The Green Plate: Do We Care About the New USDA Dietary Guidelines?

Last week, the USDA released its Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010. Published every five years, the guidelines are meant to reflect the most current scientific knowledge about nutrition and exercise, and to provide Americans with dietary tools to promote good health and prevent chronic disease.

Since 2005, when the last guidelines were published, an alarming number of Americans continue to die of diet-related diseases. Everyone from the First Lady to Jamie Oliver wants to save us from ourselves. At least school lunch advocates are linking hands to get bad foods out of schools and offer better choices to children.

For us adults, it comes down to a combination of personal responsibility, economics, and politics.

Yes, we need to take responsibility for eating well. But unless you know how to shop for, and cook, healthy whole foods, it’s cheaper to eat processed food. And in many neighborhoods processed food is the only thing available, a result of economics (and politics).

Speaking of politics, the USDA is a government agency with a schizophrenic mandate. It’s supposed to serve as both a consumer agency and a marketing agency for the food industry. Often this leads to watered down or contradictory recommendations. Read Food Politics expert Marion Nestle’s take on the politics behind the new guidelines here.

The Green Plate took a look at the guidelines and put together a summary of the main tenets.

The most basic general recommendations are theoretically sound and helpfully located in the front of the report. The tools to help Americans eat better in practice are in the body of the report, which includes a number of graphs and charts. There’s even an entire section on proper storage, separation, cooking, and cooling to prevent foodborne illness.

Broad Recommendations:

1. Decrease calories and increase exercise.

2. Focus on nutrient dense foods, i.e. real whole foods, not processed foods.

3. Get your nutrients from foods not pills – supplements are sometimes good and needed, but try to get most of your nutrients from food.

Specific Recommendations:

Sodium: Recommended amount is 2,300 mg for healthy people – that’s only 1 teaspoon (!) – and 1,500 mg (or a little more than a half teaspoon) for children, African Americans and anyone over 51, or suffering from chronic disease. It would be difficult for most people to meet this, but certainly anyone who relies on processed foods or even canned foods. For people who cook from scratch, salt adds flavor. I’m sure I eat more salt than this on a daily basis.

Fats: Derive less than 10% of calories from saturated fats – this includes animal fats and some vegetable fats like coconut oil.

Cholesterol: Consume less than 300 calories a day from cholesterol.

Trans fats: The recommendations say to limit them, but in reality, other experts say no amount of chemically produced trans fats are okay. This would require eschewing all processed food.

Milk Products: The recommendations say to increase the consumption of (low fat) milk products and soy products. Not everyone would agree that low fat dairy is better than full fat, and others would argue with the soy recommendations.

Seafood: The guidelines recommend increasing seafood consumption by replacing some meats and poultry with seafood. I have a problem with this one. How can our overstressed oceans possibly survive if every American increases seafood consumption from the current average of 3 1/2 oz of seafood to the recommended 8 oz? Not a word is said about seeking sustainable sources of seafood. Without guidance, people will continue to eat the most endangered species or the badly farmed species like salmon and shrimp, to the detriment of their health and that of the environment. The only health caution is the usual mercury warning for pregnant women and children. There is a chart that estimates mercury as well as omega-3s and DHA for various types of seafood, but there are endangered species, like bluefin, included on the chart.

Other than the seafood and salt recommendations, which are difficult to adhere to for most people, it’s hard to have a quibble with the remaining recommendations. They include paying attention to what you are eating (I’m all for mindful eating); increasing whole grains, vegetables, and fruits; reducing sugar sweetened beverages and monitoring alcohol consumption (I didn’t know alcohol is a huge source of calories for most adults); looking at nutrients, not just calories; and distinguishing between natural and manufactured fats.

The charts that show sources of calories for the majority of Americans are tough to look at, acknowledging as they do how much of the typical American diet is made up of fats and sugars.

Another progressive inclusion is the acknowledgment that a vegetarian diet is associated with good health. There is some talk of veganism, but not much, though there is a chart that shows a vegan adaptation of a good diet. The vegan/vegetarian diet charts do emphasize beans and peas as sources of protein over processed soy products, which is a step in the right direction.

Other sections of the report acknowledge that many Americans face access issues for good foods, and also mention that the way we plan our cities and towns contributes to unhealthy sedentary lifestyle. There’s a great section on label reading and a chart on how to recognize added sugar and processed grains.

I especially like the chart that includes standard portions and calorie counts of common whole foods. The sad fact is, it’s easier to count calories if you eat processed food!

All in all, other than the huge omission of seafood sustainability, I think the 2010 guidelines are helpful and sound. The challenge will be getting the information out of the report and into American kitchens.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Images: USDAGOV via Flickr

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.