 oils. While the body needs a certain amount of omega-6, the Standard American Diet (SAD) is extremely high in these fats, while the omega-3 fats are usually deficient. I recommend avoiding many common cooking oils, such as corn, cottonseed, vegetable, safflower, sunflower, soybean, and peanut oil. Coconut and olive oil are best for cooking, as well as butter (again, in moderation). Due to the great omega-3 deficiency of the SAD diet, eating plenty of fish high in omega-3 (and low in mercury) such as salmon, sardines, herring, and anchovies is recommended. Even better, an omega-3 fish oil supplement is one of the best ways to be sure you are getting enough of this critical fat.
The Dietary Guidelines could use a major overhaul. And I’m not the only one to think so. I remain hopeful, yet skeptical, that the next version will help Americans gain a better understanding of what healthy diet really means.