Friday, March 11, 2011

The Nutrition Debate #14: The New “Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010”

My heart is pounding, and I’ve only just re-read the Executive Summary of this year’s long awaited “Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010” ( I had listened live to the press conference on January 31, 2011, when it was released to the public, and had managed to calm myself since, but now my blood is boiling again. Where to begin?

First, to be fair, the government’s “Dietary Guidelines” is a public health document, and a public health recommendation is geared to an entire population with a broad purpose which is often interpreted by a much narrower segment to which it may not be applicable. There is much too much variability within the population for such broad pronouncements to edify or be efficacious; but they are made nevertheless in the broad interest of “the public health.” So, if you’ll pardon the expression: “take it with a grain of salt.”That being said:

This year’s “Guidelines” are cleverly crafted by wordsmiths with skills for euphemism: “(A)t a time of rising concern about the health of the American population…,” we are told that “poor diet” and “physical inactivity” are “associated with major causes of morbidity and mortality” in the US. True enough. Then, we are told that “15 percent of American households have been unable to acquire adequate food to meet their needs.” Then, “This dietary guidance can help them maximize the nutritional content of their meals,” and “Many other Americans consume less than optimal intake of certain nutrients even though they have adequate resources for a healthy diet.” Again, all this is certainly true.

Parsing those words, they mean that on limited incomes many people make poor food choices, and the government wants to help. I’m reminded of a headline I read in Honolulu last September that 50% of Hawaiian residents were on food stamps. The government dole, not the pineapple company, helps these poor folks survive in paradise.

So, the guidelines start with several iterations of the obvious, universally-held truth (NOT) about the “Energy Balance Equation: Energy In = Energy Out,” (see installment #6 at Then the “Guidelines” summarize the “key recommendations” this way: “Americans currently consume too much sodium and too many calories from solid fats, added sugars, and refined grains. These replace nutrient-dense foods and make it difficult for people to achieve recommended nutrient intake while controlling calorie and sodium intake. A healthy eating pattern limits intake of sodium, solid fats, added sugars and refined grains and emphasizes nutrient-dense foods and beverages – vegetables, fruit, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, lean meats and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, and nuts and seeds.” I could, and will, quarrel with some of this in later installments, but not bad so far.

A little later we are told where to find a meal plan with such a dietary: “Two eating patterns that embody the Dietary Guidelines are the USDA Food Patterns and their vegetarian adaptations and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Eating Plan. I haven’t gone there yet (I will), but first I want to characterize the “Key Recommendations.”

There are seven “foods and food components to reduce” and nine “food and nutrients to increase.” We’re told to reduce our sodium intake, consume less dietary cholesterol, keep trans fat from synthetic sources as low as possible, limit saturated fat by replacing it with mono and polyunsaturated fats (hmmm), and limit refined grains, “especially refined grain foods that contain solid fats, added sugars and sodium”…and limit alcohol consumption. By word association, they unfortunately and erroneously link trans fats and “…other solid fats,” and “solid fats and added sugars” as things to be reduced or avoided together. In recommending the substitution of mono and polyunsaturated fats for saturated fats, they are stepping into a trap of their own making they will rue and wish they had avoided in the years to come. I will speak to this in later installments. And note, if it wasn’t already clear, that “solid fats” is a new term in the “Guidelines” and a euphemism for saturated fats, which in our dietary is almost entirely animal fats, the only exceptions being the tropical oils (coconut and palm), which are not common in most people’s daily “food pattern.”

Of the food and nutrients to increase, recommended are fruits, vegetables , whole grains plus some vitamins and minerals (as supplements if you can’t get them in “real” food); but, five of the nine recommendations were ways to avoid saturated or “solid” fats, including eating “beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds” and “fortified soy beverages.” I may just have to look at those “USDA Food Patterns and their vegetarian adaptations” after all. But first, I want to examine what Grandma knew about food patterns, and then what Michael Pollan is telling us.

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